Types of Practicing
I find it very helpful to use four different types of practicing, and to purposely vary my mix from week to week.
I. Technique Development (1 – 1 ½ hours)
- Standard scales, arpeggios, and doublestops
- Left hand exercises: intonation, form, stretches, shifts, patterns, action
- Right hand exercises: tone, bow planning, releases, collee, springs
- Physical work: posture, breathing, relaxation, legs
II. Woodshedding (2 – 2 ½ hours)
Analysis and problem-solving are the heart of your work in learning a piece. The pace at which you can learn will depend on how difficult the piece is in relation to your technical level. If most of the piece is at the very top, or beyond, what you are easily able to do, you should expect to spend many hours of slow work before playing it up to tempo. Take whatever time is necessary to work on each page of music. Slow is better; even though it feels at first as if you are making no progress, if you are really practicing with understanding, things will start to snowball, and you will not only sound better, you will have an unshakably solid technical foundation.
III. Playing Through (30 minutes – 1 hour)
Each day you should spend time playing through parts of your repertoire, especially those which you have not been woodshedding. Play through at a steady tempo, and choose one which will give you maximum beauty and success. Try not to stop, but make mental notes of problem spots so that you can woodshed them tomorrow. Also notice what holds up and what does not. What needs more time? Can you tell which sections you practiced best? If something is coming along well, can you remember what you did in your practicing that is paying off now? Use that technique on similar passages in other works. If a section is not improving after several woodshedding sessions, ask your teacher for suggestions on how to practice it.
IV.Rapid Learning (30 minutes – 1 hour)
It can be really fun to learn in a hurry. Put a timer on and give yourself X number of minutes to learn X number of pages of music. This will often happen in real life, so get used to having this pressure! See how fast you can solve problems and make it sound good. Remember that you may not be able to practice every note, so learn the hard parts first. Trust yourself to be able to read the easy stuff.
Time Distribution Between Pieces
When we are practicing a number of difficult works, we may not be able to woodshed every single bar of every single piece every single day. A chart can be helpful in establishing priorities and ensuring rotation, so that we don’t spend too much time on one piece. List all movements of all pieces, and put a star or use a special color to denote the ones that are going to need the most attention. Then record what you have worked on each day. If you have a long movement, it may be two or more days before you can place a check on the chart. Difficult movements should get more checks (receive more practice sessions) than easy ones. In time you will be able to keep this chart mentally. You will develop a sense that it has been too long since you played through a particular section. You will be able to hold all your pieces in your mind – you will notice that some of them will be calling to you more loudly than others!
I highly recommend two books by Burton Kaplan: Practicing for Artistic Success and A Musician’s Practice Log.
Evaluating Practice Results
Remember that practicing should result in beautiful playing and a satisfied violinist.
If you and/or your teacher are not musically happy, what do you need to change? More woodshedding? More playing through and surrendering to the music? More fast learning? More creativity and imagination? More time on technique?
If you are not personally happy, what do you need to change? Do you need more or different pieces? Easier pieces? Harder pieces? A different ratio of woodshedding to playing through? More breaks? More physical stretches and exercise so that you are not too sore and tired?
You are the ultimate boss. You are in charge. If you are not getting the results you want, you need to change what you are doing. The art of practicing lies in that delicate balance between the sweet pleasure of playing the violin and the exhilarating discipline of continually challenging yourself to do better.