We all know that many hours of practicing are essential for becoming the players and musicians we want to be. Sometimes we may think of practicing as a burden to be accomplished begrudgingly, a necessary evil if we want to become great. However, practicing itself is an art which can be learned, and like any art, the pleasure increases commensurate with the skill of the artist. As we become skilled at practicing, not only will we progress more rapidly but we will also gain self-discipline, focus, and peace of mind. Good practicing is a form of moving meditation, during which we are concentrated, completely present and alive.
I find it helpful to remember that our work is not just to master our instrument, but also to befriend it; not just to transmit our will and personality, but also to be drawn into the music and the composer’s world; not just to create a structure of discipline, but also to find the joy in the music and in the process of the work itself. We find within ourselves our own inspirational and demanding teacher, but we never lose sight of ourselves as music’s eternal student.
The following steps will help you to find more joy in your practicing as you learn a new work.
First Step: Getting Acquainted – Making Friends with the Music
Look at the music and sing it either out loud or in your head. If you begin by playing you immediately limit your aural imagination to what you can already do. If you hear it in your head you have the possibility to become more than you are. Notice what you feel as you sing with your mind’s ear. Does it make you want to dance or move? If so, dance or move as you sing.
Then take your instrument and play through the movement, or even just a part of it, as slowly as necessary. Your goal is to sound as good as you can right away. Hear each phrase in your head before you play. Respect the music; don’t allow yourself to play poorly or sloppily at this early stage. Begin at the highest level you are capable of producing. You may notice that you sound really good already on many portions of the piece; make a mental note of parts that you think will need more attention. Let yourself truly enjoy the beauty of the sounds you are creating now.
Second Step: Nuts and Bolts – Playing In Tune
From the beginning we need to cultivate the habit of playing in tune. Poor intonation is a most obvious defect to even an untrained audience. I recommend doing intonation work as early as possible, so that we do not spoil our ears by playing “in the cracks.” This should be done completely without reference to the rhythm or bowing in the music; legato as much as possible is to be preferred, because it will encourage the left hand to relax. The addition of a mild but continuous vibrato early in the process will help the hand relax and develop the sensual relationship of the finger with the string.
First match every possible note to adjacent open strings, using the perfect intervals of octaves and fourths; find the sympathetic ring in your instrument and the resulting feeling of give in the string. Make sure to tune your instrument carefully, because with all intonation work you are looking for maximum resonance. You will discover that as you play more in tune your instrument will sound richer and fuller, and you will be able to play into the string more deeply. Notice how your bow arm and entire body can relax as you sink into the welcoming string. Notice how as your instrument opens up and resonates, you can sense the vibrations through your whole body. It not only sounds good, it feels good to play in tune. Always search for the ring!
Next, plan your finger patterns and fingertip placements. Where are the whole steps and half steps? Think of your left hand as a grid; all four fingers should be in patterns at all times in this stage of your work. Leave fingers down lightly, or have them already grouped in the air with whole steps and half steps ready to go. If a passage involves any string crossings whatsoever, set up doublestops or multiplestops – the left hand must anticipate the bow. This kind of thinking in finger grids is like a secret code – after a while, you will no longer see separate notes; you will see patterns, which are much easier to learn, and much more stable to execute. There is a lot of mental fun to be had in planning out your secret finger code. You will notice as you become proficient at this that you will not fear hard passages; they will look and feel easier.
This kind of grid work relies on the stability of the hand and the ability of the fingers to work independently from the hand and from each other. The sensations of whole and half steps between the fingers will be entirely disrupted if you allow your wrist to move as you put down or pick up a finger. Keep the wrist relaxed but stable, in a straight line with the forearm.
The goal of the finger grid is not only accuracy; it is also balance and comfort. The care in which you place your fingerpads, the alignment of your arm, hand, and wrist, and certainly the amount of pressure can greatly aid in the organic ease of your left hand. If your hand feels good it will naturally remember its positions and you will have repeatability.
Find as much physical ease and release possible in each action of your left hand and arm. Practice your shifts legato back and forth, slurring across each shift – remember that your highest notes are often your glory notes and most transcendent moments, so find the release and joy as you float up! That feeling of ease and comfort will hold up under pressure, too, so not only will the process of searching itself be pleasurable, but the resulting playing will be amazing.
