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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Playing a long time - how to get better?

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jonno - Posted - 05/03/2020:  08:59:18

When I retire in January, I really want to start fiddle and mandolin lessons with a teacher who sees both my potential and limitations as a musician. A teacher/mentor who can select the weak points that are worth working on. I’ve been playing for years, but I feel like I jump around too much (so much fights for my attention — learning a tune, working on a technique, chords, theory, practice for occasional gig, day job, farm chores, family).

My skills are just okay. What I worked on a week or two ago fades away so quickly. Distraction? (squirrel!) Cognitive decline? (huh?) Laziness? Apathy? (I don’t care.) I’m hoping that with live lessons and an on-going connection with my teacher, their assignments and expectations can give me traction and direction.

Over the years, I’ve had weekly in-person lessons - but the best teachers are either no longer in the area or classical-only. I subscribe to ArtistWorks (many years) and have exchanged videos with Darol Anger and Mike Marshall - really fun and helpful. But months go by without visiting the website and when there, I jump around the intermediate/advanced/blues/jazz lessons or video archives for a few weeks and then chase squirrels again.

I’ve attended live workshops with great teachers (Jim Wood, Bobby Hicks, Bronwyn Keith Hines, David Benedict) and spent a week at Mark O’Connor String Camp (NYC) and Swannanoa, Common Ground on the Hill. Damn - I should have something more to show for all of this!

I’m looking for a steady longer-term commitment. Are you content with your playing and musical progression - what works for you? Any advice? Any recommendations for a local teacher (Maryland between Baltimore and Wash DC)? Is it foolish to look on the outside when drive and focus should come from within? Will it be easier when day job demands are in the past?


Swing - Posted - 05/03/2020:  09:10:16

Here is an inexpensive yet effective way to improve your that we have the pandemic upon us that rules out any live group settings such as a teacher or a jam session... what we all need is someone to play with. I have found that you can achieve some damn good results using YouTube... don't limit yourself to just a few players, explore and learn new tunes and genres... they let you play along without fuss, and you can repeat a tune to your hearts desire... if your computer sound board is half way decent then you play in tune with the video of choice.... your timing, tone quality and bowing will all improve...just go and have fun

Play Happy


Earworm - Posted - 05/03/2020:  09:23:19

A teacher can be a great resource, and the one that's the right fit for your style (musical and learning style) can be an amazing mentor. I highly recommend it. All the same, don't rely on them to just feed you information that you spit out. You have to maintain focus on your own as well.

One thing I recommend is to keep a running list for yourself, where you write down tunes or techniques you're working on today, and maybe a note about something you learned or observed. Let the list focus your next practice session where you go back to some of the tunes you've been working on recently, and keep building on that. The list isn't for anyone but you, so it's anything you want. It can also help you give yourself credit for the real work you've done. Then when you see your teacher (whatever form that takes in the pandemic), your questions will be more focused as well. Good luck to you!

Edited by - Earworm on 05/03/2020 09:24:28

jonno - Posted - 05/03/2020:  10:30:13

Thank you David and Donna Jo.

Playing along with YouTube posts is an idea I hadn’t thought of. It’s a nice way to have different arrangements as backing tracks. And, fortunately, YouTube has a setting to adjust playback speed with requiring me to import the tube to AnyTune or some other app.

Donna Jo - it’s brilliant to start a musical journal for all the reasons you gave. It will also help jog my memory of tunes and techniques. Often, a key word or reminder is all I need. I’ll do that tonight as soon as I finish working on this chainsaw, tiller, hay rake. It’s pandemic puttering time in the shop.

farmerjones - Posted - 05/03/2020:  10:59:56

Yes, i see currently, there are many displaced musicians, advertizing on-line lessons. Don't know the answer? My lessons consist of an hour here, and there. Never regular. Always honest, up front, i was only looking for a checkup.
What i value the most, playing with others, is non-existant. Playing with Youtube gives one no feedback, unless you record yourself. If you're like me, doesn't matter how good you sound to others, i can't stand to hear myself.
Maybe find some instructor you trust, and send them files of you playing, for critique.
I retired a couple years ago myself. It takes a bit to get re-prioritized. If you are wise to your type. If your job/task was well determined day in, and day out. One would benefit from a list, or diarie. Some structure. If you came to work and had to find something to do everyday. You're used to scratching where it itches. If i think of something more i'll let you know. Lord knows i have the time.

