Practice Ethics: Part 1

by Betse Ellis

Teaching, to me, is a great way to continue learning. One of the things I've learned is that putting practice ideas into some kind of system is helpful for a developing player of any level. So I have begun developing these ideas into a system I call "PRACTICE ETHICS". Let's begin by considering the definition of ethics. Following is my abridgement from a dictionary:

  1. the discipline dealing with moral obligation
  2. a system of moral principles or values; a guiding philosophy

Granted, we are not necessarily under a moral obligation when it comes to our practice sessions! However, the idea of a practice system, or philosophy, has a great deal of value when it comes to our individual growth as musicians. The system I will describe is three part:

  1. Consistency
  2. Focus and Awareness
  3. Positive Attitude

Let's consider these elements with some examples and a bit more description.


Short story: one of my students told me, in our first lesson, that the reason he wanted to take lessons was that he observed my playing style as "loose and almost… sloppy". At first, I was taken aback! Then I realized that what he saw as "sloppy" meant that I play without being rigid; I display an attitude of relaxation; and I am able to "let go" when I improvise, which surprises an audience (and sometimes myself!). My overriding principle is that the more consistent I am with my technique, the freer I am to express myself. After a few lessons, this same student told me that now, when he watched me play, he could see that my left hand and wrist was consistent in its relationship to the violin neck, and my right wrist was always fluid while my fingers reacted to the changing bow direction. When I watch a performance of our band on video, I can see that for myself.

Some ideas to consider for a consistent approach:

  1. Play with the same overall hand positions
  2. Strive for good intonation
  3. Play with good timing and rhythm
  4. Stay relaxed

A note about #1 above: what I mean by same overall hand positions is this. On your left hand, you can keep your wrist "neutral" (not collapsed against the neck, or arched away from the neck) for the best playing position. That keeps your fingers in the same relationship to each string. But do keep in mind that when you are playing on the G string, and in some degrees on the D string, that bringing your left elbow in towards your torso will make it easier to finger. And, that will keep your finger placement consistent on each string. On your right hand, while you want to be fluid with the bow and let your fingers and wrist react to the bow change, your overall hand shape should remain consistent. (More on bowing fluidity in a future article.)


You want to always be aware of all elements of playing. The list of elements tends to get longer the longer you play an instrument; but your ability to keep track of (or in the long run, internalize) these elements grows as you become more comfortable and familiar with the instrument. While you maintain an overall awareness, you should be able to focus acutely on one area at any given time. The awareness element will help you to maintain the consistency element just described. Build on this to develop an adjustable focus while maintaining overall awareness.


I call this the "who cares" attitude. If you are playing in a jam session, and you mess up a part of a tune, who cares? Let it go. I employ this technique even on stage. If I react negatively to a missed note, the audience will certainly notice. But if I let that go and keep enjoying myself, chances are very few people will even realize that I made a mistake. Besides, an audience wants to enjoy what we are doing. They don't want to feel uncomfortable, and they are likely to if I show my own discomfort. I can't go back and fix it, so who cares? There's another part coming right up that I can look forward to. I can make a mental note to isolate what didn't go right, if it tends to be a hindrance to my playing. Even in an individual practice session, a positive attitude is essential in your growth. Stop saying "I can't"! Replace it with "I'm working on". It's okay for an element of your playing to take time for development.

(This article continues in the next issue.)

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