I play a lot of golf, and in many ways, learning golf and learning violin are very similar. Both golf and violin have feel players and mechanical or technical players. I’m going to go into much more detail below, and at the end, you’ll see why you need to insert more mechanics into your practice routine. I’ve talked before about being a scientist in the practice room. You need to do that, and be a little more technical and disciplined when you practice if you want to be a more precise and stronger player.
The Feel Player
In music and golf, the feel player uses his intuition to practice and perform. Things like mathematics and science have no place here. The practice routine (such as it is) probably has a few standard exercises, but the rest is normally made up as they go. Practicing, like life I suppose, should be fluid and unpredictable. In fact, many feel players hardly practice at all sometimes.
Maybe you feel like working with your driver today, but while warming up, you decide to work with the pitching wedge instead. No problem. Just go with it. Maybe you plan to work on a specific passage in that concerto, but while getting ready, you decide to spend an hour on scales and arpeggios (not a bad idea, honestly). Piece ‘o cake. Just go with the flow, man. Peace, love, and somewhat decent intonation.
The Mechanic or Technical Player
The mechanic is all about the moving parts. No detail of the golf swing or bow stroke is too small to work on. What is my pinkie doing when I transition from up-bow to down-bow? How does my left foot move during my backswing on the driving range? Data and analytics are what the mechanic loves.
Maybe you plan to work on scales today, but while warming up with the beginning of your concerto, something goes wrong that you want to address. Nope. We’re on a schedule here. I need to address all of these bullet points on my practice outline before I do anything else. There must be order and discipline. Maybe I want to spend 30 minutes on the range working on my putting stroke, but while hitting balls I discovered a swing flaw that needs work. Sorry, that’s not on the agenda. Today is putting only.
Both types of players can be quite successful, but the most successful golfer or violinist blends them together for the perfect practice routine. Personally, I am more of a feel player because I care more about the passion of music than its tiny parts. As a golfer, I am a complete feel player because I just like to swing away and tweak what I need. The thing is, as a violinist, I have been adding more science and data into my practicing and it is helping a lot. Let’s see how.
Practice Routine – Stay on Schedule
The first thing you should do is set a basic schedule for your practice time. I’ll use a one-hour session as an example. You would spend 15 minutes on scales and arpeggios. Then 15 minutes on an etude or technical exercise. The remaining 30 minutes would be spent working on your solo piece(s). You need to stick to this schedule. If you go over the 15 minutes, that’s fine, but make sure you work that section of practicing for the entire time. Trust me, there will be enough issues for you to explore. You won’t get to 12 minutes and say, “Welp, that was perfect, I can move on.” Have the discipline to stay on schedule.
You could take it a step further if you like. Let’s say there’s a passage in your concerto you’re having trouble with. Like one particular 2-bar spot. Why not set a timer and work that spot for 10 minutes, not a minute less. Even if you think you learned it well in just a couple of minutes, you’re wrong. Take the full time and learn those two bars like they’re the last you’ll ever play. You won’t have to worry about them ever again.
Practice Routine – Use Your Tools
I’ve spoken about tools before. There are several that you can use to make practicing efficient. First, there is the metronome. You must use it. Period. If you hate the metronome, too bad. Suck it up, buttercup and turn it on. This essential tool isn’t just for playing in time. I like to use it to keep myself from cheating when playing through large sections of a piece. When you audition or even when you play for your own teacher, the one thing the judges or teachers are looking for is for you to play the entire section at one uniform tempo. That means you don’t play the slow parts at one tempo and then slow down when the notes get faster and more difficult. A metronome will cure you of this faster than Augustin Hadelich plays the last page of the Rondo Capriccioso.
A digital tuner is invaluable for practicing scales. I’ve mentioned it before also, but it’s worth mentioning again. Play slowly with the tuner and you’ll be shocked at how out of tune you really play. Finally, as mentioned above, use a timer. At worst, use a clock to budget your practice time. Stick to the schedule. You won’t believe how slowly 15 minutes goes by when you’re actually timing it.
Practice Routine – Use the Scientific Method
Finally, don’t be afraid to use the scientific method for your practicing. That means, play through a passage and identify the problem. Then, come up with a possible solution to that problem by using your own ears, or what your teacher has told you about that problem. After you’ve done that, design an experiment (in this case an exercise) to fix said issue. Did it work? If yes, you’ve conquered that problem. If not, you either have to tweak your exercise or create a new one. Through trial and error, you will eventually solve your problem. If you don’t solve it at home in the practice room, you’ll solve it when you ask your teacher now to fix it.
When I teach, I don’t practice for the student. My lessons involve showing a student how to practice. Nearly all good teachers do this. What I’ll do is ask the student to identify the problem. If she can’t, I’ll ask some leading questions to get her to figure it out. Then, I’ll ask how she might practice it. If I like the answer, we’ll work it together. If no, I’ll suggest an exercise or different way of playing the passage that will fix the issue. Nine times out of ten, the student has no problems with that passage anymore after about five minutes of working on it this way. A good teacher shows his students how practicing works during the lesson. This should motivate the student to do the exact same thing at home. Well, that and, you know, threats of physical violence.
Aside from the examples above, there are countless ways to science up your practice routine. You’ll notice I use those two words a lot in this post. Besides the obvious keyword spamming, I’m also telling you to get some discipline and structure to your practicing. You can’t be just a feel player. Maybe you don’t want them, but you need rules, order, and discipline in order to be successful.