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How to use the magic

power of repetition to
acquire ability


JULY 21, 2016



Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency
and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and
situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of
perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef
creating a culinary masterpiece.

Photo by Hans Eiskonen

What ability looks like

Fluency and ease of movement.

The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often
unaware of the level of difficulty until they try to do it themselves.

The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole
body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.

It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.

The performers self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is
near total.

Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able
to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most
complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin
Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video
below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 when he was a teenager.)
Many of the everyday abilities and skills we possess were acquired by repeated actions
in a mostly unconscious process. Paradoxically, most people see learning
by consciously doing something over and over as difficult and laborious.
Take the young student who said to me in frustration one day, Im no good at learning.
I reminded her of the abilities she had already learned and gave her some humorous
little examples. First I asked her to walk over to the far corner of the studio and back.
Oh, I commented, joking, You walk very well, and I notice you didnt fall over. Do you
walk often? How did you learn to do that? And I hear you are speaking excellent
English. Its such a difficult language to learn. How did you manage to do it? She
laughed and looked at me as if I was a bit thick and being silly. (Both partly true.)
She couldnt remember, of course, how she learned to walk and talk, and the exercise
gave me the opportunity I needed to explain how learning worked and that she was
just as good at it as anyone else.
Despite acquiring many wonderful everyday abilities, we are led to think people are just
born smart or dumb, good at stuff or hopeless. Its a limiting, mistaken belief with
important consequences for a persons life.
Looking closely at learning by repetition as it flowers into ability reveals the deeper
principles at work.

How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire


Make correct and perfect repetitions. It goes without saying that if you repeat a
mistake or an imperfect skill, this too will become fluent and corrections will need to
be made down the track. It is vital to get the guidance of a good teacher. If possible,

get them to model the motion, such as guiding the arm for particular bow strokes or

getting the feel of vibrato.


Break up the skill into small learnable segments. This enables you to focus


Do a sufficient numbers of repeats. Practise being completely relentless and

patient in your pursuit of ability.


Remember to put the skill segment back into context. When mastered, it
needs to be fitted into place within the whole to become part of you.


Always seek objective guidance from your teacher and expert sources
outside yourself. They see instantly what is needed.


Make sure the skill will serve your long term goals.Avoid watered-down
hobby-type skills and learn the real thing.

Photo by Larisa Koshkina

Well, thats it for now. Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. Happy repetitions!
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The Advanced Players



JULY 7, 2016



Its natural in the early stages of violin studies to focus on left hand skills. After all,
theres little worse than playing out of tune! Then as string students give more attention
to mastery of the right arm the creator and controller of sound things really start to
improve. The reason, of course, is that so much of tone quality, note duration, note
speed, articulation, shape and colour comes from the violins magic wand the bow.

Sarah Perricone

Since I posted Making a great bowhold for beginners, several visitors to Teach Suzuki
Violin asked how Suzuki taught theadvanced players bowhold.
Suzuki was very particular about where each finger is placed on the bow, and trained us
to use flexible finger motion actively in our bow strokes. As a prerequisite to flexibility,
the fingers need to be shaped and positioned correctly, as in Sarah Perricones perfect
bowhold above. (You can watch Gwyn Coles delightful cameo of Sarah on Vimeo at the
end of this post.)
Lets review the basics.

Finger Shape and Place


Position the thumb between the two middle fingers, taking hold of the stick just in
front of the frog at the leather binding. The right edge of the thumbnail touches the
stick and the fingers wrap over no further than the pads. The back of the hand is
relatively flat.


The index finger rests on the stick at the first joint. Suzuki emphasized stable arm
weight rather than muscle pressure for producing powerful tone.


The second finger, slightly ahead of the thumb, forms the upper part of the


Third (ring) finger curves around the stick.


The little finger curves and sits on the stick, not too far from the ring finger.
Hold in position with everything soft and relaxed, and a little space between

At this stage, fingers should rest with equal weight on the bow and you should be able
to easily lift off each one independently. This avoids the index finger dominating too
much and allows for a more balanced flexibility.

