A member of the viola mailing list asked for practice tips. This is a collection of the replies.
The replies have been grouped into topics, and some have been slightly edited. The originals can be seen in the viola mailing list archive (search for PPTs).
The person sending each message has not been identified - 'I' in each numbered paragraph is a different person. The messages are given in chronological order, as there was often discussion about a topic.
Building up speed
Rhythms and bowings
Hearing and watching
Intellectual and muscle memory
What to focus on
Working with an accompanist
1. Warm up
101. I like a C Major scale and Kreutzer # 9 in a 1-3 and 2-4 pattern. But a very careful scale at that. The results will tell me if any particular problem needs attention.
102. I play an hour of scales (by my beloved friend Flesch) as start of practicing every day.
Before a concert or rehearsal I try to play at least 20 min of exercises from nice men with even nicer names to write: Schradieck and Sevcick (changes of position and right hand stuff).
103. Depends on how much time I have to practice. If plenty, I do some Kreutzer,....As much as I can.
If it's just a quick quick warm up before playing some hard chamber music etc., I just do the Dancla daily exercises (is that what they are called) no 1. easy but good for quick even rhythm and to get that 4th finger going......
fingered perfect fifths and fourths are always good too.
122. I usually pick a key "de la semaine" and start with that particular 3-octave scale (Major and minor) and arpeggios. Then I move on to the first Schradieck etude and/or Flesch in the same key (depending on how much time I have). I would also recommend practising double stops (I do 3rds, 6ths, and 8ths) EVERY DAY (that way you won't have to spend as much time on them when they arise in a piece).
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2. Building up speed
1. Find the passage of the piece you've been practising that gives you the most trouble and end your practice session by playing it ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY at however slow a tempo it requires you to use to do it. The results are amazing!
2. Instead of forcing yourself to play faster by putting the metronome at higher speeds than you may be able to handle, try this approach instead. Put the metronome at a very slow speed compared to the "performance" tempo (i.e. Andante or Adagio in place of Presto settings) Play the passage you are having trouble with slowly and as perfect as you can. Once it is perfect, proceed to play it until you have an URGE to play faster because it is (all of a sudden) ridiculously slow. Up the tempo one notch until you are comfortable with the new tempo and again have that "need for speed"! It's a slow process but the results are nothing short of spectacular.
3. I have tucked away in the back of my brain that the last idea/skill practiced/taught is best remembered.
5. I have to remember to give the same care to learning the "easy" passages as I do to learning the difficult ones. It's not just a matter of working out the phrasing, it's also kinetic; learning the choreography. If I forget this, then suddenly in a performance something "simple" goes awry. And I wonder why.
9. It's so tempting to spend all one's limited practice time of the "difficult" spots. But the "easy" ones don't work if you haven't figured out where in the bow you want to be and how you're going to get there. I find that particularly true of Mahler symphonies where the melody gets passed around and when it comes your way you have to be able to pick it up and carry the line.
20. This year I have adopted a mantra for all practice situations.
"Beware! You learn what you practice."
Somehow it calls me back to the basics of good skill building (technical and musical)
I don't know if any of you are like me but I have to be especially diligent when I feel the pressure of having to learn something quickly. In my case fast practice rarely yields clean, beautiful playing. Even though I know that focused, accurate practising gives me more reliable results I have to guard against hurrying to learn. My mantra helps settle me into a more fruitful practice frame.
And yes I do hear it as a threat to myself. I always practice better when the feeling in the pit of my stomach keeps me a little on edge.
22. I completely agree with the tip about practising a passage only as quickly as you can play it perfectly (or nearly perfectly). Not only do you not do yourself any favors playing a passage badly, you're reinforcing the wrong notes in your muscles!
108. "A wise man practices slowly. A wiser man practices even slower". (James Moody, jazz saxophonist)
I've this sentence glued on the left side of my stand. On the other side I've recently glued "Don't practice your mistakes"...
24. I have the attention span of your average 6 year old, which means I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep myself entertained while practising Sometimes, it's "The Three Game," where you take 3 pencils, put them on one side of the stand and reward yourself with one every time you play a passage correctly. If you screw up, the pencil goes back to the other side of the stand, where you have to try and earn it again. Get it? It's grand fun, and helps build consistency. You can play the "10 Game" if you need more than 3 stabs at a passage. This also works nicely with the metronome, playing the three game with a passage at 120, then 126, then 140, etc.
Other fun stuff I do includes giving myself 1-10 ratings on different aspects of the piece, such as dynamics, shifting, intonation, whatever my focus is. Also, a change of practice environment every now and then helps boost things.
25. I think the idea of sharing practice tips is terrific. A lot of the things contributed are just plain common musical sense, but can never be repeated often enough: play slowly but as accurately as you can (I can still hear my father saying, "Don't practice your mistakes!") and learn backwards, so that you become more confident as the piece progresses, rather than the other way around (my piano teacher always used to tell me to learn a piece a few measures at a time, starting from the end).
(and see Intellectual and muscle memory)
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3. Rhythms and bowings
6. When the sixteenth notes come fast and furious, I apply the seven basic bowings and five different rhythm variations to the passage. I start slow and gradually work "to" tempo. You will be amazed at the results.
For those who are not familiar with the seven basic bowings, they are: all separate, all slurred, two slurred - two separate, two separate - two slurred, one separate - three slurred, three slurred - one separate, and one separate - two slurred - one separate.
To apply the rhythms: using the basic bowings... wherever there are slurs, make those notes twice as fast as the separate notes, i.e. two slurred-two separate, becomes "dada da da", one separate-two slurred-one separate becomes, "da dada da" and so on, and so forth.
It's elementary, but soooo effective!!
14. Pardon my ignorance, but where can I find these "7 basic bowings and 5 different rhythm vars."? I've never heard these referred to before now. Or if I did, I never paid attention... hmmm... "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" comes to mind. Please enlighten me.
17. I'm not exactly sure when and where I originally heard about this practice method, but I do think it is a common practice method used by many string players. It is applied to groups of eighth and sixteenth note passages in four note patterns.
