Practicing. I doubt there is a single violin student who can’t wait to lock himself in a tiny room and hash out scales for hours. Successful violinists practice for upwards of 6-8 hours per day. That’s longer than some people spend at work. Below are five practice tips to help you get more accomplished in less time. You’ve heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” Well, this is the violin practicing version of that.
Disclaimer #1 – Nowhere will you see me say that you shouldn’t practice a lot. What I am trying to do here is get you to accomplish more in the same amount of time. Or, get the same progress in 45 minutes that you used to get in one hour. I am not saying that you should shave hours off of your weekly practice regimen.
Disclaimer #2 – These techniques and tips could easily be used for just about any other instrument. I play the violin and viola, therefore I write blog posts on how to practice and learn the violin and viola. If you play the saxamaphone, you could still use most of these tips. You’ll just need to adjust them for your area of study.
Tip the First – Don’t Play Wrong Notes
What? I thought the practice room was where you play all the wrong notes so you don’t play them at a recital or concert. Well, almost.
True, you will play wrong notes in the practice room (and at performances so get used to it). What you want to do in the practice room is play the passage you are working on so slowly you almost can’t play any wrong notes. Play it so slowly you have time to place your fingers exactly where they need to go. Then you gradually speed up. If you’ve practiced it correctly, your fingers will remember on their own where to go. This is called muscle memory.
You need to train your fingers to go to the right place. Playing wrong notes trains them to play wrong notes. You want at least a 10 to 1 ratio of right to wrong. Just make sure you don’t speed up until you have played the passage perfectly a few times at the slower speed. Practicing this way may seem tedious, but it will save you hours over the course of learning a new piece.
Tip #2 – Practice Scales with a Metronome
Practicing scales is boring. So is reading the dictionary, but they both get you the same result. If you read the dictionary, you know all the words and can read them when they appear in a book or magazine. If you practice scales, you learn all the notes and can play any of them when they happen in a concerto or sonata.
A great way to work on scales is with a metronome. This is a variation of Tip the First above. Set the metronome at 60 and then play your scale with 2 beats per note. Use full bows, all the way from frog to tip. Once you have played it perfectly at least twice, and I do mean perfect (be hard on yourself and don’t let anything go), play it again with one beat per note. Still full bows. Then two notes per beat (slur the notes). Then 3, 4, 6, and finally 8. Eight notes per beat will be really fast. Don’t go to the next speed until you’ve mastered the last one.
Always use full bows. Once you have mastered the scale all the way up to 8 notes per beat, you can increase the speed. Go to 66, then 72, then as fast as you can play it. As fast as you can play it perfectly. Playing fast with wrong notes is not acceptable. No wrong notes allowed. If you start playing tons of wrong notes, dial back the speed for a refresher.
Tip #3 – Watch and Hear Yourself in the Third Person
Huh? Well, what I mean by this is, you need to record yourself so you can listen as your teacher or the audience will hear it. Listening is vital to good musicianship, but always listening to yourself when the violin is under your chin can be misleading. Just like your voice sounds different when you hear a recording of it (there is actually a physical reason why), your playing will sound different when listening to it through headphones rather than while playing.
If you have a smartphone (or access to one) download (with permission) any of the dozens of recording apps. Use it to record small passages from any piece you are working on. You can record bits and pieces of a concerto, scales, etudes, or just random notes if practicing bowing techniques. Then listen to it and be critical. Determine what’s wrong, and then try to fix it. Record again, and see if you did fix it, and if not, repeat the process again. Eventually, you will learn what the correct notes/articulation/dynamics sound like without using the recording, which will save time.
Additionally, you should spend time in front of a mirror to see yourself in the third person. As a teacher, I spend a lot of time talking about angles and lines in hand and arm positions. You can’t see these angles unless you are looking at yourself in a mirror.
Tip #4 – Focus on the Tough Parts
Boy, it sure is fun to play the beautiful melodies in some concertos. The thing is, these beautiful slow parts are easy and not worth wasting time playing over and over. Yes, you need to spend some time initially to learn the easy parts just like you practice the difficult ones, but then you need to let them go and focus on the nasty stuff.
You will need to spend a lot more effort and time on difficult passages than you do the easy ones so identify them and mark them in your music (in pencil only, not colored pencil) with a star or asterisk. Then, when you come back the next day or next week, you know exactly where to start. You will need to experiment to come up with a good way to learn different technical sections, and not every method will work with every passage. Do not waste time playing easy parts when you could be working through the tough ones. Unless you are employing Tip #5…
Tip #5 – Play Through
When you are toward the end of learning a new piece, you need to set aside some time once each practice session to play from beginning to end without stopping no matter what happens. While practicing, it is very important to fix errors as they occur. That is what practicing is all about – learning the notes so you can play them at tempo. The thing is, by stopping and fixing mistakes, you are essentially teaching yourself how to stop and fix mistakes.
Therefore, you will need to spend a little time playing through long passages or entire movements without stopping (unless your house catches on fire or something). This will help you put together everything you’ve worked on so far, as well as rehearse the eventual performance. You can’t stop and fix wrong notes on stage at a recital, so don’t make your recital the first time you’ve ever played through the piece without stopping.
Practice Tips, Conclusion
I learned a long time ago to treat the practice room like your own private laboratory. Experimenting and trying new ways to learn music is essential, as is maximizing your time. I have known way too many great musicians who practiced 12 hours a day only to have their backs fail before they celebrated their 25th birthdays. Playing the violin (or the viola) is kind of like a golf swing – it’s not easy on the joints or spine. Don’t practice for 6 hours when 4 good hours will do. Your body will thank you (says the 46-year-old with a metal plate over his spine).