Suzukis Famous Finger Flexibility Exercise

Suzuki taught us a finger movement exercise holding a pencil. It requires constant
practice over a few months to feel natural, and I remember the weeks and months
following this class, seeing everyone practise the exercise as they watched other
students classes and even during activities such as eating lunch or reading a book!
Relax is an inadequate word for reducing tension. Overly relaxed fingers lessens bow
control as much as gripping it too strongly. A better idea is to teach students to imagine
the pads of their fingers are glued to the stick, actively flexible and strong. As shown in
the photos below, start with just the thumb and index finger, before adding the other

Why we use finger movement

For seamless changes of direction between strokes;

To add bow speed, while lifting an upbow off the string;

To make quick and smooth string crossings;

For small and rapid strokes, such as sautill and doubles, and especially near
the frog.

Rotation on the thumb

When fingers are flexible, the bow is able to rotate on the thumb, allowing quick string
crossings without excessive arm movement (flapping), and keeping the back of the
hand stable.

The Little Finger

The shape of the little finger is curved and flexible to carry some of the bows weight
when playing in the lower half. Make sure its not straight, stiff or locked in position.

Index (first) finger

Suzuki was particularly careful to avoid forced tone from excessive first finger pressure.
Part of the index fingers role is to keep the bow at the sound points on the string,
making sure it doesnt drift away from the bridge, and to move it to the best position for
particular notes or passages.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin and for your interesting emails this week. A big
welcome to new members. I hope you find something useful.
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Corellis Courante


JUNE 21, 2016



Arcangelo Corellis Courante in Suzuki Volume 7 comes from his Concerto Grosso No.
6. Today a concerto is known as a piece of music in three movements, usually played
by one solo instrument and orchestra, but why grosso?

Photo by Larisa Birta

Grosso means big in Italian, and concerto grosso refers to a concerto with a group of
soloists plus orchestra a kind of big concerto. Corelli was the first major composer to
use the term and other composers, such as Geminiani, Locatelli, Torelli, Bach and
especially Handel, subsequently took up the form. Finally it was superseded by the solo
concerto and sinfonia concertante.
Concerti grossi (plural) from the Baroque era (approx. 1600 to 1750) are generally
pleasant harmonious pieces, often without prominent solo lines, a reason perhaps why
they were overtaken by the solo concerto.
Corellis Op. 6, for two violins and cello, with stronger melodies and themes, has the
balance about right, and it remains a popular concert piece.

When violin students first encounter trills in Volume 2, the big issue is finger speed. In
the effort go faster, however, the upper trilling finger may hammer down too strongly and
the lower finger may press down on the fingerboard with too much force. Paradoxically,
it has the effect of restricting speed. Its better to relax the left hand, focus on clarity and
listen for accurate pitch in the upper note.
What is the musical purpose of trills? Are they simply ornamental? One way to find out
is to play the piece omitting the trills. If you know the piece well enough, it sounds like
part of the melody is missing, though not as much as when you leave out a note or two.
Trills in Baroque music are usually added to produce harmonic suspensions, preparing
for and leading into cadences. They may begin on or above the principal note and
unless there are specific signs in the score, can be played at the performers discretion.
Theres some trill exercises on previous posts here at Teach Suzuki Violin. Heres the
Gavotte by Lully
Veracini Sonata in E Minor II
Courellis Courante has just five trills marked in the score, so omitting them has a
smaller effect than say, Tartinis famous Devils Trill Sonata, which is based on trills.
If youd like to hear some of these fabulous trills, watch Itzhak Perlman play the last part

Video Recordings of Corellis Courante

Here is The Kings Consort conducted by Robert King. The Courante starts at 3.27.
Below is the self-conducted orchestra A Far Cry. The Courante starts at 3.58.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin. The score for Corellis Courante is now available
in Resources.
Cheers for now,

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How to Teach Musical



JUNE 7, 2016



What is musical phrasing? It is a mysterious and elusive concept even for experienced
musicians to explain.
Musical phrasing is essentially about grouping notes in performance to make the music
more meaningful and enjoyable for the audience. Notes within phrases can grouped

and interpreted in a myriad ways, with different kinds of connections and articulations,
dynamics, weights, colours, styles, variations in speed and phrase rhythm all to give
listeners a clearer musical experience.

