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Advice for ensemble improvement?


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I suspect I know the answer but I wanted to hear what others thought.

I’ve been playing violin for six years now, I started at age 43 and have no other musical experience.  I’ve taken weekly lessons since the start.  But my teacher is the only person I ever play with.

I decided to push myself and signed up for a string ensemble class.  It’s geared towards adult students.  I’m the only violin with three cellos plus the teacher.

It’s been very frustrating.  My rhythmic counting has been exposed as a significant weakness.  I decided the only way this will improve is:

1) sticking with it and accepting the pain

2) practicing at home with a metronome 

3) practicing at home even more with a metronome 

4) using a metronome during lessons with my teacher


I hate the metronome. 

Any other advice from experienced players that they would like to offer?

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1. Listen to the pieces that you are playing as much as possible.  Listen to youtube, spotify, etc. Keep in mind that when ensembles play pieces, they have had time to learn how each other plays and they may take liberties with tempi and rhythms.

2. Study the score.  Play off of a score to see where your part fits in with the other parts.  

3. Obviously....metronome.  I too hate using a metronome.  It is a must.  

4. Etudes.  I hate etudes as well, but you'd be surprised at the sheer amount of different rhythms, bowings, finger patterns, and technique you can learn.  On one hand, I know people will disagree when I say etudes are passive learning tools.  But hear me out.  I play etudes, memorize most of them.  I don't study an etude for a specific reason or another, though maybe I should.  But in the end, the skills I learn in etudes are stored in my cognitive and muscle memories and I am surprised at how many times I sight read a piece and thought, "that wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be!"

5. Most importantly, when playing in an ensemble, especially an intimate chamber group, listen to what others say and take the criticism.  Learn from it.  Not everything your fellow chamber member says will be correct or relevant, but try and listen to why they are saying something.  It may either help you spot issues and trouble spots, or might affirm that you are doing it correctly and they other member is not.


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You can practice counting anywhere, anytime. Start out by subdividing seconds while looking at a clock. Practice at timed stoplights when in a car.

"one -two-three-four" (etc.)  quarter notes

"one/and-two/and-three/and-four/and"  (etc.) eighth notes

"one/e/and/a-two/e/and/a" (etc.) sixteenth notes

Has worked for me for over 80 years - but I still practice it.

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It is too early to write about stereotypes in adult student's adventures in bowed instruments. But the particular quality that stands out is a degree of "perfection- istic" ideal and goals. Some practice, many do not... also do not ask. But if they are committed, if there is time, i will bite. But goals towards "perfection" without established goals ( stepped areas of improvement ) and practice, often lead to frustration.

Most older adults do not care for video and computer games. Our minds do not work quite the same as those of kids ( mostly boys ) though my female students have perhaps of centuries of traps they might have to overcome. Having worked on several games, the general public might be a bit lulled into the work in AI.

There is an entire layer of misconceptions that can be discussed when doing anything. The bird's eye view might help.

Time is valuable. Focus on strengths. Analysis... ensuring what to expect... do what one can ( possible ) in advance of a rehearsal. A piece of music somewhat joyous because it makes sense. Outside of it's timbre, what makes listening to noise, interesting. I have owned several birds that where outraged by something I played.

Most musical works have form or have structure. Without structure, it can be difficult for brains to process. Students hate that I stress structure, as I hated having to do additional studies. As an melody player, Analysis, was a weak area of study. Poetry is a reasonable analog. But adults have striven on things that can be understood.

Modern arrangements have intros, codas ( outros. ) Otherwise the are blocks of information ( identifiable or not ) tend mostly in chunks of even numbers: 2, 4, 8 and sixteen. Most of us breath and walk in twos.

Every measure of music resets the downbeat. The more experienced we are, the better we can reset the downbeat, but in a much more nebulous, expansive number of measures. But as a courtesy to our fellow musicians and listeners, we try to keep those resets at 2, 4, 8, and sixteen. Beginners should reset the db.

On a sidebar regarding accuracy and nuance, the expert who can subdive into micro- pulses or subdivisions become even better players and leaders. The 128th note in the 1st Bach unaccompanied g- minor/ dorian? sonata was specific. Not that I can play it as written, the way I want to play it. Go Monica and Rachel...

