What is practice?
Repeated performance or systematic exercise. (Macquarie dictionary)
Learning skills through repetition.
Transfer of skills from short-term to long-term memory.
Diagnosing and programming.
Focussing on how we would like to sound and directing our body to create this sound.
Everything we do can be considered practice, the challenge is to make it as effective as possible. There are many questions to ask while preparing to practise. Here are some important questions.
Why practise? Why not sit in the sun instead?
While the answer is clear - in order to become a better player, the question represents a challenge to the quality of our practice. Poor practice does not just make your progress slow, but can actually be worse than no practice. This is because the habits created by bad practice need to be overcome before any real progress is made, thus taking even more time than if the bad practice had never happened. Not surprisingly our arms and hands think that what we tell them to do is what they should do, so they will continue to repeat faults until they are reprogrammed. All in all sitting in the sun is more beneficial to your violin playing than bad practice!
Examples of bad practice are:
Repeating an out-of-tune shift, thereby training the arm and finger to move to the incorrect spot on the fingerboard.
Playing a passage with no musical intention, with no direction in the phrasing, thereby training our arms to ignore the shape of the music.
Practising with excessive tension; for example practising double stops with very tight fingers.
Playing without monitoring the quality of your playing; such as practising with sloppy or faulty rhythm.
Playing regularly without monitoring intonation thus training us not to hear ourselves. Many students who play out of tune can hear if others play out of tune, but have trained themselves not to hear this in their own playing.
How much do we need to practise?
As with many disciplines the amount of practice relates to the level of player and the task in hand. For instance in mathematics, a student in the first few years of school may spend a few minutes a day learning times tables, a student at the end of their secondary schooling may spend several hours a night unravelling calculus or trigonometry and a doctoral student may spend several years on one specific problem. Similarly a young beginner violinist may practice just 30 minutes a day, an older student working on a Bach concerto may practice around 2 hours a day, while a young professional preparing for an audition or a major recital may practice anywhere between 4 to 8 hours a day.
In every case the quality of the practice is much more important than the quantity. Detailed research also shows that in order to be effective, practice needs to be deliberate, that is focussed and directed towards improvement. For those interested in reading further there is some excellent analysis on the type of practice needed to progress from a novice to an expert in the work of K. Anders Ericsson. See Bibliography
Plan your practice
All practice needs to be planned. This includes planning when to practise performing, when to develop new skills and when to solve problems.
Set goals and a structure.
Find regular scheduled practice times.
Find a quiet enough practice room.
Include warm ups, review of old repertoire, sight reading of new material.
Monitor the positives as well as the negatives, and acknowledge what you have achieved.
Observe and listen to yourself using mirrors, video cameras or by seeking advice from trusted colleagues.
Program our bodies
When we begin to practise with the instrument in hand we need to program in the movements that we have worked out with our musical mapping. Slow practice is not just a chance to monitor accuracy but to give time to clearly explain to fingers, hands and arms what they need to do. Galamian calls this mental-physical relationship the correlation. (Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching).
Before you begin to practise pay attention to your body since the body needs to be ready to learn and ask yourself some questions:
Will you be practising sitting or standing?
Is your weight evenly distributed over both legs, without locked knees?
Is the music stand at a good height?
Is your chair a good height with a flat seat?
Are you ready to stand/jump up at any time? Try bouncing yourself off the chair; keep a sense of aliveness.
Do your heels have good contact with the floor, especially when you are playing strongly and loudly?
Standing or sitting:
Is your head relatively upright, while playing could you take your chin off the chin rest and look up to the ceiling?
Are you pressing down too hard on the chin rest? If the scroll of the instrument is drooping (especially for violas) and if you are pushing down too hard on the chin rest then your left arm has to work very hard to hold the instrument up.
Do your chest and shoulders feel open? Experiment with pivoting your elbows up and away from the body (chicken wings) to see far they can go, how open the chest can be.