Third Step: Nuts and Bolts – Playing In Time
From the beginning we need to cultivate the habit of playing in a steady rhythm. This does not mean that we will end by playing steadily; the music may require something else. But practicing with steady rhythm will mean that we gain absolute mastery of bow speed and distribution, instead of simply changing the bow whenever and wherever we happen to run out of bow or time! If you have naturally good rhythm you may not need to work much in this area. If you do not have good rhythm, this will be a very fruitful and important part of your practice.
First put yourself on a metronome diet. Begin at quite a slow tempo, putting a subdivided beat on the metronome, which should be clearly audible even while you produce a good solid tone. Play the exact bowing in the music; do not divide the bow. Practicing in this way will teach a slower bow speed; smooth out the muscles in your bow arm; guarantee that you understand complex rhythms; ensure evenness and control in your left hand; and help you learn to plan your bow. Play exactly with the metronome’s beat – no approximation! Place your fingers, string crossings, and bow changes exactly on or in relation to the beat. This may be harder than it sounds – record yourself to check that you are really lining up and hearing yourself accurately. Notch your tempo up bit by bit, concentrating and keeping your alignment with the metronome. For variety try putting the metronome on silently; start while watching it, turn away, play a bit, turn back and see if you are still in time. You can develop a tremendous inner pulse in this way. Walking around while you play also works wonders in helping you feel the pulse as a physical event in your body.
In fast movements you will eventually want to work beyond the ideal tempo, and you will notice that when you bring the tempo back down, it will actually feel calm.
Fourth Step: Understanding Dynamics, Structure and Phrasing
Next, notice dynamics and add them to your slow and steady work with the metronome. Crescendos must not speed up (although you may wish to plan your bow so that your bow speeds up!) and diminuendos should not slow down. Which part of the bow do you need to be in for each passage? Here is where you will begin to make musical decisions, as well as discovering essential technical ease in your bow arm. The correct part of the bow will not only sound better, it will feel better. When you have control of your bow speed you can arrive at just the right part of the bow for the next passage. Great soloists make everything look as if the music happens by magic, but what you are hearing and seeing is the ease that comes from planning – they continually set themselves up for success.
An important part of dynamics may not be written in the music at all; this is the microphrasing that occurs in almost all Western music written before 1950, and which is based on the ebb and flow of harmonic tension, often easily discernible in our melodic lines. For example, look for the obvious shapes of lines; if the line is going up, it will often benefit from a small crescendo, even where none is written. Music is not a democracy; look for the kings and queens of each phrase, and the subservient notes which lead into and away from them. Look for series of sforzandos or repeated note patterns; in such situations it is almost always a good idea to start a little less and allow the series to build. Even in the early stages of your work you can and should begin to decipher these hierarchical relations, which I call microphrasing, and practice them into your bow as you are doing with your written dynamics. This is exceptionally fun and creative work, and when you do it you will feel like you are beginning to own your piece, not just playing it as someone else tells you to play.
Just as there is a hierarchy and structure within each phrase unit, there is an overall structure to each piece. Here is where a knowledge of theory can come in handy, because you will have names to give the various sections, and you will instantly have a framework in which to place each phrase. As you are working on a piece, especially once your initial technical work is in hand, you must study the music in order to begin to see it as a whole. Smaller phrases combine to create larger phrases, which in turn create sections. Part of our job as performers is to parse the music into audible sentences. Once you know the structure, you can begin to understand where the composer is going, and whether things are expected or unexpected. Even the placement of material within a bar can be dislocated or normal. Notice everything. Especially notice irregularity and non-diatonic notes. Always ask why something happens; every piece is a mystery to be solved, every gesture is an actor in a play, and every event is a clue to what the composer wants. If you can see the underlying story, you will be able to shape your performance so that each small part contributes to an unmistakable whole, and you will feel yourself as part of something much bigger too. As in life, so it is in music too: every action feels different when it has meaning and purpose.