1) all separate.. .da da da da
2) all slurred... dadadada
3) one separate-three slurred... da dadada
4) three slurred-one separate... dadada da
5) two slurred-two separate... dada da da
6) two separate-two slurred... da da dada
7) one separate-two slurred-one separate... da dada da
The rhythms are based on the bowing variations, but where the slurs are, you make the eighth notes sixteenth notes. Obviously, the first two variations would not work, hence, only five rhythms are of any use for this purpose. Without the use of graphics, it is very hard to draw you a picture... I hope this helps.
18. One of my favorite tools for taming difficult passages involves using various rhythms :
1) L-o-n-g short l-o-n-g short
2) Short l-o-n-g short l-o-n-g
where the l-o-n-g equals a dotted 8th and the short equals a 16th note, and
3) L-o-n-g trip-o-let
4) Trip-o-let l-o-n-g
where the l-o-n-g is an 8th and the trip-o-let is triplet 16ths.
This works with passages of quadruple notes, 8ths or 16ths. Use the printed
For triplet passages, try l-o-n-g short short or short short l-o-n-g.
Somebody told me these were "Galamian rhythms", although I learned them from my piano teacher when I was in elementary school.
25. I don't know where the basic bowing variations come from, but they are definitely in the Wohlfahrt etudes that I am sweating through right now. You memorize one etude and then can practice it with 57 varieties (only joking) on bowing and rhythm. When I asked him to think about how I could work on my own constructively over the upcoming Christmas vacation, my teacher told me, "See? Just one of these could keep you busy for the next half year" (not joking - aargh!).
200. The fingers of the right hand: They have lots of duties, some active some passive, as we all know. But they usually aren't in continual motion as are e.g. a pianist's fingers, or the fingers of the left hand. But some energetic motion is good for them and helps keep their flexibility.
So I try to give them that motion in the following way. First, do some scales with fast triplets/quadruplets/sextolets practiced at the frog: DDD-EEE-F#F#F#-GGG- . . .(etc) This is a good exercise at any part of the bow but the fingers get most involved at the frog, no?
Second, do string crossings, in separate bows, with open strings and at the
frog or 1/3 the way up:
|||: CGC-GDG-DAD-GDG :|| also of course ||: ADA-DGD-GCG-DGD :||
Also in fours: ||: CGCG-DGDG-DADA-DGDG :|| and ||: ADAD-GDGD-GCGC-GDGD :||
(Be sure the bow is at right angles to the string in all this; a mirror helps
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4. Hearing and Seeing
Using a Mirror
USING A MIRROR
3. IMHO every practice room should have a mirror, and you should be looking
at yourself in the mirror as you raise the viola to your chin at the beginning
of practice. And you run through a check list; e.g.
are you standing up straight?
when the viola is in position, is your left -- or right -- shoulder hunched?
is your left thumb where it should be?
is your left wrist straight, or (Kato Havas) bent correctly?
etc. etc., everyone will have their special things to check on.
And a similar check-over when you start bowing:
is your shoulder relaxed?
is your elbow at the right height at the tip? at the frog?
are your fingers correct on the bow?
4. a lot players fancy looking in the mirror, but I always thought it was not especially 'vertebrate-conscious' or accurate... a player must contort his/her body and twist the neck in order to see things like the bow-hand, contact point, etc.
8. I encourage my students to practice in front of a mirror, especially since it the only true way (without expensive technology) to see whether you are maintaining a straight bow. Also, in the learning and development process, it is invaluable in forming shapes and postures that work successfully for the viola. As to the objections, I think it is a severe handicap as a string player if there is only one position in which the head can be held. Imagining myself only being able to hold my head facing straight ahead causes me to cringe with neckaches. On the contrary, this is my *ideal* position, but the variety conduces to flexibility. In a string quartet setting, for example, the movement of the head is *necessary* for effective communication. Why, then, should this be a problem in front of a mirror?
As a matter of fact, Francis Tursi taught me to depend less on the head for holding the instrument -- in certain passages the viola can rest between the shoulder and left hand while my jaw is in the air so that I could look around the room if I wanted, without sacrificing vibrato.
10. Of course, one doesn't practise in front of a mirror *at all times*, so you don't really have to worry about the twisting to see......
unless you, like I, use your peripheral vision to see what you are doing.......
it's enough to see what your bow is doing or your back/neck etc.
23. I don't think peripheral vision is necessary. Just look straight into the mirror. If you cannot, then your neck is too locked, IMHO. A locked neck is not conducive to good, relaxed physical approach to playing.
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34. I find that, for me, tape recording my viola lessons is very useful.
I try to type up the lesson from the tape the same day. (That in itself reinforces the material "semantically.") Then, as I practice throughout the week, I have the teacher's wisdom and exhortations right on my music stand as I play/work.
This way, I'm not saying "What in the @*#&%# did my teacher say about my thumb position?
35. I was fortunate enough to see a master class last spring given by Kim Kashkashian. A friend of mine that was playing in the class set up a minidisc recorder and microphone out of the way to tape her portion of the masterclass. Ms. Kashkashian noticed it, and actually recommended to her to not record the lesson, because she's found that when students record their lessons, they tend to not listen as well to the lesson because they know they can always go back and catch it later. Personally, I usually don't record my lessons, partly because of what Ms. Kashkashian said, but I do sit down later the same day as the lesson and write down what we worked on in the lesson and what I need to do for the next lesson. I find that just writing it down helps me to the point that even if I don't look at what I wrote down during the week, I remember my assignments better than when I don't write them.
41. That makes sense, but I tape record my lessons because I don't always hear things the first time. I'm not slow (hardeharhar), but if I'm trying something new or something subtle, I can't necessarily hear the difference the first time through. Sometimes my teacher/coach will say, "did you hear that? you just did it right." And usually, because I am concentrating so hard on the physicality of HOW to get the new sound, I can't hear it... until later, when I listen to my lesson.
48. I also used to tape some of my lessons when I was a student. I did not make a regular habit of it, but I generally picked out certain lessons/coaching sessions when I knew I would be expected to absorb a vast amount of information in a short period of time (like the first couple of lessons with a new teacher, or a coaching session with a visiting teacher from out of town.)
This habit has left me with some nice personal mementos as a side benefit. I have a lesson with William Primrose on tape from 1976, which I now cherish.
I highly recommend using audiotape, but not for every lesson.
