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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lessons From Hillary Hahn: How to practice and the 100 days of practice goal

Do you follow Hillary Hahn on Instagram?  You should.  Her user name is 'violincase.'  I'm just a lowly orchestra teacher, but I have been so inspired with Hillary's recent instagram posts about practicing.  She made a goal to participate in the '100 Days of Practicing' project and posts a video every day that gives us a glimpse of what her practice routines are like.  These short little snippets are full of educational value and I plan on using them to inspire my students to practice and teach them HOW to practice.

Hillary Hahn is a world class, famous, professional touring violinist.  Sometimes we mistakenly assume that there will come a time when we will 'arrive' at a certain level of performance and playing or performing will all of a sudden come naturally.  Hillary shows us the true amount of work and dedication needed to reach our potential.  There is no arrival - we're never is necessary to continually progress.  A good performance is the result of hours and hours on consistent, careful, reflective, goal-driven and focused practice - even for a professional.

Hillary shows that she still practices skills that might be deemed 'basic.'  She does bow exercises, practicing slow long bows on open strings, works on vibrato, practices left hand finger taps.  I do many of these things with my beginners...and we eventually reach a point where we think we don't need finger taps any more....we become 'advanced.'  I love how Hillary's videos show us that the basic skills should still be practiced.  All those things come together to create dexterity, ease of motion, and perfection.

I think students need to see a professional in action.  I plan on using one or two videos per week to show my students.  We will focus on these techniques as a class and refine our practice capabilities.  I will encourage students to practice effectively at home.  Maybe we'll even do the '100 days of practice' challenge ourselves.

Here are link to my favorite videos and the lesson/skill in the video.  These are all the things I want my students to learn:

Finger taps – strengthening left hand/fingers:

Quote from Hillary: 
"End of the day. Working on a perennially finger-tangling passage in #Prokofiev 1. 6 months till the concert, so why not see where it's at? Practice at tempo can be a good way to locate problem spots and try performance-speed solutions. #the100dayproject#100daysofpractice"

Trill routine – slow then speeding up:

First day on Dvorak – repititions/concentration, tone, focus:

Spinning hoops – arm/hand exercises:

Fingerpatterns – range of motions for fingers:

Quote from Hillary: "LH pizzicato exercise for callus-building and hand-strengthening. "

Practicing in the dark:

Making pizzicato musical:

Silent practice – studying the music/score
Working on bow tilt – slow

Practicing vibrato:

Slow bows on 2 strings:

Practicing pizzicato in order to watch left hand transitions/finger placement:

Repetition – practice before concert:

Bow exercises – tiny down, travel to tip, tiny up


Practicing with mute: Quote from Hillary: "Jetlag practice with the practice mute. The mute isn't a good thing to use regularly when working on music you'll play unmuted, but sometimes it's helpful if you don't want to make too much noise but still feel it would be good to play something - maybe technical drills, or a passage you didn't feel you got the hang of earlier in the day, or just checking in with a couple of phrases out of curiosity. -HH "

Centering intonation – warm up – during double stops:

Intonation – tuning A minor

Checking arm/body positon: Quote from Hillary: "Working on fluidity in the upper half of the bow without pivoting from my shoulders to reach the tip. -HH" 

Super slow long bows – wow:

Marking the music:

Overcoming bad days: 
Quote from Hillary: "It's a weird adrenal-crash sort of day, when it feels like my cells aren't coordinating with each other. Here, I'm working on figuring out what's up with my left hand; it didn't feel smooth. Of course most of practicing is about the music, but some of it is also about understanding the body as it relates to the instrument. Everyone has these seemingly random, "what happened???!" days. The question then becomes whether or not you can make them work for you. -HH "

Practicing without vibrato:

Recording your practice – watching and fixing: "It's just one of those days. Trying to do my best but my mind is super sluggish. A good day to video a session and then watch it back, to see how the music is coming across. Then try again with changes and watch again. Ditto, ditto. -HH "

Learning new bowing – new stuff takes reps and time…careful focus and thought:

Moving/walking while practicing:

Not feeling like practicing, but doing it anyway:
"Tired today and my body is feeling stiff. Really didn't feel like practicing, but there's a concert to warm up and get in the mindset for. This is what happens mid tour! Very normal. Working on some small details quietly to encourage the revving up process. The gaps between attempts are when I'm resetting my thoughts to try again. -HH "

Checking posture with mirror:

What goes on in the mind during practice?  Think of the audience!  
"I spent the afternoon in meetings and wanted to clear my head before the next part of my day. One of those meetings had led me to consider whether or not I create moments of beauty for myself when I'm alone in a room, practicing or otherwise. I realized that when I practice, I almost always think of other people: the audience. Which I should do! This practice session, to shake things up, I took a few moments to play only the notes I was instinctively compelled to play, when I wanted to play them, however they would emerge. It's improvisation, but not to convey anything at all. At a certain point (where this video starts), a euphoric feeling of calm kicked in, and my mind felt refreshed. –HH"

Connecting vibrato between notes:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Do you wish your beginners would play better in tune?

