Practicing an instrument can take many different forms. Everyone is familiar with the most common type of practicing: playing scales, etudes and performance pieces. What many people overlook, however, are technique and strength exercises. These exercises can’t always be found in books, and some of them don’t even require you to be holding your instrument. Here are a few of my favorite exercises that I have learned over the years.
Intermediate Exercise #1
The first exercise helps to achieve agility, fluidity and flexibility in the bow hand, which promotes smooth bow changes. To start the exercise, hold your bow vertically with your right hand, gripping the stick near the frog. The objective of this exercise is to slide all of your fingers up the stick of the bow one at a time, without lifting your fingers (or dropping your bow!). Climbing all the way to the tip with the fingers is fairly easy, but coming back down is much more difficult. For younger students, you can make it a race to see who can crawl the length of the bow the fastest.
As you practice this exercise, your hand and fingers will probably become tired and sore, and possibly cramp. Don’t take this as a bad sign; you must tire your muscles for them to get stronger. When you first start out, make it your goal to go up to the tip and back one time. If you make this exercise a part of your daily practice routine, you will soon be able to add more repetitions. Eventually, you should do this exercise for five to ten minutes daily. With consistent practice, it won’t take long for you to see improvement in the smoothness of your bow strokes.
Intermediate Exercise #2
The next exercise helps improve intonation when playing double stops. For our example, we’ll use the notes C and E in first position on the G and D strings. Place the third finger on the G and the first finger on the D string. Check the pitches separately with an electronic tuner or a piano for accuracy, then play them together. Lift your fingers off the strings to prepare for the next part of the exercise. Now finger the C on the G string and and hover the first finger above the E note on the D string, Don’t depress the string with the first finger. Play the double stop of C and E with only the third finger depressing the string.
Once you have completed that part you can reverse the process. Place the first finger down on the D string to play the E and hover the third finger above the C on the G string. Now play that double stop of C and E, while only fingering the E. Next, finger both notes and check them again with a tuner. Once you have the notes in tune, finger and play them simultaneously. Press both fingers down hard and hold them in that position for at least one minute. What you are doing is developing muscle memory. If you practice this exercise daily for five or ten minutes, it won’t be long before you notice a marked improvement in the intonation of your double stops. I recommend that you practice this exercise with a different double stop each day.
Intermediate Exercise #3
The final exercise helps strengthen the fourth finger of the left hand. It’s common for new players to avoid using their fourth finger, since it’s naturally a weaker finger. However, it’s important for the sound of many pieces to use a fourth finger instead of an open string. You can’t do vibrato on an open string!
To start the exercise, with your fourth finger, pluck (pizzicato) the open E string four times, as if you were playing one measure of quarter notes. Then pluck four quarter notes each on the open A, D and G strings. Repeat this until you feel a tightening of the muscles of the fourth finger. Take a break to allow your finger to recover, then continue. You can make this exercise harder by placing the first finger down on the string and then plucking with the fourth finger. However, if at any point you find that your finger begins to cramp or is very sore, stop the exercise for the day. With consistent practice, you’ll soon notice your fourth finger becoming steadily stronger. You want to build up to doing this exercise for five to ten minutes a day.
If you practice these special exercises every day for a few minutes each you will see some amazing results. They have definitely helped me to polish and refine my technique over the years.