Breakdown rhythms into primary blocks of long and short- short. Let's suggest that the quarter note ( crochet ) is 1/4 of the measure in common time ( 4/4. ) That will be long. the 1/8th ( quaver ) notes will be the short. Thus a "long" equals "short- short," allowing most of us normal tempos to say these words in place of the quarter note beat.

Say these words and feel these words. Say them during taking steps, tap them hearing the metronome or listening to the music. Seems easy. Not necessary. But this is the small level of discipline necessary that one might build their confidence.

I teach a pre- teen violist who plays violin parts, but agrees that she can't count. I am a very bad counter.

Playing is stressful and the internal beat, the one at home, often gets lost or is nowhere to be found.

Prepare: learn the number of measures of the intro, the body and the endings. Being the only violinist might difficult. Do what you can. Regardless of where I sit, my windplayer friends laugh. Even as CM, there is support.

To overly simplify, most music is made up of these binary fractions based on a larger pulse. Own the fraction, mind the downbeat, and we learn how to fit. There are tri-pah-lets.

Beginning 1st vlns can not help rushing until disaster strikes. Impatient cellists/ bassists make it impossible for upper players to play clearly. Rushing might be a huge problem, which leads to the next area of difficulty outside of syncopation. The duration of sound ( and decay of that sound ) are a big deal. We talk about a sound and silence, but not so much the duration or decay of sound. Be sure to understand how to make beats 3 and 4 of a 4/4 piece fill all the space. Then it is possible to better understand beats 7 and 8 of two measures and 15 and 16 of four measures.

Get to know pick up notes. Try to understand Gavottes. Count out loud. Go dancing if possible. I mention that students hate me? Many can't count to 4.

Work on small understandable rhythmic clusters. The understanding does not make the fingers in the left hand move better, but the right arm might also start to improve. So much more to cover...   

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I am also fortunate enough to be close friends with many conductors. ( Not close enough to be invited to the summer session at Santa Fe Opera, I guess but not bitter ) The point being that a good organizer makes the best out of ensemble time.

With four cellos, unless they are Ma, Casals, Truls Mork and that guy from Thomastik- Infeld. That person could pull the cellos together give an opportunity for the other sections to better understand how the parts fit.

Coaching is mostly a time management issue, when collecting a check, but productivity of the total members might be the goal. Conductors/ coaches make no sound.

So happy people are out there playing, experiencing life.

Also, it seems to be that persons are less patient lately making it more frustrating to be public. It is rare to be the only violin, but if you cope well, hopefully others will be kind. Been there. 

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The experience level of the cellos is quite varied.  One has been playing for only a year, another has been playing a long time but took a several decade break and just picked it back up, and the other has played about as long as I but has other musical experience.  The common theme is that only one has no prior experience to draw from when it comes to “already knowing” stuff.  I know very little myself.  But after six years I’m at least comfortable reading music and am happy with how I sound.  

My regular teacher, whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well by now, told me I’m not permitted to bail on the class and that it would push me to improve in different ways.  She agreed that it’s going to be frustrating for a time but benefits would be many.  She also thought it was unusual to be the only violin which brings its own challenges.


So it’s me and the metronome.

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There is a lot of good info in the thread already but I searched for "slowly" and it was not found <g>.

But seriously - slow practice is essential for rhythmic accuracy in my opinion. Yes, with a metronome, set to a "medical tempo" as my friend calls it. Andrew mentioned subdividing - always being aware of the smallest rhythmic component in a passage - often 16th notes, maybe 8ths, maybe triplet 8ths, etc. 

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast...

Metronome practice is tedious, yes, but get used to it. I use it all the time and while "painful" it yields results. 

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Rhythm > dynamics > pitch > tone color.

For rhythm, much of the game is pattern recognition.  You see a pickup with six 16ths (semiquavers), you get used to coming in on the 'and' of three and laying down notes of a particular speed.  Land on the downbeat of the next bar, and you're golden.  If you can recognize that this is a scale passage, or a tune from earlier, even better.

