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Violin Virtuoso Itzhak Perlman’s Tips for Practicing Violin

Written by MasterClass

Jul 17, 2019 • 7 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

Itzhak Perlman has performed at nearly of all the world’s top concert halls, under the baton of today’s most revered conductors. And, while Perlman had undoubtedly been blessed with remarkable talent, this alone cannot account for his professional and artistic achievements. The other element that’s every bit as important as innate talent is the willingness to practice and to practice effectively. Below, Perlman offers his best tips on developing good violin habits.

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4 Ways to Establish Good Violin Habits

Good habits start with excellent posture and mechanics.

  1. Make sure you’re holding the violin and bow properly. Also make sure the movement in both arms and hands is smooth and functional. If you practice regularly with a slumped posture and poor mechanics, then this will become your habit.
  2. Cultivate the habit of playing in tune. When learning something new, play it slowly enough that you are playing every note correctly. Once you speed it up, continue to play it in tune by choosing fingerings that are comfortable for your hand. If your fingerings require you to stretch and strain, you run the risk of landing in the wrong place, which itself could become a habit. Once you choose your fingerings, stick to them.
  3. Choose good bowings and then commit to them. It’s important to know when you will go up-bow, when you will go down-bow, when you will slur several notes together, play staccato, etc. so that you can be confident in your movements. It is extremely important to choose the bowings and fingerings and stick to them at all times when practicing—without any change. If you do not change the bowings and the fingerings once you choose the ones that feel comfortable for you, you will learn the piece faster, and when you have to relearn it, it will also be faster. (Learn all about violin bowing techniques with our complete guide.)
  4. When correcting mistakes, repeat the correct version more times than you played the wrong version. If you make the mistake again, that repetition doesn’t count. The correct version needs to become your new habit.

How to Practice Violin

Practicing slowly is crucial, especially when you are learning a new piece.

  • When practicing a particular passage, slow it down enough so that you’re able to play everything correctly (no wrong notes, no out-of-tune notes, no fumbling with the bow).
  • Keep your rhythms proportional as you slow down the music.
  • Don’t practice the easy parts fast and the difficult parts slow; instead keep everything the same tempo. That way, when you speed it back up, the rhythms will be correct and well-ingrained.
  • Give your brain ample time to soak in new information. You can’t hurry good practice.

Why You Should Always Use a Metronome When Practicing Music

The best way to keep your practice tempos under control is to use a metronome. A metronome is a device that produces a click at a regular interval of time. You can set how fast you would like it to go based on beats per second. Mechanical metronomes, which have been around for several centuries, have a pendulum that swings back and forth. You can also use an electronic metronome or even a metronome app on your phone.

Start with a metronome marking that allows you to play all of the right notes and the right rhythms, then gradually increase the speed. This can be a long-term project, whereby you increase the speed by one notch of the metronome each day until you have worked up to your goal tempo.

Mark Beats in Your Sheet Music

An important extra step when using a metronome with sheet music: mark your beats in the printed music. When using a metronome, it’s important to understand the rhythms that you’re playing as well as their correct placement in terms of the beat.

Take the beginning of the Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G-minor, which has complex rhythms, as an example. Do you know where every beat falls?

Adagio music diagram

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You need to know, otherwise, you’ll wind up playing long and short notes without any real pulse to the music. As practice, mark where each beat in the music falls. In this case, you’ll subdivide the measure by eighth notes. Here’s how the first two measures of this piece would look:

Adagio music diagram marked up

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Once you understand exactly where all those beats align with the rhythms, then you can practice the music with a metronome. Once you’ve practiced with the metronome and learned the rhythms by heart, then you can feel the “inner pulse” of the music.

Itzhak Perlman’s 3 Hour Practice Plan for Violin

Perlman recommends an every-day practice schedule composed of three elements: scales, exercises and études, and repertoire.

  • First hour: Scales
  • Second hour: Études
  • Third hour: Repertoire

Scales, which go upward and downward in steps, allow you to work on your sound, intonation, finger patterns, and bow control all at the same time. Arpeggios, which skip up and down the scale on chord tones, also help with shifting and keeping your hand frame. Perlman suggests starting your scale routine with slow bows, concentrating on getting a healthy sound and good tone from your violin. Play a different scale each day, and take care to play it in tune. Practice various bowings and rhythms. As you get more advanced, you can practice double-stop scales in thirds, sixths, octaves, and tenths. (Learn more about musical scales here.)

