Practice makes the perfect String Quartet

Practice makes perfect is not just for musicians of an ensemble, it is, as I have heard vicars pronounce on many occasions, something that is needed in a Marriage. A marriage is something that has to be worked at, analyzed to see where things are working and where they are not, making change, corrections and compromises, so that everything runs smoothly. This, I have even heard registrars say - and they tend to be much less philosophical than vicars, is something that is necessary after the first flush of love subsides. And so it is with a musician and the art of playing a musical instrument, whether it is in a pop band, jazz band, ceilidh band or a classical ensemble.

So let us consider what is happening when somebody plays a piece of music, firstly playing completely by themselves without any accompaniment and not in a string quartet or orchestral group. All the things that we've discussed so far have to be carried out simultaneously. The musician has to sit or stand correctly in order to provide a platform for the neck and shoulders to remain stable whilst playing the notes with their left hand and to an extent supporting the violin against the inertial forces of the right arm as it carries out the bowing motion,  sometimes violently. The,, nds to the arms and fingers are perhaps coming from the player's memory and imagination, as sometimes happens in a barn dance band or in a jazz band, or more often is coming from musical notation through the visual pathways, as with a string quartet or orchestral player. The musician may even be concentrating on something other than the music, as when playing in a Ceilidh Band, the fiddle player will be watching the dancers and concentrating on how to fit the tempo to the ability of the dancers.

If you think of all these simultaneous actions, as described in some detail above, being carried out very often at significant speed and requiring a high degree of reliability, nobody wants to make a mistake in a concert, it would seem an impossible task. This is because we have considered all these actions in our conscious minds, and our experience of our conscious mind is that it is extremely slow. As explained,  with practice we can train the automatic or subconscious part of our mind to do the job for us. This part of our mind is many hundreds of times faster than our conscious thinking mind, and can combine all the tasks we've discussed at high speed and to a high level of accuracy and repeatability. Indeed, it is important that musician learns to allow the automatic part of their minds to do the job for them. If a violinist thinks too hard about what they are doing they will get in a mess, make mistakes and not be able to play fast passages at the required speed. They sometimes have to consciously force themselves  to ignore what they are playing, and trust that the other part of their mind together with the practice done will play the music for them.

 It is said that you should not practice until you can play a piece right, you should practice until you cannot play it wrong.

What this means is that you should practice so that the automatic subconscious part of your mind is so good at doing it, that even if you lose your attention on the music, get distracted by something else or get distracted by other thoughts during performance, you will continue to play the piece correctly.

This happens when driving a car. When you're learning you have to concentrate on every gear change, Every Corner, the braking and the steering. Once you're an experienced driver you can listen to the radio, talk to somebody in the car with you, think about other thing perhaps the meeting you are going to,  become aware of the scenery you're passing and enjoy driving through the countryside, and still drive your car safely knowing that the subconscious part of your mind is in complete control and will alert the conscious Part of Your Mind should there be some dangerous that need for you to make a decision. If a decision has to be instantaneous  and the subconscious Part of Your Mind judges that there is no time to consult your conscious mind, it will take action of its own accord. How often has an animal run out in front of you and you find that you have already applied the brakes before you are consciously properly aware why you have applied the brakes. It becomes an automatic reaction. The neural circuits from the eyes through the brain pass that interpret images the ability to learn emergency actions. This part of the brain is the amygdala which is responsible for the instantaneous fear reactions that we and other animals exhibit, some of which are genetically inbuilt and some of which become learnt. This part of the brain gives us very fast reactions in situations that are Critical for our survival. After this reaction has happened,  the parts of the brain responsible for memory recall chip in to provide a moderating function to the automatic reaction. The automatic reaction is very broad brush, so in the driving situation something is seen crossing the road that That could be an animal, could be a child's ball could be all sorts of things,  so the automatic part of the mind initiates the automatic emergency action. When we become consciously aware of what is happening which is a few fractions of a second later, we may decide that it is not appropriate to have our foot hard down on the break. Perhaps we recognise that it was just a paper bag,  or we see it is a cat but we are aware that in our rearview mirror mirror there is a articulated truck driving right up our back side, and that if we continue to break in this way we are going to become mincemeat.  So we overrule or adjust  the, nd of the emergency action part of our mind, and we left our foot off the break a little,  hopefully missing the cat but if we run over it, so be it, we haven't been killed ourselves.

 I've heard it's reported that Nigel Kennedy, the famous violinist, sometimes practice while watching the television. I don't know if this is true, but it would certainly be a good way of training the automatic part of the mind to get on with the job of playing that music. This kind of  detachment from The Mechanics of playing can be vital in a concert hall, where there can be serious distractions that mustn't have any effect on you.  I also heard it said by more than one well-known soloist that they have to guard against their mind wandering into things that are nothing to do with the music. This can only happen if you are so practiced the subconscious mind is doing the job for them, but it can be rather dangerous to start thinking about what you're going to have for supper when you get home, when in the middle of a Violin Concerto in front of an Audience with a couple of thousand people.

If you can get yourself into the mental state of letting the subconscious Part of Your Mind play the instrument for you, it can sometimes become quite weird. You may be playing in a string quartet, and suddenly you find yourself almost transported into the audience listening to the music of the quartet. You're not just hearing yourself and focusing on what you're doing, you are here the whole Quartet playing,  in other words hearing the music as it should be heard by the audience. You're almost not involved in the whole process, it just happens. It only happens to this extent when you have practiced an awful lot, not only what you're playing but also practiced with the string quartet so that one is in the situation where none of the players are really thinking about what they're doing. You may be fiddling in a Barn Dance Band and suddenly realise you have been watching the antics of one of the dancers and have no recollection of which tune you were playing for the last few minutes. When you can achieve this, you have gone through the process of building the required neural networks in the brain, a process termed 'brain plasticity'.

But when playing the violin, it is rare to play entirely on one's own. It is not an instrument that plays chords in the way a piano does so it is difficult to achieve the harmonies that are necessary to get pleasing to listen to music. Johann Sebastian Bach and Bela Bartok have both written solo pieces for unaccompanied violin. They both have a lot of double stopping to produce the harmonies and are extremely difficult to play. It's also not everybody's cup of tea and you're really hear them if they ever played on Classic FM.