Practice Method Series: Passage work

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Classical Violin By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Violin » Classical Violin
Last updated: 01/01/2018
Tags: #howtopractice, classical music, classical violin, music practice, viola

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at improving your practice techniques for specific challenges. Our first installment will be passage work, or a continuous series of running notes. 

This is the classically "hard" looking music, usually semiquavers or even faster values, lots of black on the page. It looks visually stressful to see so many notes in such close proximity. However, deconstructing the passage will make any jumble of notes make more sense. 

The three most important aspects to mastering a fast passage are:

1. Knowing the patterns and where they change. 

2. Practicing significantly under tempo most of the time.

3. Always segwaying in and out of the passage once you feel comfortable. Usually the problem lies in the transition between material before the passage and the passage itself. 


Steps to practicing passage work:

1. Identify where the passage in question begins and ends. Isolate it visually with pencil brackets if this is helpful.

3. Determine the patterns in the passage. Is it scalar, arpeggiated or something else? Does it have subsections, perhaps a scale followed by several skips? Note exactly where patterns form and where they change. Neglecting pattern changes is a major pitfall when learning and executing fast music; knowing and preparing for them mentally will build confidence.

2. Set your metronome to 1/4 the tempo indicated. If this means clicks occur on the half beat instead of the beat itself, this is ok. It should feel painfully slow! Practice the passage at this tempo.

3. Slowly increase the tempo in 5-BPM intervals. Play at least three successful runs for each setting, consecutively, before moving up. I occasionally use small bagged candies like minstrels to motivate myself to get repetitions. Set aside one piece for every successful rep, and if even one rep is inadequate, put all the candies back into the bag. If you get 10 in a row, eat the candies!

4. Once you are half way to the goal tempo, pause and add rhythms to the passage. Example: For a standard semiquaver passage, change rhythms to trochee (short-long) and spondee (long-short) patterns. Explore further variations such as short-short-short-long, etc, within each group of 4. This is time consuming but worthwhile because you are training the brain to isolate certain notes within a passage that otherwise would be glossed over as part of the whole. With this intimate knowledge of what every note in the passage is, performance nerves are less likely break down the "confidence wall" that you've built. 

5. Continue with step 3 from here until you have things at a reasonable performance tempo. At this point add the entire bar before the passage starts and do several reps of the transition, similarly adding the bar afterward. Increase the number of preceding and succeeding bars as appropriate within musical phrase. This step is essential for executing the passage in actual performance context; you wouldn't want all this work to be wasted when it counts!


Passage work can be stressful to look at and conceive of at tempo, but with methodical dissection of its patterns, slow practice and contextual re-placement, you can learn any series of notes at (nearly!) any tempo. Happy practicing!

Jill Valentine Classical Violin Teacher (South East London)

About The Author

Hello! I am a classically trained violin/viola player and teacher. I aim to encourage my students to enjoy the process of learning music, regardless of level and age, and to refine a work ethic that can improve productivity in any aspect of life.

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