51. I think a good microphone and recorder can be a wonderful tool. It is an excellent way for the player to hear what his/her teacher or audience hears. What you hear 10 inches from your left ear will sound quite different if you place the microphone 10 feet away.
This is particularly useful if you don't regularly work with a teacher (or your teacher is often on tour, like mine is at the moment). Recordings emphasise your faults, and they make it (sometimes painfully) obvious what you need to work on. Listening to recordings of oneself is not for the faint of heart. Out-of-tune notes jump out at you, the sound of your instrument (which might sound just fabulous right next to your ear) will sound muffled if you apply too much pressure with the bow (even if it's louder under your ear), you can hear whether or not you are drawing consistent sound at the frog and at the tip. Recordings also show you whether you are emphasising dynamic changes enough (and whether those changes are noticeable to your audience), how well you and your accompanist are in sync, how consistent your tempi are, etc. Anything that is wrong sticks out like a sore thumb.
I find it useful to record myself playing everything and anything, from scales and etudes to concerti. Getting scales to sound good on a recording is no easy feat. I record myself practising, and then listen to the practice session on my way to work. It can be particularly gratifying to record a piece at your target tempo, then set the metronome at half speed and work your way up to the target tempo. If you compare the first run-through with the second, you will find that the difference is like night and day.
But most importantly, recording yourself teaches your to strive for a better sound for your listeners.
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52. I agree with all who find it both helpful and sobering to work with audio tapes of lessons/practice/performances. If anything, I've found a video tape reveals even more. The visual record reveals technical issues around how one is holding the instrument, shifting, bowing, posture, etc. Maybe more importantly, I find it provides considerable insight into degrees of tension/relaxation/concentration when playing, and into how one is communicating with an audience.
I just had reviewed a video of my first-ever public performance of a major solo with orchestra ("Harold", with our local community orch. a couple of weeks ago - what fun!), and came away both with a sense of accomplishment and a LONG list of things to work on for the future. For example, I suspect that by consciously projecting a more confident, relaxed demeanor I'll be able to instil more of those qualities in my playing. (As in the old song from "The King and I" - "Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect....")
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The topic of intonation raises questions about which tuning system to use, when playing with orchestra or piano, or when playing music of different historical periods. There is information at the end of this section about web sites in which these issues are discussed.
This topic also started a strongly felt discussion on whether to use a fixed or movable 'do' (or neither !). This discussion can be found in the viola mailing list archive.
The following tips were given about practising to improve intonation.
Using an electronic tuner
Web sites with information about tuning systems
56. I have intonation problems. Now I know that everyone does, to some extent, but whenever someone comments on my playing, intonation is the thing they always hit first. At first I could easily blame it on the fact that I was originally a violinist, and still playing both. Therefore the finger spacing is a LOT different. However, I have since quit the violin, and although my problem has gotten better, it still exists. I've tried everything. Isolating shifts, plunking out notes on the piano, testing with open strings, listening to make every note "ring." I've even concentrated a lot more on theory, to see (for example) when the third should be lower, higher, etc... Those sort of things relating to key. It's very frustrating and I'm trying to fix it. Any suggestions?
65. It sounds as if you've tried most of the technical fixes (my favourite is double-stopping against open strings and listening to the 'difference tones', if you can hear them). It might be time for the psychological approach, so here's my suggestion:
*Expect* good intonation. This relates to some of the recent (wonderful) practice tips. If you accept the picture of yourself as someone who is likely to play out of tune, you will not only play out of tune more often but you may also sound out of tune even when your finger is in the right place. Your bow will be saying 'here comes an out-of-tune note.' If instead you say 'here comes a beautiful note' it's surprising how often it falls into the right pitch, especially if you've done all that technical and theoretical work.
69. I am wondering if your first teacher had you sing easy passages first and then relate what you play to what you sing. If this did not happen you might try using this technique with "singable" passages. Also, sometimes Modal awareness helps -- as in some of the Book I, Bartok Duets.
70. Have you done Sevcik op. 8... it really helped cure my intonation problems. Listening is another important aspect of good intonation. Sometimes we get caught up in the mechanics, and forget to just listen to what's coming out of the instrument...
76. Hearing yourself regularly on tape is the best way to identify and diagnose intonation problems. Questions to ask include: Is it mostly in tune with a few accidents or is it mostly out of tune? Do many of the problems fall into any particular category, such as: flat 4th finger in first position, certain stretched out finger combinations/hand shapes, shifting, whole/half step relationships within position on the same string, 4th finger/1st finger combination at string crossing, other combinations at string crossings, note following an open string, doublestops, chromatic passages, certain key signatures more than others, high positions, vibrato-related, etc. Narrowing it down to specific situations can make it easier to address the technical and mental issues, both for a quick fix in this piece and in your general technique for the future.
In addition to the usual major and minor scales and arpeggios, chromatic and whole tone scales are especially helpful, as well as the less common doublestop scales in parallel fourths and sevenths. Warming up in various doublestops (or scales with open string drones) in the key of the piece you are about to play also helps.
92. My suggestion for improving intonation (which you've probably already figured out) is to spend some time playing easy music where you don't have to think about technical difficulties. This will give you an opportunity to train your ear to listen a lot more critically. Having done this, you'll find that when you focus on intonation in more difficult passages, it will become a lot easier to fix.
93. Sometimes your ears are so used to hearing it out of tune, you think it's in tune, when actually it's not
1. Many people have mentioned double stops. I was taught to use _fourths_ many years ago, and I still like them, because when they're not in tune you hear it right away.
2. You may be used to hearing a piece or an etude that you are working on out of tune. So trying playing Clementine, or Three Blind Mice, or your country's national anthem, or Beethoven "Ode to Joy", or whatever: you _know_ how they sound, and if you aren't playing them in tune, you'll hear it right away.
3. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I will recommend :
which I wrote several years ago.
4. Finally, I take the liberty of translating some very important passages from Flesch "Die Kunst des Violinspiels": After discussing the difficulty of hitting the exact spot on the fingerboard to within a fraction of a millimeter, he continues:
"Therefore we must unfortunately remove the halo from the concept 'playing in tune'. In the physical sense this is an impossibility(emphasized!)."
