Don’t go on auto pilot

“So, did you like the sound? Was it in tune?” I ask

“I don’t know,” the student replied

“Why don’t you? Weren’t you listening?”


I don’t know is the most common answer I get in my studio. So often we go on to auto pilot without even realizing it. I should know, I played that way for a very long time. I would pay attention to somethings when I practiced, but not everything. By the time I would get in front of one of my teachers to play I wouldn’t think about anything, and then I couldn’t understand why things were going wrong. You have to be present, you have to focus. It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s harder than you think.

I didn’t learn until my 30s that I was doing a lot of mindless playing. In grad school we would compare the number of hours we each practiced thinking that the more you practiced the better off you would be. In reality it just meant we spent a lot of hours playing the violin, which in itself is not a bad thing, but I have learned that the thing that is more important than quantity is quality. Looking back at all of those hours I know I wasn’t doing the highest quality practicing. Once the lightbulb went off it’s like a whole new world opened up to me. Oh, and I started getting better really fast. It’s amazing what you can do when you simply listen to what you’re doing.

So, how do you avoid going on auto pilot?

  1. Listen. It’s both simple, and hard at the same time. You have to be present enough in what you’re doing to listen to the sound coming out of the instrument. Are you playing in tune? Is the musical idea you’re trying to convey coming across? Do you like the sound? None of these questions can be answered if you don’t know what is going on.
  2. Focus on one skill. A lot of times I have students role a dice to see how many times they are going to play what we’re working on, but I make sure that they know what they need to listen or watch for. It can be as simple as making sure the bow stays straight all the way to more complex phrasing. The goal is to be consistent, and achieve the same out come with each repetition.
  3. record or videotape. Now, I admit that I tend to shy away from videotaping myself, and the reason is silly. It’s honest. Really, really honest, but you can learn so much more by stepping away for a brief second, and either watching or listening to yourself. Sometimes I don’t always hear the same things that others do. By recording yourself you know exactly what you did, and you exactly if you like it or don’t. It’s a big part of my audition prep right now. Not only does it help me understand exactly what I’m doing, but it also makes me a little nervous so I have an idea of how I may react at the audition.
  4. Hear what your going to play in your head either before or while your playing. This is particularly helpful with memorizing, but also works well with shifting, double stops, scales, and more. If you know what it sounds like then you know what to listen for.

So, here’s to many hours of auto pilot free practicing. You can put your seats up, and tray tables away, but don’t get too comfortable. You still need to know what’s going on 🙂