The Violin Beautiful - Posted - 05/03/2020:  11:50:48

Hello Jonno,

The first thing I would suggest would be to come up with an idea of what you want to improve and how you intend to make use of progress. Think about the long-term as well as the short-term—it’s easy to dive into intense study and make quick improvements for a little while, but it’s a lot harder to keep up the momentum when progress isn’t quick. Think about a plan that you’ll still be willing to follow in a year.

If you’re looking for lessons, the area you live in is full of players, and there are some teachers available for old time fiddle style.

If you’re hoping to improve your technique, there are even more classical teachers in the DC metro area.

As to the personal aspect of your post, I think a lot depends on your willingness to carve out some time to dedicate to practice. Playing only occasionally allows you to maintain some tune memory but doesn’t build technique. I would also say that going to lessons regularly might help to motivate you, as the desire to be prepared for your teacher and to avoid disappointing someone who’s invested in your improvement can help you overcome apathy.

UsuallyPickin - Posted - 05/03/2020:  11:59:18

Well ..... it appears that we have been on the same track. I retired twelve years ago and started fiddling more seriously. Lessons , camps jams playing almost daily .... I will always be dissatisfied with my playing because the more I know the more I know I don't know. So I keep playing .... even with the dissatisfaction there is a joy in making music. My fiddle and mandolin are as much good company as my friends... So .. play on ... yes a good teacher will inspire you to practice and show up prepared ... over time what was difficult will be less so and things that were well beyond your skill level are just very difficult. Be patient and play on. I do.... R/

Brian Wood - Posted - 05/03/2020:  12:05:42

How many hours a day do you play? That's the key.

LukeF - Posted - 05/03/2020:  13:13:15

Hi Jonno:

You wrote "What I worked on a week or two ago fades away so quickly."

I'm semi-retired, so we are probably around the same age. As we grow older our memories tend to fade. I have the same problem. I found that playing consistently, like an hour a day, helps tremendously to reinforce what you learned previously. Waiting a week before picking up your fiddle again is not sufficient.

Brian Wood - Posted - 05/03/2020:  15:00:39


Originally posted by joeh4232

What inspires me is to hear a song I really like but haven't tried to play and learn it, an practice it until I can memorize it and then just keep crankin on it till it gets better. And ya know their is a zillion songs out there.

Not so important maybe, but many fiddlers make a distinction between songs, which are sung, and tunes, which are melodies.

TuneWeaver - Posted - 05/03/2020:  15:18:24

Here is a odd tip.. Want to get better? DON'T play for a few days.. When you return, you'll listen to yourself differently and appreciate more what you play.. You'll be happy to be back and will play from your heart.. ...Works for me..

frank rehagen - Posted - 05/03/2020:  16:26:16

Tune weaver is right. This works the same for me too. Everyone’s mind doesn’t work the same. Sometimes the harder I work at somethings the worse it gets especially if I get frustrated. For me it’s like the old saying the hurried I go the behinder I get

WyoBob - Posted - 05/03/2020:  16:34:50

Perhaps this is too basic but it's something that works for me.  I've only been playing the fiddle 8 months but started with Josh Turknett's site when I started the banjo 8 years ago.

At that time, $35.00 got you lifetime access to over 100 old time tunes (and their tabs) played in various combinations of: fiddle/banjo, fiddle/guitar, banjo/guitar.  I downloaded the MP3's to my computer and to my phone.   On my android phone, I have the app "Music Speed Changer".   With this app, you can change pitch, timing, slow down and speed up and select sections to loop.     I use these mp3's now to play along with when playing the fiddle.   I found this site the most helpful of anything I've come across in my old time music playing career. 

Skookum - Posted - 05/03/2020:  16:42:31

Lots of ways to go about reaching your goals.