"But there are certainly a number of violinists who give the impression of playing in tune; how can we explain this? Simply as follows: these violinists, when they are not smack-dab on, correct the finger position within a small fraction of a second. 'Playing in tune' therefore consists of an extremely speedy and adroitly executed improvement ("Verbesserung") of the original inexact pitch . . ."
Flesch then criticizes the view that intonation is a question of the hand . . "In reality the principle cause of this evil is a failure to hear properly . . . the main thing is to sharpen our hearing to such a degree that a false note is e x t r e m e l y u n p l e a s a n t and demands from us that immediate correction already discussed"
How to sharpen our hearing? Flesch : "The student should practice an etude (preferable from Rode in a key with lots of sharps) very slowly, testing each note until (s)he is absolutely convinced that the note is absolutely in tune. After working on this for several hours, the student becomes bewildered and dismayed; (s)he is getting _worse_, not _better_!" Flesch then comforts the student by urging upon her/him that the problem is: the hearing has become more acute.
A colleague of mine once summarized this by saying: "Intonation is a matter of conscience." ! !
118. "Orange noise : quasi-stationary noise with a finite power spectrum with a finite number of small bands of zero energy [no sound] dispersed throughout a continuous spectrum. These bands of zero energy are centered about the frequencies of musical notes in whatever system of music is of interest. Since all in-tune musical notes are eliminated, the remaining spectrum could be said to consist of sour, citrus, or "orange" notes. Orange noise is most easily generated by a roomful of primary school students equipped with plastic soprano recorders."
I would think a third grade violin class would do it....
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USING AN ELECTRONIC TUNER
63. I'm currently working on my own intonation problems, and I know what you mean when you say that you've tried everything and it still isn't helping because I've been there! However, I believe there IS a solution! =) Here are the 2 things I am doing myself that are really working, but you MUST work at it diligently!
#1) Buy an electronic chromatic tuner. (I have the Korg chromatic tuner because it responds faster to pitches than the other name brands) and practice the whole time with it! Practice each and every note until it's absolutely on target otherwise all the work will go to ashes. BE THAT PICKY WITH YOURSELF! Also practice etudes and pieces you are currently working on front to back! Even though you may think you are playing some parts in tune, the tuner will 4 times out of 5 tell you you're not =( Also, using a tuner is good for practising shifting work!
#2) Trust yourself in performance! There is nothing worse than doubting whether you're GOING to be in tune when the passage is coming up. Playing in tune is mental AND physical!
73. I really am against practising your intonation with a tuner. For one thing, intonation is NOT an absolute. It changes according to a number of circumstances, one of which is the particular key in which you are playing and also whether you are playing with harmonic or melodic intonation (whether you are tuning chordally, as in most ensembles or tuning for the sake of the melodic tension). Rely on your ears, not a machine.
81. I too own a Korg tuner (the AT-1), but I never use the needle. In fact, I've never known a string player who used the needle when practising with a tuner. Instead, I (and many others I know) have the tuner play a drone on the tonic pitch of whatever I'm practising. I then tune all the notes to this drone. This allows the learning that occurs to be not only tactile, but also auditory: you hear intervallic relationships and melodic functions much better practising this way. Also, when you practice with the tuner on a drone, you are judging your intonation with your ears, rather than with your eyes, which is what you have to be able to do when performing anyway. It really improves your relative pitch and sense of intonation. After I'm done with the tuner, I'll go through the same passage again without it, and I find that the sense of that tonic pitch stays in my head.
82. I too have had to work very hard on my intonation. What has helped me the most was to use a MIDI sequencer program and a sound card, entering a phrase or an entire piece, and playing in unison with what I've entered. I worried that there wouldn't be the nuances of pitch that one can enjoy with a stringed instrument, but I decided being able to play in tune with any sort of standard would teach me a great deal, and I could worry about the subtleties later.
I believe it helps to be able to play a sequence of notes with a pitch standard, so your hand and mind get used to the feel of moving from one note to another accurately, not just playing one pitch in isolation.
Using a sequencer program allows you to slow the tempo down (or speed it up) to almost any speed you need, and you don't have to worry about the program losing patience.
I've also entered complicated viola and piano music and chamber music into my sequencer. I don't try to put in very many expressive nuances because my purpose is to learn how my part fits into the whole, knowing that all parts are rhythmically and "intonationally" accurate. Depending on my progress, I can silence the program's metronome, the part I'm playing, or everyone else's.
85. I just want to know - how did people ever play well in tune before the invention of the Korg tuner or the computer??
I don't entirely mean to be facetious, yet it seems to me that a huge part of studying an instrument is in developing one's ear enough so one can really discern what is in tune and what isn't.
If I had to choose one machine that could help this process - it would be the tape recorder. One really has to hear oneself the way others do (lousy grammar but you get the idea,I hope) to even have a clue about what needs improvement, and in what way.
87. I have a Korg AT 120, but do not care for the drone sound too much. Instead, I found a much better drone on the newer model of Dr. Beat. In addition, the Dr. Beat can count rhythms in English, as well as two different beat voices. It can be programmed to play complex beat patterns, and has about a zillion other functions. If you haven't had the chance to test one, I would highly suggest it. They are available from most catalogues and in music stores.
88. I too practice with a drone tone and it is very helpful. My tuner cuts out the tone in about 2 or 3 minutes and I continue playing without it a few more lines to allow my ear to be on it's own. Another thing that has helped for my intonation problems, is taking phrases apart and playing them in "pieces" rather than playing straight through. Also using anchor fingers. My first finger is notorious for creeping up when I have to stretch my fourth, so I just concentrate on keeping it down! Be perseverent (I'm telling myself this too!) - It is fixable!
94. I fully understand that intonation is not an absolute (after all, I'm a composer and arranger for my string quartet). However, the electronic tuner comes in handy in those high positions when you CAN'T hear. Also, some musicians have faulty "finger frames" and the electronic tuner helps reform them to proper shape. I remember having horrid intonation on my C-string a couple years back. After the problems have been cured through electronic tuning, you can go back to relying on your own intonation and thinking about harmonic progressions and such. However, don't you think after years of tweaking notes to "fit" the key and chord structure, somewhere along the way, we lose sensitivity to what's "scientifically" in tune?
