Listen First: Can you sing it before you play it?

I’m a firm believer of the ‘if you can sing it, you can play it’ mentality when it comes to ear training. Correctly singing a phrase, or the entire tune, before you attempt to put your hands on the notes saves valuable practice time, which promotes efficient learning and good muscle memory.

The next time you’re ready for a new tune, try learning the tune away from your instrument. Here’s how:

Listen to the recording you’ll use to learn the tune on repeat while you’re working on chores, taking a shower, walking your dog, or on your work commute. (cough Downloads are great! wink) Label each phrase as it goes by so you’re familiar with the form: A1, A2, A3, A4, repeat the A….. Then listen for recycled phrases. Is the third phrase the same as the first? Does the B part use the same fourth phrase?

I’ll use Red Haired Boy as an example.
A1/A2/A3 (same as A1)/ A4 repeat A part
B1/B2 (same as A2)/ B3 (same as A1+A3)/ B4 (same as A4) repeat the B part

This could be boiled down to the following:

Once you’re clear on the form, choose a phrase to sing along with the recording. Since A1/3 gets used the most, you might start with that. Sing ONLY that phrase, but sing it every time it gets used. This is similar to how you would probably be taught the tune physically in a lesson or workshop class. You could try moving your hand in the direction your voice is moving, or stepping and hopping as you sing. (Except if you’re in the shower or driving- be safe, people). When you think you’ve successfully sung that phrase, turn off the recording and see if you can sing the phrase all by yourself. If there are a few shaky notes where your voice doesn’t settle, chances are you haven’t heard the right note yet and you don’t really know the phrase. Go back and listen for the direction of the melody. Does it go up or down, by step, skip or leap? When you can sing the phrase independently you’re ready to try the same process with a different phrase. After you’ve learned the next phrase, try singing both the phrases you’ve learned at the appropriate times with and with out the recording. For Red Haired Boy and tunes with a similar form, you only have to do this process 4 times and you’ll know the tune!

You’ll be surprised when you pick up your instrument. You might be able to play most of the tune right away! The key to connecting your ear to your hands is to continually using your voice. Sing slowly while your fingers find the notes. Play one phrase at a time, noticing pieces of scales, arpeggios, and ways for you to remember the uniqueness of the phrase or similarities with other phrases. Stitch the tune together with your instrument in the same manner you learned the tune with your voice.

Your initial attempts at learning this way might seem like a lengthier process, but in the long run, you are laying important ground work for ear/hand coordination. You can do it! Let me know how it goes, and how much your family loves hearing the same tune on repeat 84 times. My husband might start a support group for household members who have multitasking musician spouses…..

Deliberate practice: Teaching mindful musicianship

One of the most important lessons I can bestow on students is teaching them how to practice. So often students and educators alike assume that if the material and concepts have been understood and attained during the lesson, then the student will automatically know how to work and improve at home by themselves. If only that were the case! Fortunately, good practice habits can be taught, and we all know that hearing progress is an excellent motivational tool.

This post is meant for educators to start the conversation about healthy and productive practice routines with their students, and share what’s worked for them. If you’re self-taught, trying your best, and looking for ways to improve your practice, check out this companion post I wrote just for you: What should I practice?

I try to be ahead of the curve and ask my students how they’re practicing and if they think they’re hearing progress on a regular basis, but the reality is that is our practice conversations often come up when I’ve heard the same passage/concept/tune/technique after a week of ‘practice with no improvement’. This could mean a couple of things, and hopefully you help the student diagnose their own practice deficiency. (It’s important for you to lead the student to the diagnosis instead of the educator always having the answer- this fosters future musical independence).

The student may have practiced other assignments but neglected a particular one because:

There has been a lack of productive time management.

Sounds like a practice schedule is in order. Help your student by dividing their total daily practice into segments, with goals for each day. Here’s where a practice notebook can be an excellent tool. It’s worth taking the 5 minutes at the end of the lesson for you to fill out the time allotted and goals for each day/assignment together, so the student can take notes during and after each practice session

Related: Three ways to keep practicing on a schedule.

The student feels this new topic was too hard.

When a student tells me that the new tune/technique/assignment was too hard, I have come to realize that this is an issue of trust. Trust is the bond that allows your students to take risks (i.e. learn or try something new). Without a student’s trust, a teacher has no currency. I explain this to my students- I tell them that I would never set them up for failure, because I know that would wear away our bond of trust. Therefore, I will only give them assignments and challenges that I KNOW they are capable of achieving (with work) so they can always believe me when I tell them they can do it. It’s important to periodically remind students that they can trust you when they are struggling.

The student doesn’t understand the end goal of the assignment.

