The Practice Room is Your Laboratory
Let’s be honest, no one likes to practice. The best violinists in the world don’t love getting into a room and working for hours on little snippets of repertoire. Unfortunately, the practice room is where we work and improve. Practicing is necessary, but if you’ve read anything else I’ve written here, you’ll see that I always recommend working smarter, not longer when it comes to practicing. Below are some great tips to help you manage your practicing. Turn the practice room into a laboratory and turn yourself into a scientist (a mad one if that works). By identifying what works and what doesn’t in your practicing, you can eliminate all the time-wasting stuff and just get down to business. The object isn’t to practice the most, it’s to practice the best.
Practice Room – Laboratory Setup
Now, lets get our lab all set up and ready to go. A good scientist has all of his instruments and equipment calibrated before he gets started and you have to do the same. Is your violin in tune? If not, make sure you use a digital tuner (phone app or metronome) to get it in tune. Put rosin on your bow. Clean old rosin dust off of your violin before you start. Rosin can turn sticky and coat your violin making it hard to clean later. Don’t forget to get the gunk off of the strings too. It’ll make a nasty squeaky sound, but do it before the buildup ruins your tone.
Get your music stand positioned in good light. Make sure you have plenty of room. For you tall people, watch out for ceiling fans! Have your music ready to go. Get your phone ready for recording or tuning (or metronome). Once you have all of your equipment ready, you can begin.
Make Mistake, Fix, Repeat
The key to being a good scientist is to identify the problem, find out what caused it, and then fix it. The same is true for musicians. If you make a mistake, find out what caused it. Then, fix it and move on. I know this sounds easy, and in real life nothing is as easy as it sounds, but if you work this way in the practice room, you will improve quickly.
Playing wrong notes in the practice room is the same as practicing wrong notes. If one of those little buggers happens, you need to stop and find out what went wrong. Don’t take the chance of playing it wrong a second (or, gasp, third) time. Find the spot, play it correctly a few times, then move on. Don’t move on until it’s correct.
I sometimes look at things mathematically. Yes I am a musician. Yes I suck at math. But, I use math all the time to get better. When it comes to wrong notes, I need a ratio of at least 10-1 of right to wrong. That means if I play a wrong note (or a note out of tune), I need to play that passage 10 times perfectly for each one time I botched it.
Music teachers used to say, “Practice that spot over and over again until you get it right!” What we should say is, “Practice is over and over until you get it right, then play it 100 more times!”
Don’t Let the Bunsen Burner Get Too Hot
While it can be frustrating to work your way through a new piece, don’t let it get the better of you. When practicing, you need to slow everything down. Play slower than you think you can. Take time to think about what is happening. Write things down if you need to. Many successful violinists write a practice journal. It is very helpful to read what you did last week that worked (or didn’t), and repeat that success.
I could write an encyclopedia about individual practice situations and how to solve them, but I’ll choose just one for this post. Let’s say you have a passage with some fast notes and they are tripping you up. Something like this:
You need to break down that passage one of several ways. The first would be to take each group of four notes and perfect it. Then move on to the next group. Then, try to play the two groups together. When you can do that perfectly (I keep using that word – I do know what it means), then move on to the next group of four. Do the same thing with those, then try and play all four groups together.
If the notes are all on separate bows like the example above, I like to also play them slurred to make sure my left hand knows what it’s doing. I play them twice as fast as they go with at least four per bow. Then, once my fingers are solid, I can work on coordinating the right and left hands. Eliminating one difficult aspect of a passage and learning it that way is a great practice tool. You take away something that is tough, learn the passage without it, then add the hard part back into the music. Separating the right hand from the left is a perfect example of that.
The Practice Room – Compile Your Results
We’ve all heard it a million times – practicing is not playing and playing is not practicing. That is absolutely correct. Simply playing through your music is not practicing. If you turn your practice room into a laboratory, you make practicing scientific as it should be. Eliminate mistakes, play in tune, and always with an excellent sound. Invent experiments to achieve all of those goals.
Also, leave time to play through what you have learned. I say this all the time and it’s definitely true; if you only stop to fix things and never play through, you’re only practicing how to stop and fix things. You need to play through large sections without stopping (no matter what) to learn how to do that. At an audition or recital, you can’t stop and fix problems. Don’t play through until you’ve worked on the music in your lab, but do make time to do this. Your music career will thank you for it.
If you’re a mad enough scientist in the practice room, your results will be easy to compile and will impress the committee (your teacher, the audience, the jury panel). All successful musicians have to be a little mad to begin with. The best ones are the best scientists when they practice.