Not sure the best way to build this.  Reading your part away from the instrument is helpful.  With a recording, perhaps.  Some might solidify their memory of it by playing it on a piano.  It will force your mind to let the differences between instruments go and grasp the essentials.   Slow speeds, if you don't lose the beat (hence, the metronome) will make it easier to learn the correct patterns and not have to unlearn the other kind.

Good luck!

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On 2/7/2023 at 7:31 AM, Zeissica said:

 ( ... )

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast...

Metronome practice is tedious, yes, but get used to it. I use it all the time and while "painful" it yields results. 

Not a disagreement... not disagreeing. 

Yes, it appears that I contradict some of your posts. You are not wrong. Just want to add.

Love the DPA mic. The mounts appear to be an after thought in a modular system? Wiring weaker, given the design and implied use. I have had great success with Countryman and Associates, and with many fine lavolier style mikes including the Sony, etc. C and A is more a westcoast thing. I own a DPA but not a C and A. Borrow the C and A, been out on hundreds of jobs over a dozen years. For the price, it's a bit of a let down.

Your comments on Maestro Poulsen made me very happy. Over the decades I have known him, he was never very happy to see me. He was a great teacher and a very good and patient man, but I pursued him over many locations for information. My tendency to push for more made him very uncomfortable? Goes back to a HR Pfretz bow. He was informative, and my desire was to know more. Perhaps he was giving up information for free, but the selfish me never looked at it that way. I was young and poor. Still poor. Outside of rehairs, I should have offered better compensation for the information but he would not have taken it. He provided dozens of hours of details. Still, if there was one entering into a stone face, it would have been my visits to Maestro Poulsen. I also do not think he cared for my playing. Wished I would have asked more about Knopf.

So I am an advocate for slow practice overall. There are reasons for this. As useful as slowing playing improves playing, it may not be helpful for ensemble play, very early beginners and for much more advanced players, but they have an understanding as to why and as to where the slow practice helps.

Let me stress that I do advocate slower practice, but has to do with understanding of what is being accomplished.

I do it.

For ensemble playing, one must fit into whatever that "time- space" continuum presents. I still attend art ensembles, jazz concerts and it is remarkable what is offered. But as to the structure of the older western music. The  conductor might offer a beat marking in "beats per minute."

But as it is important to perhaps practice slowly to get to that desired tempo, feeling ( absorbing, owning ) that tempo is crucial.

Perhaps my compromise here is to ask the player to drop notes, to play the primary beats if need be at the ensemble tempo, in order to play at the stronger volumes to keep up with the ensemble. Slow practice is, again, important but for most players, the extra noise created in the brain through anxiety and shame? makes it difficult, if not frustrating. The building blocks of western music is generally through the Baroque eras of many regions. Many students hate ( yes, hate ) the works chosen for their sight- reading practice. We go slow.

The second phase goes at tempo forcing them to simplify or desperately look for patterns. It is survival.

The way I work and reason, given a limited number of weeks, practicing closer to ( or at ) tempi makes a difference. As there might be a tendency towards rushing, or not counting rests, the practice closer to tempi is better unless there is more time. The dedicated student can improve over a week, easily, but for hobbyists, after the difficult rhythms have been mapped out the patterns need to be repeated, closer to tempo to solidly play the next downbeat. 

Certainly, no one is going to ask me perform the Tchaik nowadays, but I practice at tempi+ for clarity. The sequence of striking the pitches at speed matters. Matters with rhythm, intonation and tone. Again are details important for players working on Bartok SQs or Bach chorales. Make the entrance, ( and try to ) deliver. No shame in making the best or better effort. Most would not pay for it, but some do. Thanks grandma.

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The pain will be short lived. Adult beginner here too tho lifetime musician. Ive been practising for a couple of months alone then gradually moving onto what I thght would be ... "nice, easy, single page classical pieces" but it was quite a shock trying to play along to a string ensemble off my phone and I hate metronomes, equally difficult. My corrective remedy so far has been to press on playing along to the phone and to concentrate on those parts which appear to go off.

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Another great tool for slow practice is the app Amazing Slow Downer - you can reduce the speed of playback, but the pitch remains the same. I use it all the time, especially to prepare tricky rhythmic passages for an upcoming orchestra or chamber music gig. 

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