Victims of Habit

By James Dickenson  -  11 June 2015

One of the questions that has intrigued me for the last couple of years is what to do when ones’ talent seems to have either run out, or been developed as far as is possible? I have felt it, and I suspect many musicians do, the feeling that no matter how hard we work we have reached the end……..



In many ways this helped fuel my interest in Dounis, who claimed he could fix your technical problems in four weeks, and indeed I believe he could. As I spoke of before, the view of violin playing essentially as brain training rather than anything else.  Think of a child learning to walk, for a while they struggle but once they have learnt how (to walk) they repeat this process for the rest of their lives perfectly and without thought.  If a child can do this, why cannot we on an instrument?

Without thought is the key phrase here as the eventual aim of Dounis’ work is the feeling of freedom, free from technical constraints and able to express music in any way one wishes.

This is all great and I will write about these exercises and how to practice them in the near future, but one of the key aspects of improvement that I feel is not discussed enough is “perception”. That is to say, that as much as anything our playing is driven by our perception of our playing.  Are we really practicing, or are we simply repeating a feeling we know, regardless? How much of your practice is actually simply repetition, or worse mindless repetition? Are we actually hearing reality, or are we hearing what our repetitive practicing has taught us to hear?

All playing is habitual to an extent, we all have our favourite bow speed or finger to vibrate on…but more than this I actually think that the mind is such a powerful instrument, and one that avoids discomfort at all costs, that it can trick us into believing what we want to know, or in this case hear or feel, rather than what is actually happening.  

When a player has “peaked”, this is I believe very often the key to improvement, to change the perception of one’s playing.

I can give a personal example here: 

After many years of playing and practice, our minds quite naturally focus on particular aspects of performance. For me it was intonation. I was always obsessed by intonation, and when I practiced, my mind would hone in on any perceived faults and I would spend countless hours fixing these. For each musician it is different, but I daresay everyone has them.

The revelation for me came once I started videoing myself, something I now do regularly. I took an excerpt and played it, then watched it back. I was stunned. When I had played through, I'd thought  “What a chump. Out of tune again!” but to my surprise, it was not out of tune at all, not even slightly and actually even the notes I had thought were out of tune were not…. “Go figure” as the Americans say.

It was my perception, you see. My mind had told me they were out of tune, I had heard them out of tune, but they were not. What you then realise is that there are other areas that need some work, and that over time you can change the way you hear. Just remember to always ask yourself  'Are you hearing what you are actually playing?'

About James Dickenson

London based violinist James is the leader of the Villiers String Quartet and a freelance orchestral and session musician

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