Doesn’t everyone dislike working on a meaningless task? If the student recognizes that there is a means to an end, and that the end is coming as soon as they accomplish the skill, she will more than likely jump on board with the new and challenging task at hand. This could sound something like this, ‘Your favorite tune is in F? great! Play your F arpeggios and thirds by memory and then we can get started on that tune.’

Perhaps the student DID practice the passage, yet incorrectly.

Negative practice- drilling or mindlessly playing a section incorrectly can sometimes be worse than not practicing. Habits are hard to break.

The student wasn’t listening and thinking about the concept to decide if there has been improvement.

I find this is most common in younger students, before they have begun to think and hear in ‘layers’. It is an incredible challenge for them (or anyone for that matter) to engage and combine their physical, auditory, and visual senses. As their teacher, ask them pointed questions for them to begin to use these faculties. Here’s an example: “Let’s play this section again. When you’re done, I’d like for you to tell me if you held your bow properly, played with consistent tone, and if you read the rhythm correctly.” This puts the power on them—not you—to tell them if the practice was complete. If they can’t tell you all three senses, ask them to play again and focus more on that sense. If they say they were ‘great!’ but were less than, ask them to define or demonstrate what makes a great bow hold, great consistent tone, and great note reading. Then ask them to play again and be extremely particular- ‘How was your bow hold? oh, your pinky collapsed? Let’s work on that this week during your practice.’ etc.

Or, the student was ‘too busy to practice’ many or most days since the last lesson.

Everyone has these days. Or week. It’s important to have high expectations for practice, but remain realistic that sometimes, we.just.can’t. BUT that is NOT the case MOST of the time. I often go through a ‘normal’ week with a student who says this to me and schedule in an appointment with their instrument for each day that they can’t negotiate (rescheduling practice most often means missed practice- treat it like a doctor’s appointment and show up to practice). Remind students that 10 minutes is better than 0 minutes, but set a goal for the amount of time that the student ‘should’ be practicing every day. I don’t often suggest extrinsic rewards, however I have found that certain students respond very well to ‘100 day challenges’ with a small gift from a parent if they succeed. A week and a half in to the challenge, practice has become part of the daily routine.

Related: How to get the most out of a short practice.

Positive practice leads to confident, independent musicians. Good luck to you and your students—Happy practicing!

What should I practice?

WHAT should you practice?

It’s kind of a silly question, but it’s the most important. I mean, there are SO. MANY. THINGS. You could practice: new material, old material, technical facility, foundational building blocks like scales and arpeggios, improvising, composing, arranging, the list is endless. And while that can seem daunting, try shifting your focus to how inspiring music can be- the journey will never be done. You have your whole life to work on the list of challenges presented by your instrument and these art forms. Here’s how to start.

Identify your goals

Who do you want to be as a musician? A performer who tours a multi-state circuit and gains traction to one day play big rooms and festivals, a gigging musician who plays locally for events, a band leader, a session player for the weekly jam in town, a solid picker at the festival campground sites, the family member who entertains at birthdays and holidays… all of these roles are needed in our musical landscape, so find the one that calls to you.


It’s time to have an honest evaluation and decide what skills you need to learn or improve to be able to achieve those goals. If you’re unsure, ask someone you know who does this already. (I’m thinking this should be a future blog post, amiright? Stay tuned!)

Consistent Practice

Look at your calendar and schedule an appointment with your instrument every day. Set a goal for the amount of time that you think you ‘should’ be practicing. Try to consider this appointment non-negotiable and don’t reschedule it for the convenience of others (this is where I should heed my own advice). If you have a jam-packed day, remember that 10 minutes is better than 0 minutes.

Related: Three ways to keep practicing on a schedule

Time Management

Now that you’ve identified goals and have a practice schedule, it’s time to figure out how to use your time to it’s full advantage. So, practice what needs work: make a plan to cover your top three areas you’re trying to improve.

Related: How to get the most out of a short practice

Be deliberate in your practice

Stay clear of unproductive run-throughs and negative practicing. Drilling or mindlessly playing something incorrectly can sometimes be worse than not practicing. Habits are hard to break. I try to teach my students to listen and think in layers, individually and collectively. Let me explain:
Listening to yourself and being aware of multiple facets of music-making all at once is fantastic way to improve dramatically. Can you play the passage you’re working on a be mindful of your technique (left and right hands), your intonation, and your rhythm? Collectively, it’s important to know how your ‘role’ fits into the band. Can you hear how your part fits harmonically, melodically, and groove-wise into the sonic landscape?

Stay Inspired

Chances are you will experience intrinsic joy from hearing and seeing your progress by working consistently towards your goals. You might also need to use some extrinsic motivators, too, and that’s a good thing. Reward yourself after a month of consistent practice with a new album, concert tickets, registering for a weekend workshop, etc.