I retired a few years ago and was in the same situation as you. As Earworm suggested, I made a list of my weaknesses and went to work on them. A bit sloppy with blues? Study blues intensively for a short period every practice session - but not to the exclusion of everything else. Get good at them in all the keys you play in. Is speed a problem? Get focused on speed drills. Intonation sloppy? Do careful drills. Bored with your tunes? Work on other versions you like.

I couldn't work on my whole list of weaknesses every day or I'd never get any fun in so I would do intensive work in one or two areas and revisit the same areas every day until I could move on. Taking on too much slowed my progress to a crawl. Since learning occurs over time (and with repetition) you should definitely see progress if you stay with it - which is very rewarding.

As far as teachers are concerned I'd suggest Skype lessons unless you can get a satisfactory experience one-on-one locally. Best to set up an arrangement so you can check in with the teacher as needed rather than, say, weekly. They're not for inspiration but rather to help with technique and solidify your thinking.

Playing with others is really wonderful if you can arrange it. Plus it's gratifying to hear comments from others about the progress you've made. Focused, deliberate learning is what improved my skills and continues to drives me forward. Of course, everybody does it differently.

ChickenMan - Posted - 05/03/2020:  17:12:08

The way I learned was to play up to a few hours a day, but mostly only 5-15 minutes at a time. I kept the fiddle out of its case and picked it up many times a day (half of the day really, what with day job and all). Mostly I worked on being in tune and bowing in a straight line in the sweet spot. I found a teacher on YouTube who had some great videos on technique (professor v) and practiced those things. Keeping a notebook is great advice. Also, if you play other instruments you are likely impatient because the other instruments were learned a while ago and you forget how much effort is involved, and more effort than that is needed for the fiddle (ex: the variables that frets eliminate).

I still leave the fiddle out of its case for days on end when I'm working out a new tune, and still play it in short bursts as I'm getting the tune under my fingers.

Oh, one more thing, I find it helpful and studies show it to be true to practice before bed. A lot of learning takes place while you sleep. The next morning, I always see an improvement. 

Edited by - ChickenMan on 05/03/2020 17:22:11

farmerjones - Posted - 05/03/2020:  19:18:25

My post above i commented about sporadic one hour lessons. . . That's what i took. Not lesson gave. To be sure, i do not teach. 

Just thought of something else: Sort of said already but maybe. . . . So you think you need to learn a technique? Find a tune that uses the technique in context. The lesson is in the tune. Again this may not be the goal? Scratch where it itches. Figure out first what you want. Fiddle is not just one rabbit hole. It's a bunch of holes. Best of Luck

Edited by - farmerjones on 05/03/2020 19:39:26

snakefinger - Posted - 05/03/2020:  22:22:33

The right teacher can make a world of difference and the wrong teacher can make you want to give up on the instrument, so be careful before you settle in on one. Really, if you've been playing a while a good teacher may be able to point out something that may take you a couple months to sort out and make a huge difference in your playing.

I agree with TuneWeaver, sometimes a couple days away from the devil's box can be the best medicine. You might find yourself picking up your fiddle and being surprised that you can play as well as you can.

And then there are the little consistent bumps in the road. Phrases that require you to move the bow in a way that you can't seem to manage. They can be very discouraging when you're trying to play a tune and keeping hitting these same bumps over and over again. So take one, isolate it (put it in quarantine?) and play it sloooow. No, slooooooower, No, no, reeeeaaly slooooooooooow. Let the bow show your hand what it needs it to be doing. Fix it in one tune, and you may be surprised that you've fixed it in several other tunes.

Same thing if it's just the notes and not the bowing. Slow it down until it's nice and easy. If you play it slow enough you really can't hit a wrong note. If you keep trying to plow through it at the speed you take the rest of the tune it's never going to get any better, or at least it will take much, much loner that necessary. All you're really doing is cementing your flubs.

