The Free, Cheap and Expensive List

So finally the rubber meets the road and we’re going to talk about things we can actually do to help our learners play better. This list is not wholly prescriptive and it’s quite obviously subjective. It’s also incomplete and I’ll add to it as I remember and learn more. My goal is not simply for you to use my list but to understand the principles and generate your own list. It can be as long or as short as you want it to be. We all come from different circumstances and work with learners at different stages in their development so this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation. Also, I believe very strongly in the notion that Marvin Rabin stated so eloquently in this excellent article by my colleague Mary Perkinson (login required): “There is no ‘method.’ The teacher is the method.” While I hope that my list will shed light on these topics from a slightly different angle the teacher is ultimately the arbiter of what goes where. My goal is to reframe these playing issues in a way that will give the learner and teacher a true sense of a task’s difficulty and will minimize frustration.

I will either find resources for exercises or describe exercises that I’ve created to work on these issues. I will assume no prior knowledge. Every one of these skills will eventually be linked to an explanation, either from me or by a colleague in the field. That is a promise. One way to use this list is to treat it as a menu. Pick three things from the easy list and really focus on them for a week or a month. Leave the others behind. You’ll succeed at those, build up a rolling snowboulder of motivation and start to crush the others. I’ve started the “free” portion with the skills/tasks I think make the biggest difference right away. These skills/tasks are not necessarily technical. Some are about basic housekeeping. These will help you build a culture of excellence. There’s a reason Navy SEALS take making their beds very seriously.

I will try to make as many of these exercises “group friendly” as possible. There will be several exercises that can be practiced soundlessly or nearly so. The teacher will be able to walk around the room, watch and correct while everyone is engaged in group practice. This last aspect is what excites me the most. Five minutes of intensive practice at the beginning or end of class will go a long way towards curing what ails our learners. The best part? The free list is the longest one! And it’s all-you-can-eat!

Disclaimer: I make no claims that the exercises that go along with these skills or even the notions behind them are particularly novel. Some were created out of desperation (bow poem) when I needed to MacGyver something in the moment. Some I made up then found out that someone had already made them up and explained them much better than I did. Others are simplified versions of things that other pedagogues teach. Others I just stole outright or were given to me by my teachers. There’s nothing really new under the string playing sun. There’s an entire industry whose goal is to convince you that their widget or method book will instantly make you students play in tune and with a beautiful sound. In the end the best things in string playing, like life, are as free as the air we breathe.

Free: Readily Attained
Learn (Teach) One Thing at a Time
Bow Hold
Rosin Your Bow
Tighten Your Bow
Clean Your Instrument
Optimize Your Environment
Say Thank You
Tune Your Instrument Perfectly
Parallel to the Bridge
Contact Point
RL Parallel Motion
Help Your Colleagues
Time = Space
Silent Warm Ups
Finger Patterns
Finger Angles
Pattern Preparation
Flat Bow Hair
Know Instrument Anatomy
Have Heroes
Listen to Recordings
Tune to Open Strings
Identify Planes

Cheap: Requires some Effort. This is the squishy middle. Some of these are harder than others, but they don’t require a lifetime of work. Some are nearly free but can’t be taken for granted. In other words, some take weeks or months, and some take years, but once they’re gained they almost reside in your subconscious.

Circle of Fifths
Foundational Bow Strokes
Situational Subdivision
Find and Use Resources
Everybody Plays a Solo
Bow Distribution (examples of written exams)
Use a Metronome Properly
Use a Drone Tone Properly
Minimal Thumb Force
Pronation and Supination

Expensive: You can work on these for a lifetime
Digging Into the Heart of the Music

Next time: Tuning Your Instrument Perfectly

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.