Related: Four ways to stay inspired

Positive practice leads to confidence. You can do this!




Three ways to keep practicing on a schedule

Practicing your fiddle regularly is a sure-fire way of building your skills. But how do you keep practicing on a schedule, especially when things get busy? Here are a few tips to make a regular practice schedule easy.

1. Keep your fiddle case open

Obviously, find a safe place in your home for your fiddle to live. But keep your instrument unpacked so you’re more likely to pick it up when you walk by and play a tune. It’s also one less step when it comes time to practice. Which leads me to….

2. Make an appointment with your fiddle

Chances are, if you have an appointment with someone, you’ll show up. Practice can often be pushed off to the next day and then the next too easily. Establish a routine.

My dad likes to practice in the morning for 15 minutes while the coffee is brewing and he’s toasting breakfast. His practice is taken care of for the day if he can’t get back to his fiddle, but chances are he’ll be motivated to pick it up after work because he’s still inspired from the morning.

And if you’re not a morning person, that’s okay, just pick a time each day that works for you. Set an alert on your phone so you know it’s time. It’s better to get your hands on your instrument every day for a shorter amount of time than binge practicing for hours every weekend.

3. Set goals

Goals can be anything! Like, “I want to learn a new tune a week.” Or, “I need to learn chords to tunes I only know the melodies for.” And “I want to be able to jam this tune with my friends the next time I see them.” Often a social situation is a great motivator. No jam in your town? You could start one! Suggest to a friend so you can play together. Search out fiddle camps and festivals and put them on your calendar a year in advance so you can make sure to plan and look forward to an event!

How to get the most out of a really short practice

When you don’t have much time to practice, it’s important to use every moment efficiently. With a practice plan, you’ll start to hear your progress even when you can’t spend as much time with your fiddle as you’d like.

Here’s one possible way to break down of 30 minutes of practice:

5 minutes: warm up by playing your 2 favorite tunes with a jam track.

10 minutes: technique prep: work on your left hand and right hand goals that pertain to the new tune you’re going to learn.

Here’s an example:

  • Left Hand: you’re going to work/learn a tune in D major so, play your D major maps, scales, say your note names out loud, review your 1, 4, and 5 chords in the key.
  • Right Hand: you’re working your tone so you focus on keeping your bow parallel to the bridge on open strings and then add your D major scale to the mix so you can COMBINE both left and right hand goals.

12 minutes: learn your new tune: maybe it’s just one phrase, but learn it really well and play it every time it comes around the tune. You don’t have to learn an entire tune in one day!

3 minutes: play your favorite tune again. Whatever is easy, as a reward!

The next day warm up by playing one tune in two minutes instead of two tunes in five. Give those three remaining minutes to your new tune so you have time to review the phrase you learned yesterday and still have plenty of time to learn a new phrase.

Of course, you don’t want to skimp on longer practices, but a short practice is always better than nothing. Making a plan can help you get the most out of your time. You’ll make progress a little bit at a time, and you may discover new ideas and tunes you want to explore later. Good luck and happy fiddling!

Four ways to stay inspired

It’s the start of school year and a new season is here, so I’m thinking of ways to remind students of why they love this instrument. We need to harness that love and let it guide our daily practice. This can be difficult coming off of summer camps and informal schedules. Let me help!

1. Remind yourself why you like the fiddle

I’m sure all of you have a story—maybe your parents picked the instrument and it stuck, or your child abandoned it and you decided to give it a try, or you heard someone play around a campfire or on stage. But often all these stories can be boiled down to this: you love the sound of the instrument, and the feeling you get when you make the sound. That is what needs to stay in focus.

2. Listen to your faves

Make a playlist of all your favorite tunes and songs that have a fiddler. Actually, make lots of fiddle playlists—styles, tempos, tunes you want to learn, however you like to lump your favorites together. Listen all the time. Sing the fiddle parts. Figure out why you love that track. Is it the tone, the fills, the back up, the break that you love? In order to emulate your heroes, you need to know what you enjoy about their playing.

3. PLAY your faves!

My college professor told me to practice what I can’t do. I agree. If you’re making the best use of your time, practice something that you can’t do yet—challenge yourself. But don’t forget to stay in touch with the tunes you already love playing. If you’re trying to get back into the groove of practicing, I think you should start by playing your favorite tunes. It’s good to give your hands and ears some love by playing tunes that you don’t need to work too hard for.

4. Be a good friend to yourself

It’s never too late to start an instrument. You have a creative voice inside you that you’re learning to express, even if it takes time. Each time you practice, point out at least one aspect of your musicianship that’s improving. Remind yourself of what you’re working towards. Music is an art form and a gift that allows us to express what we can’t articulate. I’m proud of you for learning to make music!