Dick Hauser - Posted - 05/04/2020:  07:27:15

I have played instruments for a long time. Based on my experiences I would have to say playing regularly with another good musician did more to advance my playing than anything else. I was wise enough to thank him while we were still playing together. I have spent an enormous amount of time studying and practicing music. But playing in the manner I described earlier gave me the opportunity to apply and regularly use what I had been practicing.

jonno - Posted - 05/04/2020:  09:04:43

Thanks! I usually play several times a week with others, though less these days for obvious reasons - my brother and his wife are musicians and live next door so we pick together regularly.

The message I hear is this - I don't NEED a teacher. There are so many roads to improvement and your suggestions are very encouraging. Here's what I have set out for myself for the month of May:

  • Technique: Switch between Nashville and Georgia shuffles and single strokes on Billy in the Low Ground, Big Sciota and Gold Rush.

  • Musicality: Create or memorize a half-dozen licks that transition between the 1, 4 and 5 chords (one or two bars each).

  • Tunes: Get up to speed on East TN Blues with variations and record it

  • Mental: Map and memorize pentatonic scale note patterns for G, D, and A through 3rd position.

Meanwhile, I'm open to recommendations for remote or local teachers.  Two of my favorites from the past are Cathy Palmer (celtic - now lives in WV and Doug Dube (classical only - Gaithersburg, MD).

Here's what I've gleaned from all the posts since yesterday morning - again thank you.

  • Play along with tunes on YouTube

  • Maintain focus on your own, keep a running list (journal, notebook)

  • Find an instructor you trust.

  • Add some structure after day job routines are no more.

  • Pick something to improve on and the path to get there, long- and short-term

  • Keep up momentum, even if progress is slow progress.

  • Carve out time to dedicate to practice.

  • Be patient and play on.

  • Play consistently – an hour a day.

  • Learn a song/tune – memorize it, crank on it until it bets better.

  • Don’t play for a few days.

  • Work on other versions of tunes I know.

  • Do intensive work on one or two areas – revisit every day.

  • Skype lessons – check in with teacher as needed

  • Play with others / Play with other good musicians

  • Focused deliberate learning can drive you forward

  • 5-15 minute practice sessions throughout the day.

  • Leave instruments out of case and within easy reach

  • Practice before bed.

  • Work on a tune that contains the technique that needs improvement

  • Play slower than slow to improve/fix bowing (don’t reinforce flubs)

Earworm - Posted - 05/04/2020:  09:11:17

I might add: Trust yourself, and have fun. 

Edited by - Earworm on 05/04/2020 09:23:21

TuneWeaver - Posted - 05/04/2020:  11:20:30

Here is another unorthodox practice technique.. Pretend that you are going to be in a fiddle contest.. Every contestant is going to be playing exactly the same TWO MEASURES... of say, the tune CINDY (or whatever tune you are working on)... Just the first two measures, maybe 16 notes.. Pretend that those two measures are an Entire tune...OK, you want to Win the learn those first two measures better than anyone else.. Consider timing, bowing direction, and intonation..Put your heart into those measures..See what happens.

fiddlinsteudel - Posted - 05/04/2020:  11:37:18

I find that if I dont specify what I want to improve upon then I'm like you, I get distracted learning a new tune, or sucked into watching random youtube videos. THis is what I do when I really want to make progress

1. Make a list of things I want to get better
2. Prioritize that list
3. Identify things I can do to practice to make it better: Want to get better at double stops, find some double stop drills
4. Schedule out your practicing: e.g. 1. First 5 minutes, pick a tune to warm up on 2. 10 minutes: Work on Double Stop drills 3. 15 minutes work on XYZ tune

I find if just go into practicing without a plan I get distracted and don't get anything I wanted done.

old cowboy - Posted - 05/04/2020:  11:53:15

I agree with snake finger. Playing a difficult part really slow is the best thing you can do to improve your playing. When I first started I had a very difficult time with one part of Old Joe Clark. Jason from Fiddlehed showed me to slow it down to one note at a time. Litterally Play a note stop play another note stop and so forth. Before you know it you can play it straight thru with no trouble.

old cowboy - Posted - 05/04/2020:  12:05:16

I also agree with chicken man. Leave the fiddle out. I run back and forth to my music room grabbing it up and playing or practicing on it several times a day. 5 mins. here and there .

bandsmcnamar - Posted - 05/04/2020:  17:30:25

I practice with a little hand held recorder on quite often. When I listen back, I always hear things I didnt realize I was doing, some good, some bad. It seems to help.