Stephanie Novacek, mezzo-soprano

Violinists (and other instrumentalists) commonly draw on analogies and similarities

with language, such as sentences, lyrics, poetry and punctuation; or with visual terms
likeexpressive shaping.
These allusions are very useful for understanding phrasing, especially when combined
with listening to the music and above all, playing it for yourself.
Even very young students understand and appreciate phrases quite well and benefit
musically from studying how to play them.

How to Teach Musical Phrasing

Breathing Life into the Music
One of the best ways to teach the basics of phrasing is simply through singing.
Beginnings and endings of phrases, for example, can be indicated by identifying where
to breathe.

Photo by Jason Rosewell

I describe this method in an earlier post, using the first phrase of the Suzuki Volume
One song, Go Tell Aunt Rhody.
Interestingly, if you play the first phrase of this piece on the violin, and ask new students
(or parents) to find the breath point, they are often unsure. Should it be at the end of the
second bar? By contrast when you sing the piece, they are much more certain about
taking a breath at the end of thefourth bar.

This exercise illustrates why the vocal perspective singing is so valuable for
teaching and learning about phrases. Singers must clearly understand phrasing for
breath control.
Instrumentalists benefit from applying the same principles, taking imaginary breaths and
using the voice as the starting point for phrasing and musical expression.
High notes within phrases are naturally louder because singers need to use more
energy to reach them. In fact, it is very difficult for singers to sing high notes softly or low
notes loudly with the right tone quality and only skilled vocalists are able to do it
successfully. String players have an opposite problem: the highest notes are harder to
play very loudly with good tone.

Long Long Ago. Dont be tempted to take a breath too soon.

Gavotte by Gossec. Where should you breathe?

The Shape of Music

The shape of the melody on the page also provides clues about phrasing. In some
instances a quick glance at the curving line of notes will give you a fair idea of phrase
shapes. A good example is J.S. Bachs autograph of the first Solo Violin Partita.

Beyond all of the analogies and theories about phrasing, ultimately it is the performers
role to bring together all of the interpretive elements to create musically expressive
phrases. Experienced musicians develop an intuitive approach that supersedes
theoretical analysis.

To Summarise:

Start by identifying the breath points;

Determine how the notes are joined within the phrase. Are they smoothly
articulated or separated? If separated, how?

Work out the dynamic shapes, pinnacles and valleys within the phrase;

Sing out loud (or at least internally) to test your ideas;

Listen and learn from the great players and singers.

Joan Sutherland sings Casta diva, from Norma by Bellini. Watch how beautifully she
breathes to sing the phrases.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin.

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Courante from Cello Suite

No.1 in G Major by J.S.


MAY 25, 2016



Cellists will instantly recognise this famous Courante from Cello Suite No.1 in G Major
by J.S. Bach, BWV 1007, a natural inclusion by Suzuki in Volume 7 to follow
the Gigue from the same cello suite. A delightfully quick dance, it has a memorable
melody of attractive leaps and runs set against the deep resonances of bass notes,
many of them on lower open strings.

Mischa Maisky

As youll see below in the YouTube performances, this attractive piece has been
arranged for several other instruments. Because it sounds so good and right on the
cello, and despite what it teaches us musically, I cant help feeling it almost seems a
folly to play the Courante transposed for the violin. It makes us want to learn the cello!

