Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Fine Art of Practicing

 Written by: Amy Tobin

It may sound a little funny, but knowing how to practice takes practice! When you are learning a new piece, I think you will agree that just playing it over and over again isn't going to make you learn it any faster or better. In fact, it might even slow your progress! Sometimes we need to take baby steps in order to be able to make those giant leaps!

In any practice session, the first thing you absolutely need to do is warm up. This is crucial! You would never see a major league pitcher come right from the dressing room and start pitching full force, whether it was for a practice or a game. He takes the time to warm up his muscles by doing some stretching and specific exercises.
Although, as a musician, you might not feel like you have anything in common with a professional athlete, you definitely do. We put our muscles through a lot while playing and practicing. Just because the muscle groups we use happen to be smaller doesn't mean we can forget about warming up properly.

Warm up with some scales. Take it slowly so you can concentrate on the bow and tone production. Only after playing for a few minutes should you start speeding things up. Allow your hands to get warm and then move on to some etudes to concentrate on a specific technique. You can choose your etudes by the pieces that you are working on. If there is a technique that you use a lot or are having difficulty with in the piece, there will be an etude that focuses on that. There are a lot of great etude books out there. My favorites are Mazas and Kreutzer. No matter what I am working on, I will always find something in one of those books that focuses on that.

Once you have sufficiently warmed up and feel limber in your hands and your bow arm, then you can move on to your main piece of music. Sometimes, depending on how long the piece is, it can seem overwhelming at the beginning stages of learning it. You might try to play it through first and get a feel for which parts of the piece are a little easier and which parts pose more of a challenge. Once you get that figured out, you can be a little more specific with your practice session.

After you have gotten a sense for which parts are more difficult, start with those. As you play, try to figure out why they are difficult. Is it a string crossing that is awkward? A shift that you're not quite comfortable with? Perhaps it's a bowing technique that you haven't quite mastered yet. Whatever it is, once you have identified it, then you can tackle it. Try to take it to its smallest component first. Most of the time, when I am having difficulty with a particular passage, I can boil it down to one note! Once I have that note figured out, I can then take a look at why it is causing me difficulty and, by fixing that one note, can usually play the passage much more easily. I focus on that note by playing the few that come before it and after it. Once I can play that smoothly, then I back up a couple of measures, start from there, and I play a couple of measures after it as well. Once that is comfortable, I add  a few more measures on either side of that spot until I can play the whole phrase comfortably.

It is very important, when you have a specific passage that you are practicing, to play well before it and beyond it. If you stop at the same place every time you play, you are reinforcing your muscles to stop at that point. Muscle memory is incredibly strong and should not be underestimated. When the heat is on (audition, performance, etc.), your muscles will want to revert to what they are comfortable with, so make sure that you play beyond your trouble spots once you begin to work on them and fix them.

If you need to memorize a piece, start from the last measure. Memorize the last measure and add the one before it. In this way, by the time you get to the beginning, you will have solidly memorized the entire piece. If you think about it, it's never the beginning of the piece that people forget under pressure. It's always somewhere in the middle or toward the end. This is because much more time is spent, proportionally, playing the beginning when people start their memorization from there. Start from the last phrase and build on that and you will have no problem at all!

One more quick thought for you. Practicing is not about quantity, it is about quality. If you set out to practice for four hours a day, but all you are doing is just playing your pieces over and over again, you will just be wasting your time. As I have gotten older and have less free time, I have found that thirty minutes of thoughtful, focused practicing does much more than two hours of just playing. Obviously, you want to put as much effective practice time in as you can, but if you only have a small window of time, don't let that stop you! Take that half an hour to work on only the four or five toughest measures of your piece. Believe me, when you are sparkling there on the stage or wowing them at the audition, you will definitely be thankful that you did.

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