Ebowalker - Posted - 05/04/2020:  18:12:24


Originally posted by bandsmcnamar

I practice with a little hand held recorder on quite often. When I listen back, I always hear things I didnt realize I was doing, some good, some bad. It seems to help.

I did that today for the first time and what a difference it made! Great advice.


My instructor also told me to stand in front of a mirror occasionally while playing to check my arm and bowing. 

The Violin Beautiful - Posted - 05/04/2020:  19:53:15

A mirror is an excellent tool. I’ve had one in every room I’ve regularly practiced in throughout my life.

Edited by - The Violin Beautiful on 05/04/2020 19:53:51

boxbow - Posted - 05/05/2020:  07:47:59


Originally posted by TuneWeaver

Here is a odd tip.. Want to get better? DON'T play for a few days.. When you return, you'll listen to yourself differently and appreciate more what you play.. You'll be happy to be back and will play from your heart.. ...Works for me..

During the times that you have no fiddle in hand, play back your tunes in your mind.  Find the phrasing, timing, dynamics, anything.  Improvise some and get back on track somehow.  Whistle if you like.  I do.  Hum harmony lines, slap your thighs in time, whatever.  The thing is, the musical mind grows on these things very well but free of the distraction of having to operate a fiddle successfully.  It's no substitute for technique. Bottom line is, you have to grok the tune.  You still have to work it out instrument in hand, but if you know how your tune flows, it's a whole lot easier to have your bow  moving where it best supports the tune.  Everything else follows. 

farmerjones - Posted - 05/05/2020:  11:48:36

Once upon a time i worked on multi-octave ascending and descending scales and arpegios. Then i'd hear a tune. Then learn it, listen to it, well enough to whistle or hum it. But the way i'd start to puzzle the tune out, was to start playing a scale. Danged if the tune seemed like it was within the scale. I related it to making a canoe. Cut down a tree and carve away everything that isn't a canoe. But other than that, i didn't and don't think too hard about it. More like i trust that it works. Like i trust that the words will come out when i ask a question.

DougD - Posted - 05/05/2020:  12:49:07

Boxbow - we used to do that as a band, riding in the van. We called it "mental practice." Quite useful.

boxbow - Posted - 05/05/2020:  14:50:20


Originally posted by DougD

Boxbow - we used to do that as a band, riding in the van. We called it "mental practice." Quite useful.

Probably saved all your lives.  I've tried to play fiddle in a vehicle before.

buckhenry - Posted - 05/05/2020:  17:57:02


Originally posted by boxbow


  It's no substitute for technique. 

I believe visualization and audiation may assist the improvement of technique.  

Old Scratch - Posted - 05/05/2020:  19:32:51

I'm going to run a bit contrary to the rest of the civilized world, as usual, but ... it seems to me that with all the years and lessons and workshops, it's time for you to just ... play.

RinconMtnErnie - Posted - 05/05/2020:  19:36:19

One thing that helps me has been listening over and over and over and over to recordings of my repertoire. I seemed to get better faster after I started doing that, and certainly got better at playing by ear. A classical way of learning is music is to (1) learn a tune from sheet music, (2) practice, practice, practice, (3) memorize and internalize the tune, (4) continue to refine your playing. What I do now is more (1) memorize and internalize the tune, (2) start playing it, (3) practice, practice, practice, etc. That has been more effective for me.

I haven't done it for many years, but I used to play very slow airs at tempos less than 60 bpm. I would do that for maybe half an hour. After that, I would play fast tunes and amazingly they sounded better after my practicing slow airs.

farmerjones - Posted - 05/05/2020:  20:04:59


Originally posted by Old Scratch

I'm going to run a bit contrary to the rest of the civilized world, as usual, but ... it seems to me that with all the years and lessons and workshops, it's time for you to just ... play.

To that aspect, it is about the total hours, not ness. the years. I think Mr. Wood may have mentioned this too. 

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