Study Points
The falling staccato notes require cello-like resonance, which involves taking care with
both the attack and the end of each bow stroke. Aim for a clean attack without
extraneous string noise and areverberant ending. Practise the finish of the stroke by
lifting the bow off the string to listen to the ringing sound. Now try to achieve equal
resonance gently leaving the bow on the string.

Even beats, even notes

Due to the surging melodic structure of the Courante, some students tend to rush the
semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in relation to the quavers (eighth notes). Practise with a

metronome to even out the beat before letting go of the reins for the right balance of
time flexibility.

When you listen to Maisky, Rostropovich, Casals and Carr play the Courante, youll
soon realise that playing at the correct tempo is a vital part of the musical expression.
Often it is played too slowly on the violin, and with excessively long bows for the
staccato notes.

Quick Tech Tips

Begin in the upper half of the bow.

Take advantage of the open string notes to shift early into 3rd position in
measure 2.

Leave 1st finger down in measures 11-12.

Watch out for the C# in measure 28.

Leave fingers down in measures 31 and 32.

Colin Carr, British Cellist
Mischa Maisky
Mstislav Rostropovich
The incomparable Pablo Casals. The Courante begins at 5:32.
Denise Djokic
Jeff Bradetich, double bass
Tariq Harb, guitar
Being a rather easy piece for Volume 7 players, it is tempting to move on quickly after
learning to play the Courante. To receive real musical value, however, spend some time
listening to some of the great cello recordings.
The score is now available for download in Resources.
Cheers and thanks for the emails. I love hearing your stories.
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Adagio from Sonata No 3 in

F Major


MAY 12, 2016



Sonata No 3 in F Major, appearing in Suzuki Violin Volume 6, has long been attributed
to G.F. Handel, yet understandably, music scholars have expressed doubts about its

Reading the story of its history solved a quandary of mine, as the Adagio in particular
just seems to lack the Handel flavour. Where are the clean melodious voice and lucid
harmonies? If youre interested, you can read the convoluted story of pirated sonatas
and the nefarious publisher Mr Walsh here.
Even though we dont know who composed it, No 3 is an attractive sonata, with a very
good second movement, Allegro, as weve seen in this previous post.
Adagio from Sonata No 3 in F Major
In some ways the Adagio tries to do too much with too little. The rather plain
descending theme returns in measure 18 in an altered state, and in part again in
measure 48. The melody travels along pleasantly enough, yet never seems to get
anywhere, except of course at the end.
Nonetheless it compensates for any austerity with some imaginative key changes and
unexpected detours, without stretching belief or taking us too far from the path, to finally
lead us with a clear sense of direction into the next movement, the excellent Allegro.
In the first of the YouTube videos below, violinist composerGary Kuo makes an excellent
job of transforming it into real music with his fine playing and compelling interpretation.

Study Points
Connecting the Notes
Unquestionably the melody comes together better with a sound understanding, if youll
forgive the puns, of the way the notes are linked. Since there are practically no breaks
in the melody line, not even to breathe very much between phrases, we must focus on
the shape of connections between the notes making sure to never lose the thread of
where we are going. As Gary Kuo demonstrates, playing with a continuous vibrato
Tempting as it may seem to regard the two opening sections as little sub-phrases, make
sure that the minims (1/2 notes) in measures 2, 4 and elsewhere extend to their full
value of two beats to connect well with the next part of the phrase.

Positions and Shifting

Violinistic fingering preferences are revealed in the first few notes. We start on 3rd finger
in 3rd position and move immediately with 1st finger to 2nd position.
Leading off with 4th finger and remaining in 2nd position would seem more logical, but
many violinists (including me) would rather use 3rd finger to produce a strong tone and
vibrato at the the beginning.
In general, the shifts are quite easy throughout the piece, mainly within the first three
In measure 35, to create a contrasting tone quality, the second D and several following
notes are played on D string in 4th position, with a delicate pianissimo.

From the many editions and arrangements of the sonata its interesting to see that not
every violinist plays the same trills and mordents when performing the Adagio,

sometimes omitting them completely. In our version however, the mordent should be
played as shown below.