Here are some popular scale methods and their features:

  • ELEMENTARY SCALES AND BOWINGS FOR STRINGS: (Harvey Whistler) Scales for the beginner. The book also contains charts that show violin finger placement in various keys.
  • SCALE-STUDIES FOR THE VIOLIN: (Jan Hřímalý) Two- and three-octave scales and arpeggios for the intermediate student.
  • CONTEMPORARY VIOLIN TECHNIQUE: (Ivan Galamian) This contains the rhythmic formula for Armenian violin instructor Ivan Galamian’s famous three-octave acceleration scales, as well as many different ways to do scales. There is also a cycle of three-octave arpeggios as well as double-stop scales.
  • SCALE SYSTEM: (Carl Flesch) A rather dense and complex set of scale exercises for the advanced violinist.
  • DOUBLE STOPS: SCALES AND SCALE EXERCISES FOR THE VIOLIN: (Simon Fischer) An extremely detailed book that breaks double-stop scales down into manageable steps, focusing on thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths.

An étude, which mean “study” in French, is a musical exercise written to practice a specific technique. In addition to scales and arpeggios, they’re an excellent way to learn the patterns and skills you’ll need for violin-playing at every level.

Start with this selection of books filled with études and exercises written for violin, roughly in order from elementary through advanced:

  • SIXTY STUDIES FOR THE VIOLIN, OP. 45: (Franz Wohlfahrt) Often a student’s first book of études, these address string crossing, bow strokes, shifting, and finger patterns. The first 30 are in first position, while the last 30 incorporate third position as well.
  • 36 ELEMENTARY AND PROGRESSIVE ETUDES, OP. 20: (H.E. Kayser) Études that cover a wide variety of techniques including bowing, shifting, and fingering. For beginning to intermediate violinists.
  • 75 MELODIOUS AND PROGRESSIVE STUDIES, OP. 36: (Jaques F. Mazas) Studies by the French composer Mazas, who mostly wrote pedagogical studies and methods for violin and viola students.
  • 42 STUDIES FOR VIOLIN: (Rodolphe Kreutzer) These studies are an essential rite of passage for nearly every violinist transitioning into more advanced studies.
  • 36 ETUDES OR CAPRICES FOR VIOLIN SOLO: (Federigo Fiorillo) Advanced exercises that include techniques such as double-stops, string crossings, bowing patterns, and more.
  • 24 CAPRICES FOR VIOLIN: (Pierre Rode) Studies that encourage the player’s facility over the whole instrument.
  • 24 ETUDES: (Pierre Gaviniès) Études that cover all 24 keys and a wide variety of techniques.
  • 24 ETUDES AND CAPRICES, OP. 35, FOR VIOLIN SOLO: (Jakob Dont) Études that violinists generally study after Kreutzer’s études and before the Paganini Caprices.
  • ETUDES-CAPRICES, OP. 18: (Henryk Wieniawski) These work as both technical studies and concert pieces. The second violin part plays simple harmony to the first violin’s virtuosic and technical part.
  • 24 CAPRICES, OP. 1, FOR VIOLIN SOLO: (Niccolo Paganini) Some of the most technically difficult pieces ever written for violin, these are often performed as concert pieces. Paganini was so virtuosic that it was rumored he’d sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his astonishing violin technique.
  • THE ARTIST’S TECHNIQUE OF VIOLIN PLAYING: (Demetrius Constantine Dounis) Advanced exercises for use at the beginning of a practice session; they emphasize finger dexterity and shifting.
  • PREPARATORY EXERCISES IN DOUBLE STOPPING, OP. 9: (Otakar Ševčík) Exercises to improve fluency in double-stops and chords.

Once you have played your scales, exercises, and études, it’s time to work on your repertoire— the pieces you wish to perform. These can be anything from a short piece to a concerto.

Learn more about playing the violin in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.