97. Yes - listen carefully to your intervals, perhaps by using a drone note as a base. Tuning note by note to an electronic tuner is an exercise in futility. Also, get a hold of Robert Gerle's book on violin playing. He has some excellent intonation exercises. Other than that, practice, practise, practice. It doesn't come overnight.
104. Although when I practice I only use my tuner for the A and for playing a drone pitch, I do think that using the needle can be helpful to some people. I have had students come to me after a number of years of playing in public school with no private lessons. Some of them have such poor pitch sensitivity that getting closer to the correct note than any other would be a big improvement. Under these circumstances there is literally no point in working on differences in intonation of a particular pitch depending on its function.
I have found that regular use of a tuner for immediate feedback helps a lot. Admittedly it works even faster when combined with singing and listening for the natural resonance of the instrument. Once their intonation is a bit more predictable then it makes sense to me to work on refining their intonation to make it appropriate to the key, the chord, the melodic motion....
The amount of time that I can spend in a week with a student giving intonation feedback to improve their ears is necessarily quite limited. Demanding regular use of a tuner puts the responsibility on the student to react to the immediate feedback that is available to them at every practice session.
I think of getting in tune with tuner as hitting the target and playing with more refined intonation as finding the bulls eye. In this way the students can understand that improving intonation is a process so the fact that we work on it at every practice session and every lesson is not comment on success or failure in the practice room.
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WEB SITES WITH INFORMATION ABOUT TUNING SYSTEMS
119. Near the end of my homepage
is a link to a page showing the theoretical differences between melodic and harmonic intonation in comparison to equal temperament.
In a nutshell, the difference between major and minor thirds (or sixths) is slightly greater when listening melodically (one note following another), and slightly less when listening harmonically (two or more notes at the same time), than when played on a keyboard instrument. I wouldn't advocate consciously TRYING to make such differences, which can lead to unwanted exaggerations, but simply to be aware of them and be prepared to adjust to what sounds right in a given situation. The range of differences is subtle, but it does matter. Try, for example, playing E on the D string, first as a double stop with open G, then as a double stop with open A. Learning to deal with such subtleties is a part of musical artistry.
I do not offer this as a solution to anyone's intonation problems. I mention it only to restate what others already have written, that there is no absolute with respect to intonation.
Good intonation requires us to weave an artistic path between melodic intonation, harmonic intonation, and -- where keyboard instruments are involved -- equal temperament as well. Good intonation depends on listening intently for what sounds best in a given context. The key is intent listening.
x. Ed Foote has a Web page on historical tunings for the piano at
I learned to tune one or two meantone temperaments, and for certain instruments, such as clavichord, harpsichord, organ, unequal temperaments which make use of more purer intervals, such as meantone or well-temperament, make all the difference in the quality of the sound.
An audio CD-based training system for learning Pure or Just Intonation:
I have and use this, and it is very effective and informative as a violist and performer. The system was developed by a principal hornist but can be used by any musician without fixed intonation.
Software for playing with Just Intonation or many other scales and temperaments
on a synthesizer: http://www.justonic.com/
I use this with my MIDI studio and the effects are astonishing when my music is not limited to equal-temperament.
If you are really interested in this subject and adventuresome, go to
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6. Intellectual and muscle memory
22. Among the different bits of information our brains can remember and deal with, two that are relevant to music and performance are what I'll call "intellectual memory" and "muscle memory". Intellectual memory is what our teachers/conductors have told us (and what we've figured out in our own minds) about how a passage should sound or should be played. Muscle memory is the way our body remembers of how the passage goes.
Information in "intellectual memory" is incredibly transient. How many times have you asked yourself "What was it my teacher said about this passage? $#^@&*! I wish I had written it down!" Muscle memory, on the other hand, can last for years. How many of us can still play passages perfectly (or at least well) that we learned for a piece we performed ten years or more ago? So one of the goals of practice, IMHO, is to turn intellectual memory into muscle memory as soon as possible, before we've had a chance to forget it.
So my tip is that the most important time to practice a piece or passage is as soon after your lesson/rehearsal as you can, while you still remember as many of the details in "intellectual memory" as possible. Then, you should practice it again at your next opportunity, no later than the next day. At this point, you've made good progress in transcribing the information into "muscle memory", and you can practice it as often as you normally would thereafter. You'll be amazed at how much this can shorten the length of time it takes to learn a passage.
26. I have to express my reservations about this. IMHO it is not necessarily a good thing to turn 'intellectual memory' into 'muscle memory'. I think this can lead to getting rather boring in one's interpretation. Once it becomes 'muscle memory', there is probably often a tendency to just let the muscles play the way they've always played, instead of constantly thinking about it. Perhaps there are some pieces - maybe technical pieces, etudes etc. - which one can be 'satisfied' with, but I don't think that it is necessarily good in a 'musical' sense and not in a purely technical sense, to get satisfied with one particular way of playing something and to just stay there and not think about it again.
27. I think you're getting bogged down in my specific wording and missing the actual point I was trying to make. The idea is to train your muscles to find the pitches and rhythms without consuming too much conscious thought. This frees your brain to deal with interpretative decisions at performance time.
29. "Intellectual memory" is termed semantic memory in cognitive psychology. Concepts and facts are stored in semantic memory (my name, birth date, the strings of the viola, Newton's laws, etc.).
"Muscle memory" is termed procedural memory - riding a bike, driving a car, brushing your teeth, playing the viola, etc.
Semantic memory of how a passage should be played must be converted to procedural memory of playing the passage through _practice_.
I would argue that when one is running home to practice a newly clarified interpretation of a passage or technique for playing a passage, one is rehearsing freshly made aural images (sound images / concepts - a semantic memory) associated with a freshly made procedural memory of how to play the passage to replicate the desired sound.
30. This is a very interesting concept! You may have hit on part of the explanation for something I discovered for myself relatively recently, or if not, it is very closely related.