For such a short piece there are a surprising number of expertly crafted modulations
and short deviations into neighbouring and related keys, such as C major , D minor (the
relative minor) and F minor (in measure 41), to show up the different colours and
flavours of these keys in relation to the underlying home key of F major.
Its valuable to identify these changes and bear them in mind when developing your own
Update: Emmanuel Steffens has kindly written to correct my previous harmonic
analysis. The B as the major seventh of the C major chord resolves into a B, which is
part of a dominant C7 chord. (Not into B major as I originally stated.)

In measure 27 an innocuous half step back from D to C# marks the beginning of a

pathway that eventually leads to a D minor cadence. What is the best way to convince
the audience?


As mentioned above, heres a fine performance by Gary Kuo.

And its worth listening to the audio track below by the legendary virtuoso Yehudi
Menuhin, to compare tempos, phrasing and note connections.
The score is now available for download on the Resourcespage. I hope you enjoy
studying, teaching and playing this intriguing piece!
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Gigue in D Major by Bach


MAY 1, 2016



Were in unaccompanied violin territory this week with the Gigue in D Major by Bach
from Suzuki Violin Volume 7. This bright little dance was composed for cello in Suite No.
1 in G major, BWV 1007, part of the monumental works for solo cello Bach wrote
around the time of the great violin solo sonatas.

The Gigue transcribes well from the cello-friendly key of G Major to the violins equally
amiable D, exploiting the deep resonances of open strings. As expected, this effect is
much stronger when played on the cello, and violinists have to work hard to create a
corresponding sense of tone colour. Is it possible? Listen to some of the magic
performances by cellists Mischa Maisky and Mstislav Rostropovich and decide for
One feature of this piece is Bachs use of repeated notes with slurs before and onto the
beat, giving these parts of the melody a lilting rhythmic quality within the flow of
quavers. Performers usually play these two notes in the same bow, distinctly separated
and a little more weight on the beat note, creating surging shapes and runs within the
stream of notes.

A Few Study Points

The Gigue is an excellent opportunity to study the direct relationship between bow
control, note connections and tone quality. For example, the right amount of separation
between notes marked staccato (dot or dash) and the repeated notes with slurs
depends on their role in the melodic line and phrase.
In measure 3 and in similar patterns later in the piece stop the bow before playing
the staccato notes.

Chords and Trill

Practise the chords without the trill at first, taking care not to rush and ensuring each
lasts for the correct duration. Play with a smooth even sound as if tuning up.
When you are happy with the sound quality add in the trill, focusing on clarity. For a little
extra brightness, try slightly sharpening G, the upper trill note.

Shifting in Measure 33
These semiquavers (1/8th notes) need to be strong and clear, so the shift must be quick
and invisible. Practise slowly, lifting 1st finger as you place 2nd on C#, anticipating a
seamless shift to 3rd position at D, taking care that D to E is a whole tone.

Musical Expression
Before developing your own interpretation, you can do no better than to study how
Maisky and Rostropovich play the Gigue. Dont be put off by Rostropovichs typically
rather serious demeanour and the poor video quality in his performance. Despite this,
his playing is unmistakably superb.
Maiskys Gigue starts at 17.38
Below is a fabulous performance by Canadian cellist Denise Djokic.

The cello is such a marvelous instrument, but lets not get distracted by its glorious
warm tone and beauty. Its just as much work as the violin, and way less portable!
The score is now available for download in Resources.

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Allegro by Bach


APRIL 16, 2016



The Allegro by Bach in Suzuki Violin Volume 8 comes from the Sonata in E Minor for
Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1023. The movement has an improvisational quality, like a
fantasia, lending itself to a wide range of interpretative ideas and arrangements.

J.S. Bach was a fluent improviser who could extemporize with virtuosic ease. Some
genres, such as Jazz, are more or less based on musical invention in the moment,
whereas the score grew to dominate classical performance. Now there are signs that
the art of improvisation in classical music, especially in cadenzas, is starting to return
from its long decline in the 20th century.

