ready to go past playing prescribed parts?

An American Violinist in Europe


After so many trips to Europe I’ve learned to take my giddiness on arrival day with a grain of salt.

By next week the novelty will be replaced by a touch of irritability, and I’ll be ready for the hot bar at Whole Foods again.

“It’s an awesome place to visit”, I hear myself thinking, as my former self observes disparagingly that I am no longer and will never again be even remotely cool.

There really is a vibe though. Walk or train everywhere, clean, different food and fashion…

I suspect Europeans read heavy political science texts in high school, and that’s why the 14 yr-olds are all going on 35.

Like Raffaele, a violinist in the youth orchestra I worked with today, who’s mom says she can’t stop him from practicing. I confess to having felt a bit unsophisticated sitting next to him at the hotel bar at 9 pm last night.

Apparently he stays up until 1 am most nights watching obscure Youtube videos of violin concertos, (I’m guessing Noam Chomsky too).

The main reason for my trip is the second annual European Creative Strings Workshop & Festival, co-hosted with Baiju Bhatt in Lausanne, Switzerland..

It’s going to be a downright awesome hang, like Columbus in some ways, except they have public transport dialed in here, and you can eat vegan without ever being considered even slightly pretentious.

After this weekend, there are five more workshops between now and July you can choose from.

Speaking of which, if you will be at ASTA next month, let me know so we can connect.

Next week I teach at a conservatory in the Netherlands, then onto Eastman, and it keeps going all spring. Teachers in the U.S.– let me know if you want to explore fitting something in at your school this spring or next fall.

There is a lot of new writing, podcasts, and video content coming soon, but for now:

STUFF to Check Out:

-A brand new 90-second improvised performance video

– The recent podcast on music for peace and reconciliation with Joan Griffing (In case you missed it.)

Keeping It Real: (Tips & Tricks)

1) If you conduct an ensemble, and if you are ever joined by a rhythm section with a drummer, cue entrances and dynamics, but please Do Not Conduct Time while a drummer is playing. Trust me on this.

2) If you are a classroom music teacher- Have you tried assigning students homework (playing) via video submission?

Students can make videos, upload them to a Youtube channel or google drive, and send you a link. This is a way to check if they’re practicing. You could audition stand placements this way too, or create an option for extra credit.

Private teachers can use this to assign mid-week checkins to help students avoid putting off practice until the last day of the week.

My students in the Creative Strings Academy submit links for my feedback regularly, and it works really well, whether in conjunction with or as an alternative to regular private lessons.

3) On Practice- Consider a subtractive approach. I think of subtractive practice as eliminating unforced mistakes vs adding new skills. For improvisers this is so key because you have a choice about what to play or not play.

An analogy in health is to stop smoking or eating sugar, rather than running 5 miles or eating 2 pounds of spinach every day.

a) When improvising, practice restraining yourself to only playing notes within the rhythmic pocket. Choose silence over playing a note out of time.

Or as Victor Wooten says, “Never lose the groove in order to find a note”.

b) Identify a lick you play too often, and stop playing it. Saxophonist Greg Osby explained this to me as “exorcising” overused licks from his vocabulary.

It still requires discipline to stop any habit, but focusing on eliminating unforced mistakes has been a huge help for me and my students.

4) Want to feel more confident playing in a non-classical ensemble?

First, recognize that members of a band are likely not to speak classical music lingo. And you may not speak their lingo. You can make it easy for them to tell you what they want from you by asking them “yes or no” or “this or that” questions, such as “Would you prefer I lay out on the first verse?” or “Would you rather I play long notes in the lower register like this, or harmonize the riff played by the guitar like that?

When you do this you’ll circumvent miscommunications and resulting tension, and everyone in the band will love you and want to hire you back again and again. Translating across different musical sub-cultures is an underestimated ability that can make or break any collaboration.

5) Flipping the Script: Rather than practicing 3 hours per day, how about spending 1 hr per day getting gigs? Once you have a gig, you’ll have something specific to practice for, and you’ll get the best practice of all on the gig.

In America, a musician can get their own gigs, or get a JOB… or move to Europe. There’s usually one thing that stops musicians/teachers from getting gigs.


I was feeling proud today when I avoided a tourist trap, passing on the hotel’s $35 breakfast buffet to cross the street and buy a fresh roll and a hunk of Roquefort for 5 swiss francs.

Then I got suckered into paying $30 for a $5 electrical adapter at the hotel.

I guess I’m an American after all, for better or worse:)

Sending E-hugs from Zurich!


p.s.- The Creative Strings Academy has recently undergone a makeover, with new content, improved navigation, and a new email drip course. Think of it as an independent study college degree with access to lots of personalized guidance. Plus, it currently comes with the best no-brainer 30-day free trial anyone could ever ask for. Try it out.

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