Music education

I’ve been asked a number of times about how much one should practice – especially in the early stages.

I’ve heard lots of people try to compete on numbers – 2-3 hours a day being set as the challenge. I personally think that’s hogwash.

At the risk of sounding a bit controversial, I would say practice little but often – don’t do 2 hour marathons, better to do three lots of ten-fifteen minutes a day – that adds up to 30-40 minutes a day, but it spreads the load and gives much better reinforcement of learning by concentrating in short bursts and doing something completely different in between.

Happy new year 🙂


The International violin making school has a great website with a large gallery of images from every stage of making a violin.

There is a long course and a shorter course depending on prior education and experience. Studies include Italian, English and history, as well as history of art and technical studies of the instrument, violin making, acoustic physics, varnishing and much more. Foreign students must demonstrate a good command of Italian language, sound workshop practice and violin playing skills.

Well worth checking out!


“From picking it up to playing in a band took about 18 months hard work – trick is to play music, not just scales”

How I did it: I stumbled into a folk club and was amazed by the music. They gave free fiddle lessons which helped me to hold the instrument properly and get on top of the bowing. The best bit was that from my first lesson I was playing a tune – the rest came later. You could spend years playing scales, but unless you’re playing real tunes it would have become boring very quickly. I learnt to perform in front of an audience by busking, and 18 months later I joined a band. That was a vertical learning curve! But I hung in there and learnt heaps. I’ve now been playing 30 years and still love it 🙂

Lessons & tips: Don’t over practice – lots of short sessions every day is better than one long session each week.
Play music you love – that way you know what it should sound like.
Keep at it regularly for more than six months – after then you are really playing music and can start to enjoy it – remember, this is a craft in which you are training muscles and that takes time.
Break each component down to a single movement and understand how your wrist keeps the bow straight.
Keep your eyes on the prize!

Resources: Irish folk music sessions!

It took me 18 months.

It made me feel great!

Steve Maus’ blog has a good piece on producing vibrato on the violin. I’m a great fan of the arm vibrato, as that way the vibrato comes from the elbow, which gives great mechanical advantage and excellent control – far more than the wrist vibrato favoured in some circles.

Vibrato is the art of making a note waver slightly up and down around the main note, much the way the voice does while singing. It makes the note more interesting to the ear, ad is a great decoration to use on slow tunes or where you have a long note that is not otherwise decorated.

The easy way to practice it is to get a ruler of about 45cm and practice vibrato while stuck at traffic lights or during ad breaks on TV, or during a slow moment at the office.

Just bring your hand up to the playing position, and place your fingers as though they were on a fingerboard. Now make a slight movement from the elbow as though bringing the hand toward you and away from you so that the fingers rock slightly on the ends of your fingers, and keep the wrist fairly straight. This will give you great control because you have the whole arm to provide leverage, making it easy to control the speed and intensity of the vibrato.

Happy Christmas – and happy holidays


Skype helped keep Michigan (USA) student Courtney Hutson from Mona Shores High school in touch with her violin teacher Becky Parks while the latter was on sabbatical in Switzerland.

Parks was able to make corrections to Hutson’s posture and fingering using a webcam on a computer in the school’s gymnasium, and one on Parks’ laptop.

Despite being half a world away Hutson was able to make a good preparation for her audition for the All-State orchestra.

Funding for the Australian National Academy of Music is being cut in an effort to move the private academy into Melbourne University. If trends continue as they are in other institutions, this is simply a way to erode elite music into oblivion. The cuts raise a much broader issue – to what extent can you take a practical craft like music, and fit it into a university structure?

It is tantamount to moving the Australian Institute of Sport into a university. It would be an uncomfortable fit at best. Arts schools that have amalgamated with universities are rapidly becoming defunct – dying from salami-sliced budgets while trying to bid for credibility in a language that academe cannot comprehend. What on earth makes Minister Garrett think that the same will not happen with an elite music school – at a time when conservatoriums across the country are cutting back staff, courses and students in an effort to survive. Ben Clapton makes the point that the amount currently given by the Government to the Australian Institute of Sport for one year would keep ANAM alive for 65 years at 2005 funding levels.

As with drama, circus, sport, fine arts or elite music the objective is to develop extraordinary skill in a particular activity. It doesn’t sit well in an institution based on publications or research. Skills-based training is about hours of practice in perfecting a skill – whether training the body to run fast, translate eye into hand into image or play a musical instrument extraordinarily well – these things cannot be achieved with a bit of cramming for an exam.

Academic training is philosophically more about answering questions than asking them – and this is the diametric opposite of what art institutions are about. The logic seems to fail at every level.

The net result will be that elite musicians will go overseas – probably to stay – and the quality of Australian musicianship will deteriorate – or we’ll have to spend much more to recruit our orchestral soloists from overseas, rather than grow our own.

Australia needs performance-based music institutions, not more paper factories.

Ok rant over…