Thoughts on Practicing

You can’t write a blog for your readers. Firstly, I don’t have any regular readers except (I believe) my mother. Secondly, whenever I ask a simple question, like, are there enough cat pictures in my blog, I get really different answers. (Ranging from: lady, you are crazy and need to find a new hobby to ALL CAT ALL THE TIME).

But I’ve had some questions over the years about professional things like auditions and practicing the violin, and I thought I’d ramble about practicing a little bit today.

While I was preparing for the Symphony audition the other month, Chris wandered into the room and commented on my practicing style—(this is normal for us—we give advice or comments occasionally)—that it sounded like I was just playing and that I wasn’t really working on something in particular. Really that’s the big issue I have: I am a terrible practicer.

I never really learned how. I’m lucky enough that I pick things up fairly well fairly quickly, and none of my teachers growing up ever taught me how to practice properly (I’m not necessarily blaming them as possibly I simply ignored their advice), and then in college probably none of my teachers realized I didn’t really know HOW to practice. Plus, (and this is the truth) I generally dislike practicing. Like most of my students, I greatly enjoy PLAYING THE VIOLIN and greatly dislike the arduous yet necessary task of PRACTICING THE VIOLIN.

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These are two vastly different things, and I do my best to try to help my students learn the difference. Practicing is something that should not be enjoyable to listen to. I try to teach my students that it’s okay to play through their piece once, but then they need to figure out what went wrong and why (the younger ones I mark this for them). If you’re missing a shift, repeatedly, then you need to isolate the problem, slow it down, break it down, and REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT until you don’t miss that shift. (The famous saying: don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.)

The issue for me comes when I’m approaching the same piece again, for perhaps the 13th year in a row, and I know exactly where the problem areas are…and those problems are always the same problems. Thinking back (on the Nutcracker Overture) I didn’t spend enough time isolating the problems, and really working them, and I learned something really fundamental about arm and elbow motion and angles in the week leading up to the audition…I had never consciously thought about the movement of my left elbow as I shifted, and it was brought to my attention, and I didn’t have enough time to really work it out.

It’s hard, as an adult who is often performing the same pieces again, to approach a piece with new eyes. Often you see the piece with tired eyes, and simply repeat the same mistakes. My students complain that they are tired of a piece after a few weeks or months, and while I often try to respect that feeling, I also try to show them WHY we are still working on the piece, and how they haven’t mastered what they need to master before moving forward. And then if they are a Suzuki student, it’s not as if they won’t be reviewing that piece for a long time anyway!

(I know this isn’t a cohesive post about practicing. I just wanted to give some thoughts about it. )

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The other challenge is making the time for practicing. I tell my students that even ten minutes every day is a better thing that a few hours once a week. Yet when push comes to shove, I will cram my practicing, or skip it entirely, or “warm up” for a rehearsal by playing a scale with a student…completely ignoring all the hopefully good advice I am giving my students. 

I was joking with a friend the other day that I was trying to become more zen-like in my approach to life, and “live in the moment” more and be more conscious, and all that. Now, I was joking…mainly…but it occurred to me just now (in the moment!) that that is probably the best way to practice. I know I say a lot of things and then forget, but I shall try to remember this the next time I am preparing for an audition: to practice consciously and mindfully, and to dedicate as much brain power as possible to my work at the time. 

Thoughts? I hate writing a post and trying to sound like an expert. I’m definitely not. I play well, and I practice badly. I would play better if I practiced better, that’s for sure.

I should follow up writing this blog post with a good violin practice session but I’ll probably just end up wasting time reading stuff until it’s time for work. Oh well.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Practicing”

  1. I was always a terrible practicer. Not because I didn’t like what I was doing, I just… didn’t really know how to practice well and had a hard time staying focused. While I was never particularly gifted at the instruments I played, I feel like I could have been a LOT better than I am/was if I had only practiced more/better. Funny, I feel the same way about studying though…
    Either way, I love reading your musician posts. I am not a musician, but I love music and the music world, so I love kind of having an inside look at the life of a musician/how symphonies work/etc.

  2. I recommend getting a copy of Kreisler by Louis Paul Lochner http://www.amazon.com/Fritz-Kreisler-Louis-Paul-Lochner/dp/087666575X/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1367952404&sr=1-11&keywords=fritz+kreisler I don’t believe there is any better glimpse at having a zen-like approach to being a professional violinist. Mistakes happen. Life happens. As crazy as his life was it doesn’t seem like he paid it as much attention while he was playing and not getting run over by a truck or dodging bullets in WWI 😉

  3. What a good post! I’ve been thinking a LOT about this topic in recent years. Growing up, I was definitely a horrible “practicer”, and like you, I don’t really recall teachers teaching me specifically or spending a good amount of time talking about HOW to practice. It’s also quite possible that b/c a lot of things came easily to me, they thought I WAS practicing well.
    Fast forward to adulthood and I catch myself not taking the same advice I dole out to my students on how to practice. Funny, my husband did the same to me when I was practicing for auditions awhile back–walked in on me after listening a bit through the door, and chastised me for playing through stuff and not slowing down enough, using too much vibrato, etc. etc.
    Ahhh! This is something I’m constantly thinking about…and I think you’re totally right about “being in the moment” when it comes to good practicing.

    Love posts like these! I can totally relate.
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  4. Good post! I’ve always enjoyed practicing (which makes me sound dorky) but I think it was because I truly enjoy playing and any minute spent playing the oboe is better than not. However I realized after college that I don’t really know how to practice either. Hours were spent in college playing but I don’t have the time to sit down and practice as long as I used to. I think it’s because I was never taught how to organize my time….I just sat down and played through everything.

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