I freelance and play a lot of jobs that have minimal rehearsal time. Sometimes there are these nasty bits of orchestral writing that have always been my least favorite and most dreaded type. They're those fast sixteenth-note passages that are black with added accidentals on the page, and which contain a lot of almost-but-not-absolutely-consistent chromatic up and down runs that have just enough whole steps thrown in for confusions sake. Also, to make matters worse, they are unplayable unless you use various combinations of first, second and half positions, and the necessary shifts to accomplish this may be on any part of any beat. Many will relate, I'm sure, to that kind of passage - you sight read it in the first rehearsal (and hold your nose at the result), and then you might mark an X beside it for later practice, if there is time. In the past, when I would try to learn such passages quickly, I'd start by marking the whole steps and fingerings for only the vital shifts clearly in pencil. But then, even when I felt confident to play the notes up to speed alone in the calm of the private practice session, there were too many times when a passage like that would fly by in a subsequent play-through or performance where I would feel embarrassed at having faked it and left more notes on the floor than I would have liked!
Then one fine day, I was struggling with trying to insure a more foolproof performance of one such passage, but it was so diabolically written for my level of ability (or at least what I perceived my ability level to be while using the practice method I described), that I finally decided to try something completely different - I tried practising the passage *without* making my main focus the anticipation of where the whole steps and/or tricky shifts were notated on the page, but instead, to focus my concentration on what my hand FELT like when it played the passage correctly. What a world of difference that made! I was shocked at my improvement in playing the fiendish licks with confidence. When I saw the black barrage of notes coming closer during the performance, I relaxed and just let my hand remember how to play the passage - which it did perfectly and effortlessly, without my brain getting in the way!
I hope this makes sense to those reading this, because like I said, it has been a literal breakthrough for me. Who would have thought that simply working on the passagework with a slightly different focus of attention could make such a tremendous difference in the facility of its execution? But it does for me, and now I find I don't have to use my whisk broom and dustpan to clean up the stray notes from under my chair so much anymore. ;-)
33. I think of procedural memory as the tool box filled with the tools you need to build the image you hold in your semantic memory.
You have a general idea of the kind of house you want to build, and the results will depend on the kind of tools available in your tool box to produce the results you want. The more sophisticated the tools, the more choices you will have, and the better the end product will be. The creative process then decorates the finished product in the color schemes and style of ones choice. Some people like blue and green, while others like red and gold. So, I guess the answer, IMHO, is you must have a general idea of the product you want to build, and then select and hone your tools according to your well laid out plans.
49. This business of muscle memory is a fascinating topic for me. What has been described in the past few posts is what is known to biomechanists as neuromuscular training.
This is the process of training the subconscious mind to process a complicated, many-stepped procedure with a single conscious-level command.
For example: As a beginner, you are reading eight notes in sequence on the page. Your conscious mind reads the notes as whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. In time, you come to realize that this is a major scale. Through repetition (practice), the subconscious will organize the many steps into a pattern that can be executed by a single conscious command. So, when your conscious mind sees a major scale on the page, it gives the subconscious a single command (play a major scale), and the subconscious executes "whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step" to make that scale happen automatically, without involving the conscious mind any further in the process.
This is also the process which makes sightreading possible. When the conscious mind sees three majors scales in a row, it gives the command to the subconscious mind, which then directs the muscles to execute those scales. While the subconscious is busy directing traffic, the conscious mind is skipping ahead to look for more patterns to feed the subconscious mind before you reach the end of those three major scales.
Neuromuscular training can solve nearly any technical problem. It merely requires the discipline to break the problem down into small steps, and feed those steps to the subconscious mind as a recognizable pattern for the conscious mind to use as a cue.
53. In acting, there are two types of actors, technicians, and the Method actors. The best actor ever was a technician (Lawrence Olivier) and everybody else on the best list is a Method actor. I know that musicians will call somebody a technician, but I don't know what they call the equivalent of a Method actor. Anyway, in acting "muscle memory" is called "kinetic memory" because it implies knowledge of the way joints and bones feel as well as the muscles that control them.
I've heard both technicians and -passions- (new term?) and the technicians are almost invariably less interesting. As a player, I find it is good to be a technician to learn something, and a passion to play it, but I usually don't play as well technically as I practice. On the other hand, the listener usually feels more emotion (the whole goal of music) when I play as a passion. After I expand my skills (finishing the next more difficult concerto or finally understanding a new technique) I can sightread more difficult music without problems and the music I've been working on for years gets easier and more expressive. I think that putting things into muscle memory and allowing your subconscious free reign of your music is what makes music worthwhile - to feel what the composer felt. The speech center in your brain accounts for one percent of your total capacity and it is the center which controls. To be as musical as possible, it has to turn off and let the rest of the mind take control. Unfortunately, the speech center is also what lets us strategize, so we need it to practice and listen to ourselves to tell us what we are doing wrong.
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7. What to focus on
12. I encourage my students (and myself) to practice in "slo-mo" exaggerating all the details of a given piece. (I compare this to watching Michael Jordan in slo-mo replay as he "airs" his way to the basket. Another good visual image is a slo-mo replay of a track star in motion.) In other words, don't just practice the notes. Concentrate on the bow distribution, the dynamics, the colors (bow and vibrato), playing with physical ease, shaping of a phrase. Don't move on to another tempo until these aspects are convincing. Use the tape recorder (nothing fancy; I like my $49 boom box - -if I can sound good on there, then I'll sound really good on better equipment!) to assess if you really are doing what you think you hear.
13. Don't just practice a piece or passage top to bottom: practice backwards. This is especially, but not exclusively, helpful with solo Bach. After working out the details of the harmonic progressions, take a phrase and practice it slowly from the end of the phrase, adding one measure at a time. I used to use this technique as an undergrad in music theory. I would start at the beginning of a part-writing exercise and get stuck somewhere in the middle. I went to the end and worked out the cadence. Once I knew where I was going, it was easier to figure out how to get there.
15. I don't know how pithy this one is, but I like to have a certain technical focus -- a sort of agenda -- for each practice session. That agenda happens in addition to whatever I am learning or having difficulty with, and that agenda is usually a basic technical thing like constantly looking in the mirror and making sure my bow is completely straight. I apply that straight bow focus to everything I practice. A difficult string crossing becomes an issue of "how straight can I keep my bow during the string crossing," and often it solves the problem that I have with the string crossing.
Every day I have a different agenda. Lately my agenda has been to approach notes or phrases (whatever the case may be) like a tennis player going to hit a ball. The tennis player (a good tennis player -- I am not a good tennis player) moves to the correct spot before the ball bounces and has the racket prepared to hit the ball where s/he wants it to go. So often I find that I am "running around the court" when I can be far more "on top of the ball."