Mental practice - Prepare the musical map
A musical map contains all the relevant musical information required to perform a piece. This includes the rhythmic structure, the key, the mood and character of the passage. Making such a map assists us in practice and performance since it gives clear directions to our arms as to how to play. When you are looking for a new address you drive hesitantly, then when you know where you are going you drive smoothly and confidently.
Before beginning a new piece, mark up the music with your own fingerings and bowings. Think about musical issues (including any performance practice issues) as well as technical ones. Listen to many recordings to help you decide on musical shapes. Add your own markings to indicate phrasing and length of phrase. In Baroque and Classical scores we will need to add our own markings for articulation, dynamics and ornaments.
Apart from fingerings and bowings some technical issues to look at are:
Analyse each shift, marking in guide fingers.
Work out when to place fingers on two strings and when to hold fingers down.
Think about bow division, how much bow and which point of contact you will need to play the phrase.
Robert Gerle has an excellent discussion on this topic in The Art of Practising the Violin, Ch.7 Sight reading Practice 1: First Steps.
All this of course develops your inner hearing, your musical map that you can call on when you are playing the piece on your instrument. It is a wonderful discipline to learn a whole movement from memory just by using mental practice.
To further develop your inner hearing:
Sing the whole movement, both out aloud and in your head.
Conduct while you sing, making sure that your right hand with the beat is independent of the rhythm that you are singing and that your left hand is indicating the phrasing and musical shape that you want to follow.
Using our ears and brain to listen to our playing is the most important tool in our practice. However sometimes we should turn off the sound in order to concentrate on a particular aspect of technique, such as finger action, arm steering or placing double-stops together. Practising exercises silently is standard in many warm-up routines, such as those by Yost, Fischer and Dounis.
Direction and intention
Since the mind directs our body to carry out tasks, it is important that we are clear about our intentions.
Be clear what fingering you will use. Trying different fingerings is of course useful, but once we start to program then we need to choose one fingering to work with.
When practising a shift, give your fingers clear directions; I intend to shift quickly from a 1st finger in 2nd position to a 3rd finger in 5th position, using the 1st finger as a guide finger. Sing the note after the shift out aloud (or sing it silently in your head), move the finger to the note and tap it into position.
During practice our finger may hover above a note in order to monitor the release of finger during the shift but we also need to develop a finger action that taps down into position without hesitation. In performance we must commit to a note since a wavering finger makes an unclear sound and never sounds in tune in any case. A clear intention leads to a fluid movement and allows the fingers and arms to be in an alive state ready to move again as quickly as required.
Above all we need to be clear about our musical intentions since they provide the overall guide for our actions. Playing all the time with minimum intensity suits our comfort zone (our arms like nothing better than to just coast along), but we need to direct the bow to play with spirit, and the left hand to vibrate with intensity, otherwise we will play with a bland mezzo forte dynamic all the time.
When we read language we do not read individual letters but rather the larger units of words and sentences. Similarly when we read and play music we can read and think in groups of notes instead of single notes. Recognising and practising these patterns is always useful but is essential for fast passagework.
Practise scale and arpeggio sequences in patterns. Practise each pattern several times, tapping and lifting the fingers then playing with the bow. Notice the slight changes in hand position when playing differing finger patterns. See Finger Patterns & Finger Pattern Diagrams.
We need to distinguish between what we think we are doing and what we really are doing. Challenge your perceptions by watching video of your practice:
Bring a copy of your practice recording to the lesson - was it really better at home?
Listening to recordings is useful. Always playing along with recordings is not.
When preparing an accompanied piece or ensemble music, practise with the accompanist or ensemble.
We need to practise what needs practising, not just what is comfortable or familiar, so work out which problems need to be solved and start there.
- Dont always start at the beginning.
- Dont always repeat whole sections.
Practise difficult passages from memory so you can focus on the sound and physical patterns.
Break difficult passages down into their various components and work on the components one by one. Try an audit, for example, on Paganinis Moto perpetuo. This could include:
Improve the left-hand action by repeating four notes slurred at tempo
Repeat one bar several times (create a loop), monitoring tiredness and the ease and reliability of fingerfall.