Suzuki and Bach

Parents and students sometimes ask me:
Why is there so much music in the Suzuki violin repertoire by Bach, a German
composer who lived over 300 years ago, especially when theres an abundance of violin
music by composers from later times that is equally suitable for violin study and
Its an interesting question.
During the time he lived and studied in Germany, Suzuki heard the works of the great
German composers performed by German musicians at home in their native musical
culture, and at this poignant period between the wars, this music enjoyed a refreshed

It was like experiencing Italian opera at La Scala or Tchaikovsky at St Petersburg. We

can imagine powerful musical awakenings in these settings. Suzukis well-known
attraction to Mozart was formed through profoundly moving experiences with his music.
Yet the reasons for including so much of Bachs music into the violin books go beyond
Suzukis musical tastes. As any violinist knows, J.S. Bachs music lives at the heart of
string playing. After hearing, studying and playing his compositions, a musical world
without his music is unthinkable, unimaginable.
Bachs music teaches us so much, but we dont learn to play it for educational
purposes. We do so to live and believe in a beautiful world and to fly.

Allegro by Bach
At first glance and at first hearing, it seems that the main technical point is associated
with speed and tempo, yet for the most part the Allegro moves through a series of
chords, which makes for relatively easy and simple fingering.

The musical points take more thought and practice, determining which notes to bring
out to give clarity to the melody principally on the first and third beat of the bar and
shaping the phrases. Starting in measure 5, the melodic line is set against a repeated B.
The pattern changes in measure 8, moving by steps on the 1st and 3rd beats against
repeated descending intervals until measure 16, followed by a new pattern with a
background of open E.

Intonation and Shifting

When shifting, pay close attention to the intervals. In measure 10, for example, going
from F# (4th position) to G (5th position) is a shift of a semitone, and so is G# to A in
measure 11.

Leave down anchor and guide fingers as shown in the score and use the harmonic high
E to check your intonation.

Heres three fine baroque-style interpretations by Javier Lupiez, Penelope Spencer
and Jennifer Roig-Francoli. (Note the different bowing.)
The score for Allegro by Bach is now available in Resources. For such a short piece, it
took a surprisingly long time to complete. The scoring is more complicated to construct
than it looks. The purpose of such an unusual arrangement is to clarify the musical
structure and how it should be played.
Welcome to all of the new members and thanks for coming to visit Teach Suzuki Violin. I
appreciate your interest and support, and enjoy hearing from you. Please write to me at if you have a question, a story or some helpful advice to
benefit teachers, students or parents.
Coming soon More Bach: the Gigue from Volume 7
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Overcoming Performance
Anxiety A Personal


MARCH 31, 2016



In this post, the second about overcoming performance anxiety, I relate how we handled
it in our violin institute and my personal experiences. In the lead up to my final concert in
Japan, I stumbled upon a solution to this mystifying nervous reaction. Later on I realised
it is an old technique, used by many before me.

(This photo from should get a few laughs from old friends and colleagues.)
Its clear for teaching violin, or any of the performing arts, that there are two starting
points when dealing with the problem of performance anxiety.

Bypassing it from the very beginning;


Overcoming it when youve already got it.

This rather simple and obvious division helps us determine which teaching and learning
strategies we need to use for playing on stage with serenity and confidence.

1. Bypassing Performance Anxiety

As a result of some of my own experiences and those of my musician and music
teacher friends, focus was initially centred on the second point: how to help students
overcome performance anxiety. I wondered if predisposition (or luck) played a
significant role in whether or not a performer suffered from nerves on stage.
The picture changed when we saw the concerts and classes of young violinists from the
Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto. Performers of all ages appeared remarkably composed
on stage. They were very well prepared and rehearsed, played securely from memory
and with rare exceptions, seemed quite happy and relaxed to perform in front of large

Watching them confirmed to me the answer was training, learning and teaching and
not luck or natural propensity.
So on returning to teaching at our violin institute, we made a policy of giving all players
lots of regular opportunities to perform publicly, as soloists and in groups, making sure
no one was left out, regardless of age or level. Soloists played for our enthusiastic
audience of parents in the last session of group class and we held extra solo
preparation classes leading up to concert performances.
This was very successful, especially when we changed to regular weekly group classes.
Students became accustomed to playing with confidence and flair in public, in both
group pieces and solos, to the point where it became normal.