Regardless of what the issue of the practice session is, I find that it is important to keep focused on the business of improving my playing while I am learning music. It sort of makes each practice session a lesson with my higher self.
29. When you are trying to create a particular sound or tone or interpretation of a piece of music, what do you think about? Do you think of the sound you are wanting to produce (an aural image of the sound)? Do you think of how you want to play the passage (the bowing technique, amount of vibrato, etc.) or something else altogether different (a Turner painting or a Van Gogh)?
32. What a wonderful question. Sometimes I tape myself when I practice. I play my best when I think about filling out all the notes to their fullest extent and enjoy the sound that I am making, but I feel my best (and don't sound my best) when I rely on an aural image of the sound I am making. I also sound much better when I concentrate on the specifics of bow distribution and vibrato: somehow when concentrating on these things my "musicianship" (which includes my concept of sound and ideas of phrasing) seems to come out without my having to think about what I am doing too much. When the technical bones are in order the higher levels of feeling (which are not intellectual) seem to be a bit more free.
36. I agree wholeheartedly. One must always have a preconceived notion of the ideal sound of a piece. Every time I see a piece of music for the first time, I sing through my part before I even pick up the viola. Later, after I have it "under my fingers" I continue to sing the intervals that give me problems (like the first page of Walton.. ugh). then when I am in the midst of practising or even performing, I try to hear the pitch in my head before I play it. This technique is more technical than emotional, but I think it still applies.
Also, my teacher told me that when I am having difficulty getting a sound I like, I should stop playing for a moment and imagine how a violist I especially admire (it's usually Kim Kashkashian) would play it. I obviously can't emulate Kim Kashkashian exactly (an understatement...), but it definitely helps formulate my idea of the "final destination."
38. When trying to create a specific sound I give thought to a number of factors: bow speed, bow distribution, bow "pressure" (for lack of a better word - perhaps concentration of sound is a better term) and, of course, vibrato. The type of string I use also ends up playing an important role in the type of sound for which I'll aim. The first thing to think about is the musical character you are trying to bring across and then figure out how to get the sound that will best bring that into being. I would hope that one would have an aural "image" of the sound in one's head, otherwise what would guide you toward your goal?
43. I try to feel the emotion of the piece. If it's angry music I try to be angry - conversely I smile whilst playing happy music, and so on (I'm quite happy to drink large quantities of vodka before playing Russian music too, I will make such sacrifices for art). At our Christmas concert on Saturday, I was mentally dancing during the Strauss waltzes, which I hope made the accompaniment a little less wooden (fat chance, given our second violins :( ).
44. I favor the audition approach. Basically -- hear what you see. But my sight-reading responds positively to the Sevcik test, which I guess sharpens the synapses between my brain and the fingers of my left hand. (Sevcik test : play the sixteenth notes at the bottom of page 1 of Opus 1 without a pause. To improve response, linger initially on the first note of each group of four.)
50. My favorite practice tip that has helped me interpret a new piece I have begun to work on, is storytelling. I create a hypothetical story or conversation which I can usually pick up from my first impression of the music.
My teacher in college, Martha Warrington showed me this when I was learning
Bloch's Meditation. We imagined an older Jewish man expressing concern that
his son doesn't want to become a rabbi. The son begins the piece lamenting and
explaining his reasons. He father interrupts (10th bar B-flat), he can't listen
anymore, he mocks the son and escalates to anger to the high A. Then calms a
little. There is silence and the son begins to plead with breathy triplets,
beg with 2-note slurs, cry with forte triplets. The father interrupts again,
but calmer.. he reflects on his dreams, is reminded of his disappointment, then
calms again. He speaks seriously at bar 29, but still with some irritation and
anger. Silence.. Etc. You get the point. I just love Bloch!
66. I find it wonderfully ear-opening to practice some types of music - Bach slow movements, for example - with the lights turned completely off. I know, I know. That explains why I seem to be so totally in the dark when it comes to solo Bach. But try it! It's really cool.
108. Maybe I could add that just closing your eyes may work as well, at least for me : I'm awkward enough to come a cropper with my viola when searching the switch in the dark :-)
99. If you are learning a passage - say, an arpeggiated one that outlines a chord progression, which gets knottier and more awkward as it goes on - try reducing the pattern to its implied chords. Try to play it as block chords, like the first Dont etude, so your fingers know immediately what chord they are aiming for. When you go back to the linear passage, your mind's ear will have a plan and a logic that will help you hear which notes are out of tune. It also helps to devise a fingering that keeps the hand pretty quiet(avoiding jumping around too much) inside a certain chord pattern. When you need to shift, you can try to find logical places to do so. Usually these choices will turn out to be musically satisfying.
If you have a melodic passage to learn that has big leaps that are hard to find with accuracy, you can isolate the actual trouble spot. Play the first note, stop, sing the next note that you need to find, and then play it. Do this several times for several days in a legato way, and your hand will "discover" where exactly it needs to go. This is a way of integrating the aural and tactile aspects of learning the fingerboard. Of course, there are many, many other physical tricks and schools of thought that help this process. Basically, my goal for this type of practice is to bring seemingly large distances closer together,and to hear the passages in my head just before I play it.
x. I recently attended a presentation by Burton Kaplan, from the Manhattan School, and was given some material about practising, including his book "The Musician's Practice Log -- a Completely New Way to Increase Your Practice Effectiveness". His approach is to objectively analyse the different elements of practising music to work more effectively. He also runs the Magic Mountain Music Farm. I understand people can be videotaped practising there and have their work methods analyzed (EEK!) I have to admit the book was a bit scary at first glance -- lots of charts and diagrams, etc. It looked like a stockholder's report. I'm giving it a shot, however, since his ideas seem very sound and could have some lasting value. So far it's made me more aware of how many distractions intrude on my practice time! You might like some of his ideas. Does anyone else have experience with his methods? The book is published by Perception Development Techniques, P.O. box 1068, Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025
x. Some educationalists use the idea of 'multiple intelligences' :
interpersonal - our ability to interact with others
intrapersonal - our ability to know ourselves
naturalistic - our ability to see patterns in nature, to categorise and classify.
Which of these a person is most comfortable with might influence what aids they personally find most helpful while practising : to tell stories, group notes, etc.