It can be done!

During the summer I always have more time to practice my instrument.  I enjoy continuing to work on my playing and becoming more proficient on secondary instruments (I was trained on violin and viola so I am less strong on cello and bass).  As a kid I used to hate the Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, Mazas type etudes and technique books.  Back then I just wanted to practice solos.  I'm sure most students feel the same way.  Now that I'm older I have begun to really enjoy playing etudes from all of my old books.  I practice to build and strengthen technique and etudes do the job very well.  Since starting to review all my old etudes, I have noticed a big difference in my playing.  My intonation, tone, bowing...everything was noticeably improving!

Inspired by the etudes of my childhood, I decided to write a book of simple exercises for beginning orchestra.  These exercises are much shorter and painless. :)  Over my last few years of teaching I noticed I would use the D scale for warm-ups almost every day.  I wanted to vary my warm-up routine, but didn't have time to search out appropriate exercises.  This book is great because it becomes your warm-up routine for the school year.  It provides some great variety so you don't have to just do the D scale.

Available for purchase at or TPT.

These simple exercises are written for beginning orchestra classes to be used as warm-ups to improve intonation in your ensemble. Each exercise drills a specific note pattern or fingering to help students achieve more precise intonation. The rhythm in each exercise is always simple in order to help students focus all attention on tone and intonation. 

This book is set up so that all exercises for each part are grouped together. (Violin exercise 1, viola exercise 1, cello exercise 1, etc.) It’s not set up to be a separate book for each instrument. After printing, you could collate the parts to create separate books. I choose to keep exercises together because I hand out one page per week to my students and this grouping makes it easier for me to find and copy the separate parts. I used to copy entire books, but found students would sometimes leave them in lockers, forget them at home or lose them. It’s easier for me to give them a replacement page rather than a replacement book.

There are no fingering markings. It is up to the teacher to determine when you want vioin/viola students to use open strings versus 4th finger. It depends on what you are wanting students to work on. I wanted the exercises to be adaptable and versatile. 

There are many ways to use these exercises in your beginning strings group. Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on one exercise per week to be used as a warm-up. Encourage students to memorize each exercise by the end of the week so they may watch fingering and listen intently. Insist in perfect intonation.

  • Most exercises are in D or G major—the keys used in most beginning level music. You can re-use these exercises and increase the challenge by changing the key signature on each exercise. Teach students how key signatures change finger patterns by playing the same exercise in a few different keys. For example—after teaching low 2’s, you may have students play the first exercise with low 2’s (C major). The simple exercise will help students drill the new finger placement.

  • There is an optional harmony part for each exercise. Sometimes the harmony is just a drone note to help with tuning the exercise. Encourage students to learn the harmony. You may perform each exercise in a variety of ways (Violins on melody with all others on harmony, boys on melody with girls on harmony, outside player melody with inside on harmony, etc.). Encourage careful listening as your group harmonizes to for quality intonation. Be sure they understand that it only sounds good when the notes are in tune and expect all students to reach that standard.

I believe beginning strings groups can play in tune with careful practice. Believe in your students and let them amaze you. 
There are 98 pages total with parts for violin, viola, cello and bass.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

New Resource: Starting By Rote

My newest downloadable/printable resource is now available for purchase at my STORE ( and TPT site.  I have mentioned before that I have spent a great deal of time studying many different method books to assess their effectiveness.  In my opinion, method books do not have adequate rote sections, so I wrote one myself.  :)  In my experience, students who start by rote are better able to achieve quality intonation, tone and position.

This resource is to be used to supplement your current method book. It contains 36 exercises to help students gain confidence and develop important skills before diving into the method book. This book provides a strong foundation in basic rhythm - which will help students learn faster once they begin learning notes.

Students who spend time playing by rote and carefully learning technique will learn faster once they begin note-reading in the method book.  I believe students need time to internalize and practice technique before officially reading notes.  Playing by rote for several weeks will help students focus on maintaining proper playing position and solid intonation. A rote approach helps students develop confidence and good playing habits.  

This 14 page rote unit (62 pages total) includes parts for violin, viola, cello and bass.  It will help students establish a solid foundation in:

* Basic rhythm/couning* Notes on the D string and A string (G string for basses)* Careful intonation* Tunnel fingers* Finger hops* Bow direction* Bow lifts* Tone* Shifting (for string bass)

This resource does not include a teacher manual. For detailed lesson plans to help build proper position, check out my resource called 'The True Beginning: Before the Method Book."

Printable resources are great because you can copy as many as you need for your class...way cheaper than purchasing standard books.  Plus - it's not a big deal if a student loses a page - you can just print another one!

Check out these sample pages: