I know, it’s almost February. New years resolutions should have been made a month ago. Fear not, intrepid reader, you can still organize your goals for the coming year. I’ll help you.
Give it Some Thought
Just like the practicing you’re about to start, you need take your time and think about what you want to accomplish over the course of the year. Any goals you choose must be attainable, but only with hard work. Realistic expectations are important. Losing 50 pounds by March is not realistic. Neither is learning the Sibelius Violin Concerto in two weeks.
The first goal you should write down is, a realistic amount of time each day you will practice. For most students (beginners excepted), practicing an hour a day, five days a week is a realistic goal to have. Even I don’t practice every day (but I should). Things come up. For example, I played a concert tonight (some of the toughest music I’ve ever played), and I’m driving home tomorrow – a five-hour drive. I will not practice tomorrow. I will be exhausted.
Depending on how much music you have to learn each week, and how advanced you are as a player, practice time will vary. As a professional, I try to practice two hours each day. That is enough time to do scales, exercises, whatever gig music I have to learn, and some solo work. Advanced students might practice more. School will get in the way of course, but most performance majors will practice at least 4 hours a day.
What to Practice
You should have an idea of what you want to learn this year. Is it that concerto you’ve always wanted to try? That sonata you never studied? That Lindsay Sterling song you saw on YouTube? Whatever it is, make sure it’s going to occupy your attention long enough to be a long-term goal.
Maybe you want to just “get better.” In that case, you should try to practice “X” amount of time on scales and etudes each day with a goal of improving your technique. Maybe you want to master that Kruetzer or Rode etude you always had trouble with. Or, you want to finally learn that Paganini caprice you’ve always loved. Maybe you just want to learn how to do fingered octaves. Get out the Carl Flesch scale book and get to work. Whatever it is you want, make it realistic to attain.
Once you’ve decided on the goals for your next several months of practicing, write it down. Put it in a spreadsheet. Tattoo it on your posterior. Make sure it is available to look at to keep yourself honest. Quick note – if you do tattoo it on your butt, make sure it’s backwards so you can read it in a mirror.
Whoever said “starting is the hardest part” is very wrong. Starting is easy. Sticking with it is the tough part. Finishing is even harder, but we never really stop improving, even if we can play these pieces. There are some things you can do at the beginning that will help you down the road.
Set up a schedule for yourself. Make practicing a scheduled event in your life, Like school or work, a set time to start and stop will help you keep on track. The amount of time you practice is up to you. You should ramp up to your ideal time over the first week or so. Violin muscles are small and tender so be careful not to overdo it right away. As always, if anything hurts, stop and relax for a few minutes (but not for too long). Practice at the same time every day for the same amount of time. That will make it easier to track your progress.
Keep track of your progress. Use a spreadsheet or journal. Or, you could do like people on a die – take a before picture to compare yourself to in a few months. Of course, you won’t take a picture, you’ll make a recording. Record yourself playing a scale and some arpeggios. Then add a piece you are comfortable playing. Then save it to your computer in a safe place so you can find it later in the year.
You should allocate your time and stick to that schedule. An advanced student or professional should allow at least 20-30 minutes for scales. Add another 20 minutes for etudes or exercises. Then, spend the largest block of time on the solo repertoire you are learning. My students get three things to work on each week; scales, exercises, and repertoire. Personally, for a two hour session, I do 30-20-70 minutes on each subject. For a less advanced student, that might be closer to 10-10-20. Or, it could be 5-10-20-20 if you add school orchestra music.
Use a timer or stopwatch to stick to the schedule. Your short-term goals for each session should be reasonable. The biggest motivator for practicing is improvement. If you can say that you learned just that one passage in the concerto, but you learned it well, then you have motivation to learn the next one tomorrow. If you played your arpeggios perfectly after only four tries, you can then try and beat that score tomorrow. Again, keep track of what you’re doing so you can plot your progress.
Goals Achieved – Now What?
Set new ones and get on with it. Duh. If it took only a month or two to reach your goals, you made them too easy. Start over with more robust targets in mind. If the opposite is true – you’re 8-10 months in and struggling to get anything right – stop and reevaluate. Start over with shorter, easier goals. I said before that improvement is the best motivation. That’s true, but lack of improvement is like a brick wall. Banging your head against this wall is what you’re doing when you get stuck. You definitely won’t get through it, and you’ll have a giant headache. Stop, step back, and start fresh.
Let’s say you’ve learned that concerto you always wanted to study. Pick a new piece out and make it a little more difficult. For example, if you finally learned Zigunerweisen, step it up and try the Carmen Fantasy next. Maybe you finally got through a Mozart Concerto. Try Mendelssohn next. Or, maybe you finally learned how to play thirds and sixths in tune. Now it’s time to work on octaves and fingered octaves. Note, when working on fingered octaves, take lots of breaks – these are tough on your left hand.
Final Thoughts on the New Year
Lastly, you need to stay positive. You won’t necessarily get noticeably better every single day. To quote an overused cliche, this is a marathon not a sprint. A little bit each day over the course of several months will bare the most fruit. Try as hard as you can not to go without practicing on consecutive days. After one day, you’ll still be at 80-90% the next time you practice. After two days, that number goes way down. Think ahead and see what you have coming up that might prevent you from practicing. Plan accordingly.
Vacations will probably happen in there somewhere. It’s understandable. Just make sure you ramp back up after you get back. Don’t start at the level of practicing you left off with. Take a couple of days and work back up to your optimum level.
Lastly, don’t force it. You shouldn’t practice when you’re not into it 100%. If you’re sick, hurt, grumpy, or too tired, practicing could do more harm than good. You only want to practice the right way. If you force yourself to play even though you’re not physically or mentally sharp, you’ll just practice wrong notes and technique which is not good at all. Now, don’t use this as an excuse. Gee, I’m a little tired. I shouldn’t practice because Chuck said so. Nice try buster.