2. Overcoming Performance Anxiety

When I coached older students or trainee teachers for a special purpose, such as an
audition for university entrance, an exam or an important concert, we occasionally had
to contend with some stage fright issues, particularly if they hadnt grown up nerve free,
so to speak.
Some of the symptoms can be reduced by:

Thoroughly preparing and memorising the music;

Regular practising the whole performance over an extended period, including

graceful entrance on to stage, taking a bow, acknowledging audience applause,
working on stage posture and presence.

Rehearsing in the actual concert performance space and becoming familiar with
the stage environment and acoustics.

Even after these measures, some players still experienced the performance jitters.
Finally I began to teach the simple single strategy that changed everything for me.

My Experience
Public performances became rarer when I started teaching, but for several years prior to
going to Japan Id played in my students lessons and at large classes more or less free
from nerves. Id believed performance anxiety was mostly under control until it rose
again, without warning.
Heres the story as I wrote later to friends
There are ample opportunities at the institute to play in public at Suzukis morning
group classes, Monday Concert solos and other public concerts through the year, but
the Graduation Concert is different. It is every student teachers premier performance
here, marking the culmination of studies and the launch of new teaching careers.
The concert requires meticulous planning and preparation: we must choose a piano
accompanist and orchestra members from among our colleagues and work with them to
develop our ideas about the music; produce the concert programs and the shuji scroll;
invite guests and of course, prepare the music itself.
During my final year I work harder than ever. Practice time in the latter months expands
to ten and ultimately twelve hours a day outside of classes. (Except for the last week, I
still teach English in the evenings to support us.) It is exhilarating to be extended to the
limit and to finally feel like Im making real progress in my playing.

As the day approaches I rehearse with the orchestra and accompanist two or three
times each week. All is going well, until during one rehearsal just a week out from the
concert, I make a nervy gaffe in the middle of the Bach concerto that Id been playing
well for over a year!
What is happening? I ride my bike home in gloom and ponder over my preparation. It
doesnt make sense. I know the music so well. Every note is like an old friend.
Eventually it dawns on me that Im sometimes thinking ahead about a passage coming
up or reflecting on a section I have just played. Im not living in the music as its
During my next practice I resolve to just listen to the music as I play, and keep my
attention in the present moment without wavering. It is easy to do for short periods of
time, but invariably my thoughts veer off again to a difficult section ahead or back to an
earlier one that could have been a little better.
Only after several hours of persistent concentration am I able stay in the zone for longer
As the next rehearsal approaches I am more confident that I can stay focused. Happily,
the rehearsal goes off without a hitch, as does the next ones and I sense I am on to
something. Its working.
All during the week I practise hard at keeping in the present.
Winter this year is particularly cold. There are heavy snowfalls and we sometimes have
to struggle through a metre of snow to get to the institute. On the day of my concert the
temperature goes down to -20C, yet I love the cold, it revives me out the years of hot
Australian summers. Despite the heating in the concert hall, I have to immerse my
hands in warm water before going on stage.

In the audience are all the other students, teachers, my family, friends and others. This
is it the pinnacle of my studies with Suzuki.
From that special moment, I walk on to stage in the space-time of now. When I begin
playing, the sense of time disappears completely and I am carried along on the river of
music to the end of the concert. As the last notes of Beethovens Spring Sonata ring out
in the auditorium, it feels as if the beginning and the end are connected, part of the
same whole, an experience that affects me profoundly and I carry to this day.