Fifth Step: Creating Character with Visualization and Imagination
Now that you have created the firm undergirding for technical security, it is time to enter a particularly joyful part of your learning process. This is the time for you to find your most creative inner self. Music embodies and stirs powerful emotions. Sing your piece again. What does your piece feel like as you play it and sing it? Describe the various sections to yourself; try to make as much contrast between sections as you can. If you can’t come up with specific emotive adjectives (e.g. cheerful, sad, yearning, stern, angry, ecstatic, desolate) listen to some recordings and see if you can hear different characters in different recordings. As you listen, close your eyes and fantasize. If this were a ballet and people were dancing, what costumes would they be wearing? If someone were singing your part, what would they look like? Would they be male or female? Would they be wearing modern dress or a powdered wig? Would they be smiling or frowning? Would they be dancing, walking, holding still, or jumping up and down? Try singing while moving yourself in a way that seems to suit the phrase. What would this music look like if a good conductor were conducting it? Would the movement of his or her hands be angular or circular, hard or soft, tense or loving? Try conducting yourself as you sing and dance. This is your time to let go – let yourself feel the music and respond to it naturally.
Notes are almost never neutral. It is up to us to discover what their expression may be and amplify it so that the audience will be able to hear it unmistakably. You will be amazed at how much you have to exaggerate in order to project your piece’s characters. This is what artists do every day and it is every bit as necessary and important as our technical work. Without this creative process, we may become good players, but we will never be able to give people the deep emotions that they yearn to experience at concerts.
Sixth Step: Listening to Yourself
Now it is time to begin playing through the piece with every bit of musical feeling, combined with technical accuracy, which you can muster. Listen carefully as you play. Are you transmitting the nature of each part and phrase? Record yourself. You may find that what you intended to make beautiful and lyric is in fact marred by bumpy bow changes or lack of vibrato.
If one of your phrases strikes you as boring or neutral, think about what it needs. Sing it again; describe it again. Try to find the technique that will best express what you are doing when you sing. What consonants do you use? If you are singing “ta, ta, ta” you will want audible bow changes; if you are singing “da, da, da” you will want smoother changes; “ya, ya, ya,” perhaps the smoothest of all. Try to sense the energy of the music: does it flow easily or against resistance? You can mimic this in your bow speed. To increase intensity, depth of sound, bow speed, vibrato, microphrasing and even in some cases small variations in tempo can be added. Experiment, record, and listen again. You are the creator, and you are the judge!
Seventh Step: Performing
One of the most neglected aspects of practicing is the art of performing. The work of practicing itself involves listening, planning, and assessing in an endless cycle of improvement. If you continue this process in an actual performance you will be self-conscious and you will not be able to communicate the feelings of the music.
Instead, perform the piece in Carnegie Hall in your mind. Paint the scene – large hall, beautiful acoustics, expensive tickets, an audience longing to transcend their ordinary lives, you as the most extraordinary musician and artist ever. Throw yourself completely into fantasy and extroversion. You are Heifetz, you are Oistrach, you are Gil Shaham, you are Hilary Hahn all combined. Just as importantly, you are the embodiment of the spirit of Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Paganini, or whatever great composer you are performing; and you are the spiritual messenger for all humanity. All your hard work and preparation have been for this moment.
As you perform, imagine a little guy at the back of your brain. He is very small and efficient; you could call him your 2% guy. He is taking notes (NOT you!) that he will give you later if anything goes less than superbly. Once in a while he may notice that you need to make some tiny correction. He can dart in and remind you; then he retires to the back again. The idea is to keep your own primary focus on the music, and let the 2% guy handle the small stuff. Even if you miss a note, let him worry about it. It is not your job as a performer to look back at the road kill. With every fiber of your being, you are wholly occupied with feeling and communicating to the audience; you are the music, and you are in charge of what will happen next.
After you have performed, take out the 2% guy and have him give you a dispassionate report. You will be surprised what he can tell you about matters technical, physical, and emotional. Use his calm information in your next practice session. Remember that everything can be improved. Even if you haven’t reached perfection yet, you can get closer every time you practice, and great delight is to be had in the journey!
As in all areas of life, we need to keep in mind our end goals even as we concentrate on the myriad details which will go into our technical and musical work. Having joy in as many parts of our practicing as possible will encourage us to do the hours of work necessary to our success. Reminding ourselves of our musical and spiritual purpose will sustain us even when we are tired or discouraged. Our goal as musicians is to create beauty, so we must become our best possible selves in order to transmute notes on a page into the ethereal beauty that is a great piece of music. This is truly the reason why we practice, why we can always improve, and why we hope to find ever greater depths and heights of joyous performance in ourselves, our instruments, and our music.