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11. I think a very important part of practice is to not exceed the limits of concentration. An old teacher used to tell me even if you only practice 5 minutes if its totally focused it was worthwhile. I find 20 minutes is my limit. I then take a break and go at it again. But beyond that at a stretch I am not really able to concentrate fully.
37. What should one think about when performing? I've noticed that when I am practising alone I have no trouble concentrating. I can focus very easily on exactly what I want to do and my mind feels relatively free from outside distractions and thoughts. But when I perform, I turn into a schizo, because I constantly talk to myself (and it's not even necessarily music-related). sometimes I'll think about who is in the audience, or a conversation I had yesterday, etc. fortunately, I don't have a problem with nerves most of the time, but I think I could perform much better if I could only emulate my practice situation onto the stage, an audition, etc. any suggestions (besides yoga, tai chi, etc. I've had my fair share of zen... ha)?
40. Lately I've been bombarded, literally, with auditions, playing for Christmas parties, and such, and I've found that my playing ability has actually become "worse", in a matter of speaking, when I'm busy. I talked to my teacher about this and he suggested making a list with all my musical goals plus rehearsals and auditions. I've found that this clears my mind, so when I'm playing, I'm not drifting and worrying about upcoming auditions and concerts.
45. It has always been a problem for me to concentrate, especially during a performance. And again, especially when I am playing from memory. So the mind tends to wander off thinking of a thousand and one other things , leaving the fingers' choreography to work by itself Then the inevitable happens, I wake up from this sort of trance and panic.... what's next, where am I... etc.!
Now I am getting better at this. I tend to prepare myself beforehand as regards the mood of the piece I am going to play. Is it stately, romantic, playful, sweet, maybe provocative?!:)) And I get myself into such a mood. It is working like a dream for me and I am gaining a lot of confidence. I also make it a point NOT to look at the audience directly, yes relating to the audience is surely important, but I just imagine that the people out there are all willing me to play my music the best I can. Let me put it this way, I have never attended a concert wishing that the performer made some mistake, so it's bound to be the same way even when it's yourself who is performing.
So...... get into the mood!:)
55. In response to your question (What to think about while performing): you have to concentrate only on the music itself. Instead of thinking "who is in the audience" or "what are they thinking" try and think what the piece really means. Why the composer wrote it and what does it mean to you? Also, think about what you want to convey to the audience. Soon, as I've noticed, when becoming completely enveloped in the music, the audience and other people (except those you are playing with) completely disappear, and the only thing that remains is the music itself. I hope that helps, it has for me.
58. Hmmm... "thinking" (or even "concentrating" as others have suggested) may not be the best word. In learning a new asana (position) in yoga, the advice is to hold in the mind the completed posture, and let the body sink in toward that goal, not particularly thinking about the process or concentrating on it, but instead paying close attention to what's happening with body and breath, and letting the body/mind/breath find its way.
In my experience the translation of such advice to the viola [or broader areas of learning] can be direct, and revealing. An aural 'image' in the mind of the completed result (its sound, feeling, shape, taste) is valuable, but then something like paying careful attention may be more valuable than something more directive like thinking or concentration.
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8. Working with an accompanist
59. I have a slight problem, and I was wondering if anyone had any advice on the subject. I'm playing this concerto for several different competitions, and when I play by myself, I more or less play it perfect. However, when I get together with my piano accompanist, I feel rushed, as if I don't have time to express the music as I feel it should be expressed. I am playing at the correct tempo, rhythm, etc., but it seems as if I do very poorly playing with a piano in contrast to playing with no accompaniment. Does anyone have any suggestions? They would be very much appreciated. Thanks in advance!
61. Are you having a dialogue with the accompanist about this? You should be able to just play and express; and the accompanist should follow you. If there are complications, such as weird places where the rhythms conflict or the pianist can't tell when to come in, you should be talking about it. Don't let the pianist dictate the tempo all the time.
67. If playing with the accomp. Is a problem I would ask myself a few questions.
1. Does this pianist play well with others who sound expressive when they play? This is one way to evaluate the accomp. skills of the pianist.
2. Can you play your part reasonably expressively with a metronome or are you taking a lot of liberties with the basic pulse? If you are taking a lot of liberties are they indicated by the composer or common practice in the style period? I think that one should be able to play with the metronome and then stretch here and there for artistry.
3. What kind of advice are you getting from your teacher about the difficulties you are experiencing? Are you getting any coaching with the pianist in your lessons?
4. Have you had this difficulty in the past? Do you have problems now even in the places that are easy for both you and the accompanist?
5. Are you working things out slowly to make sure you both know how they are supposed to fit together?
6. Have you had enough rehearsal time to hear the piano part as part of the music or do you still find it distracting as you play?
I am really curious to learn what concerto you are playing. Some are very difficult
to put together and require lots of rehearsal time as well as great skill and
flexibility on the part of the accompanist. Some require the soloist to express
within the pulse in many places.
68. Try to remember that you are making music "with" the pianist. Even though you are the soloist, the piano part is part of the finished product. The problem is, we practice alone so much and then suddenly, there is this other "stuff" going on while we are trying to concentrate on what we know so well. Look at the piano part, listen to the piano part, and hear both parts as one composition.
71. This is a common feeling amongst players. You will just have to work with the pianist to get him or her to be more flexible with the rhythm (I don't mean sloppy or unrhythmic). You should have the confidence to give the music the breadth it needs and not let the piano force you into a way of playing that doesn't work with your idea of the music. Demonstrate to the pianist how you want a particular passage to sound and rehearse it until you are both comfortable.
80. I am currently working on the Chopin sonata in G minor with my pianist, which is more difficult for the piano than the viola. And it's true, you really have to work out many details and try different ideas to get the piece to work properly. Sometimes the piano has to lead, and sometimes I have to, and it doesn't work when only one of us makes all the decisions as to what is to happen. Playing with an accompanist takes knowledge of each others parts, and a lot of practice time to make it work well.
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And finally :
75. Jean Cocteau : "Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don't like -- then cultivate it. That's the part of your work that's individual and worth keeping."
77. Dr. Suzuki : "never forget that a person who fails at five hundred times can succeed at five thousand times".
List compiled by Lisanne Bainbridge : firstname.lastname@example.org
Version 1 : December 1999