My concert experience was similar to how our Buddhist friends describe meditation as
they watch the rise and fall of the breath.
The link to meditation is an interesting one. For both musicians and listeners, music
exists only in the present and calls us into the world of the timeless now.

Is this a cure for performance anxiety? For me it was, yet I notice how easy it is to slip
out this state of mind into self-consciousness and its accompanying nervous reactions.
Like the music, it needs practice to become a habit.

Further Reading and Resources

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyis Ted Talk on Flow
Zen Habits The life changing website created by my friend Leo Babauta, writer.
Coming soon: Allegro by J.S. Bach from Volume 8.
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How to Overcome
Performance Anxiety


MARCH 18, 2016



Performance anxiety or stage fright, has afflicted musicians throughout history, even
famous virtuosos such as cellist Pablo Casals, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, violinist
Kennedy and pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein. Frdric Chopin
disliked performing in public for the same reason.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Keenan

For some musicians, it fades away with lots of playing on stage or becomes controllable
enough to add a little spark to the music.
In a newsletter two years ago, I told of my first experience of these perplexing
sensations of nervousness while playing in public at the age of 6 or so. After years of
regular performances as an adult it more or less stopped bothering me, until suddenly
appearing again like an old ghost a week or so before my solo graduation concert at the
Suzuki Institute in Japan.
I learned a very important lesson and experienced an epiphany which has stayed with
me ever since. Ill tell this more personal story and how we handled stage fright in our
violin institute in my next post, but for now I want to look more broadly at the

What does it feel like?

The symptoms range from mild to severe, including perspiration (an aptly named cold
sweat), increased heart rate, uncontrollable shaking or weakness in the hands and
fingers, difficulty in concentration, memory lapses and feelings of panic and dread
triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. An accompanying reaction
is an intense self-consciousness, which seems impossible to avoid or control.

Photo courtesy of Alec Weir

The sensations are highly individual. They may decline gradually, arrive in disconcerting
surges or persist throughout the whole performance. Some performers experience a
crisis point, marking a lessening of anxiety.

Talking with other musicians, it became clear that in many instances stage fright
originated from a single stressful experience during childhood. Typically they
remembered a difficult exam, recital or other significant stressful situation where it first

became a problem. Many described it in terms of a personal flaw, an affliction that was
part of their makeup. Several lost interest in playing in public altogether, preferring to
play their music in private or make recordings.

How to Overcome Performance Anxiety: Some

Common Strategies
Regular Performances: By starting with low pressure situations and playing long
programs of well prepared easier music, some performers have been able to gradually
Practice, Practice: This strategy has some merit for many students, since lack of
adequate preparation creates doubt and uncertainty during the performance.
The Mental Approach: Cognitive restructuring involves changing your patterns of
thought and working with a coach or counselor enables performers to understand more
Pharmaceuticals: Surveys have shown that up to 30% of professional musicians use
beta blockers and other substances such as alcohol or cannabis, to help them through
difficult performance situations.

Further Reading
The Bulletproof Musician an excellent website by Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. about
performance anxiety and related subjects.
CMUSE another great site with articles on this subject and other aspects of music.
Being Musical Being Human 5 Big Mistakes in Dealing with Performance Anxiety.
Anxiety Coach Good in-depth analysis with actionable tips.
Michael Murray excellent down to earth article from an experienced performer.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sarah Bryan Miller writes about the use of Beta Blockers and
Cross-eyed Pianist Essential reading from Frances Wilson, London-based pianist,
piano teacher, writer, music reviewer and blogger.
Composed Yet to be released documentary about performance mentioned in
Francess blog. Looks like it will be a ground-breaker. Check out the great links.

We want to hear from you! Write and tell us about the highs and lows of your
experiences with performance anxiety. If youve discovered or developed ways to
overcome stage fright, others can benefit.
Coming up in the next post: How I overcame performance anxiety with just one
strategy (if you can call it that).
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