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A plea on behalf of amateur violinists

Two weeks at a violin practice retreat were life-changing for me, but left me wondering why there aren't enough places for amateur players to fulfil their musical aspirations

The view for two weeks

For two weeks this summer I was taken seriously as a violin player. I was staying at the Magic Mountain Music Farm Practice Retreat in beautiful upstate New York, a course run by Burton Kaplan, and my article about my experience has just come out in the September issue of The Strad.

By way of background, I’d describe myself as an erstwhile violinist. I studied on the post-graduate course at the Royal Academy of Music 20 years ago but realised I wasn’t going to make it in the profession so found other things to do. These included editing The Strad magazine for eight years, where I learnt incredible amounts about music and string playing from the greatest players and teachers around the world. I have also played in amateur orchestras and quartets and have been in a world music band, Los Desterrados, for nearly 15 years. But I don’t really practise much, apart from having the occasional whim to prepare for a lesson.

So I arrived at Magic Mountain full of hope but some fear. These days my mind is so corrupted by technology that my attention span is pitiful and I feared I wouldn’t be able to concentrate and that I would get bored with myself. But I was also excited by the prospect of having absolutely nothing to think about other than the violin.

The structure at Magic Mountain is simple: two group classes a day, morning and evening, based on the practice techniques that Burton Kaplan expounds in his book Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician's Guide to Self-Empowerment, and on his search for musical meaning; three lessons each a week (that’s more than a whole term’s worth of lessons in two weeks); and two scheduled meals a day – you help yourself to breakfast. Apart from that, your day is your own and you’re allowed to practise from 8am to 11pm. No one forces you to practise, but you want to, and I found myself doing about five hours a day. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I left the farm twice in two weeks – by the end my feet were actually flatter than when I arrived.

A lesson with Burton Kaplan

What makes practice attractive all of a sudden? Well, everything. Firstly, unlike real life, there are no impediments (or excuses). Nothing else you have to do, nowhere to go, no one else to be responsible for other than yourself. And everyone else is practising – eleven other people all striving towards something at the same time, individually – and you hear them all, which is a powerful motivation. As are the lessons – normally I’d give myself at least two days after a violin to relax and recover, but at Magic Mountain you know you will be back in Burton’s study two days later, and you need and want to show progress. I’d also forgotten the joy of pure, unadulterated mental focus – concentrating on one thing and finding creative ways to make it better. I suppose it’s what people call ‘flow’; it certainly has a spiritual dimension.

But one of the most potent reasons to practise lies at the heart of what Burton is trying to achieve, I believe. For me – and I’m sure I’m not the only one – practise has always been something negative: you are constantly criticising yourself, finding fault, not measuring up to something in your ear. After all, which of us ever learnt or was taught how to practise effectively, and being kind to ourselves? Burton’s teachings turn this around.

For the detail of it, you’ll have to read the article, or look at his book. But I’ll share one of the most mind-altering exercises with you. It’s called the ‘Pie Strategy’ and the aim is to make you more objective in your practice, developing what Burton calls your ‘Conscious Observer’. He defines four key elements to observe while you play – intonation, rhythm, expression and tone. When you are about to practise a specific section, you define to yourself what you’re going to play, and say out loud that you’re going to decide by the end which are the weakest and strongest elements of the performance. When you have finished the segment, you immediately say what the strongest was and then the weakest. It takes some practice in itself, and Burton requires a vocalisation of it that most of us were pretty uncomfortable about. However, it works, and in mysterious ways.

The view from Magic Mountain

When I did this exercise in class first, using a section of Wieniawski’s Etude-Caprice no.3, my instinct was always to focus on the bad stuff first, which was always intonation. I don’t think I was the only one to think like that, and who had a hard time finding the strengths in our playing. But with Burton’s coaching to help me step back, it became obvious that my rhythm was actually the weakest, and when I realised that, and when I was simultaneously looking for good things in my playing, all of a sudden everything got better – even the arpeggios that weeks before I didn’t think I would ever perfect. The moral being that when you can see the big picture, and trust your mind and the music, things often work themselves out. This approach made my subsequent practice time all the more productive and enjoyable.

There were two weeks full of such insights, as well as lateral stimulations – we watched videos of Carlos Kleiber, and I had a powerful throwback to my youthful obsession with Torvill and Dean when we watched a documentary about them, as a metaphorical example of great chamber musicians. All, again, to demonstrate the importance of the big picture. At the end of the two weeks, we all performed for ten minutes, and our preparation involved another mind shift. At the last lunch before the concert, each of us had to share what our goals for our performances were. These were not to be ‘play brilliantly’ or ‘be perfect’ but much more tangible, testable goals – mine were to feel physically relaxed for 90 percent of the time, to make a beautiful sound 80 percent of the time, to enjoy hearing Bach’s language, and to listen for the beauty of the first bar of the Sarabande I was playing (I’d had problems making a nice sound in the first chords). And lo and behold, I achieved all of them, and actually felt quite proud and pleased with myself, despite my deeply rooted inner critic (which even now makes me feel awkward saying something positive about my playing). And I wasn’t the only one – the concert was a lovely way of rounding off two weeks of getting to know people and their playing and their challenges, and I think everyone there achieved their goals.

My fingers after two weeks

That shows the importance of setting good goals. It also proves that amateurs like myself can achieve something important and worthwhile, even in the space of two weeks. And yet the amateur market is woefully under-catered to, I believe, certainly in the UK and Europe, although possibly less so in the US. There are many amateur chamber music courses around the world – I myself have been to the Verbier Festival and Manhattan School ones and had fantastic chamber music learning experiences in both places. But for the player who wants to improve their technique and work on solo repertoire, there’s absolutely nothing, as far as I know. It’s hard even to find teachers who are willing to take on amateurs, or even to know where to begin to look – I wouldn’t.

Why is this? There’s a certain snobbery among professional musicians and teachers towards amateurs. Indeed there are some weak players among the crowd, but there are also some phenomenal ones. Look at the personnel of London’s amateur orchestral scene and you will find many players who could easily have gone on to be professional; you’ll also discover that most of them are classical music agents, PRs and music journalists! Amateurs have the time, money, wisdom and passion to devote to music – often in greater abundance than young virtuosos; they also often have fantastic instruments.

To me this is a no-brainer. Most music colleges these days have junior departments. So why don’t they have amateur departments, where amateurs can come together for individual lessons, masterclasses, orchestral and chamber music training and music studies. As an added benefit, you could have budding young pedagogues coach them, thereby learning the craft of teaching, as well as making some cash. Maybe some of the students might even learn from the wisdom and passion of their elders, both in music and in the realities of the outside world. The schools would serve larger communities, and who knows, might even ultimately benefit from the legacies of some of the grateful students. I did speak to one principal once about the subject but it fell on deaf ears, so I won’t hold my breath.

I can, however, be truly grateful for the experience I had at Magic Mountain, and hold close the many important things I learnt there. Has my practice since then measured up to my time there? Of course not – how could it? But at least I know what is possible now, and that I can take myself seriously.

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