Find and practise patterns in the notes. The left hand needs to work in patterns since there is often no time to tell individual fingers where to go.
Practise the correct version more often than the incorrect version.
Practise the sautillé on open strings at tempo with metronome. Is it reliable, even and clear?
Does playing with musical shape and dynamics upset your control?
Practise slurred passages with separate bows and vice versa.
Start a détaché passage on the opposite bow to normal (for instance, start up-bow on Kreutzers Study No.8), and focus on evenness.
Practise backwards as well as forwards. It is important that you practise finishing with confidence and clarity, not petering out in the unknown. This is especially important when playing runs that finish on a high note. Start with the last note and add notes or sections one by one.
These mental gymnastics also help maintain focus in practice.
Solve a problem by switching focus from one side to the other. This can have surprisingly quick results.
When confronted by a spasmodic vibrato action, switch attention away from the left hand to the right hand, and work on ease of movement in the lower-half bowstroke. Any tightness in the right upper arm may be contributing to problematic vibrato action.
When the problem is shifting accuracy in arpeggios, try focusing on a bowing issue such as smooth string crossing. Conversely, if the problem is smooth string crossing try focusing on smooth accurate shifting.
We usually practise slowly to diagnose a problem and then to program the solution. However practising slowly is of limited use if we do not also practise with the ultimate performance tempo in mind.
For fast passagework use a metronome and practise small units at half tempo to program your fingers and arms. Follow this by practising at tempo to check whether the programming has worked. Automatically increasing the speed of a metronome by one click every day can waste valuable practice time. See Gerle, The Art of Practising the Violin, pp.14-17.
Insert rests, or leave out certain notes in order to focus on others. This gives time to diagnose problems and program solutions. It also focuses the mind.
Practise on open strings
By practising passages on open strings we can analyse what dynamic and what bow division we are actually using.
Play air violin
Practise movements away from the instrument. Bow in the air above the string, mime shifting actions with the left arm, or activate your passive upper arm movement for vibrato by shaking a matchbox.
Practise balancing the violin in different ways. Be aware of what holds the violin up and why. You can play without a shoulder rest, or with your chin off the instrument, or even both at once. Ysayes Exercises and Scales and Galamians Scales in one position are ideal for this type of practice.
You should take risks and make mistakes early in the preparation cycle for better understanding of the real needs of the piece. Don't leave performance practice and an awareness of overall shape and emotion for too long.
Informal practice (reading quartets, improvising) is as important as formal practice (learning a new piece or technique). We must also practise performing, including taking risks and not worrying about making mistakes.
Practise sight reading
As the long-term goal of sight-reading is music literacy, understanding musical context and expressing style, sight reading should be an important part of practice. Organise your approach to sight reading:
Looking at the music, think of the character and shape of the music. A useful exercise in small groups is to use YouTube excerpts to discuss the signposts for various composers. Play and discuss the style and character of clear examples such as Mozarts melody 'Soave il Vento' or Beethovens rhythmic drive (Eroica Symphony, the development section of the 1st movement)
Look for examples of dances not only in the solo repertoire of Bach but also for instance a Habanera from Carmen or the tango, waltz and rag in Stravinskys Soldiers Tale.
Pulse and Rhythm
Looking at the music, still without the instrument in hand, conduct and sing the rhythmic syllables using any rhythmic system such as Kodaly. Mentally subdivide looking for rhythmic traps and when faced with these challenges mentally direct your arms towards playing with a clear articulated sound. Make sure you articulate clearly when playing syncopations
With the instrument
Find the key. Run your fingers silently over the scale to give your fingers the feel of the key. To find the key, look at the key signature, at the starting and finishing notes and for the interval of a rising 4th which often indicates the movement from the dominant (5th note) to the tonic (1st note of the scale).
You can follow reading a passage by improvising a similar length passage in the same character and key.