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Guide to Practicing

©2011 by Julia Bullard

 

Most practicing falls into one of the following three categories: Technique, Learning New Repertoire, and Polishing for Performance.  Within each of these categories, I have outlined some general and specific strategies for your practicing.   Start by keeping a written record of your practicing – it will allow you to have an overall sense of your improvement over time, as well as a record of specific strengths, weaknesses, thoughts and feelings you may have about aspects of your playing and music in general.  You can use a blank book, a published practice journal, or any system that works for you.  I don’t generally like to go by amount of time, but rather by goals and objectives. 

One aspect that I cannot stress enough is the importance of slow, focused practice. Do not play a piece (or even a part of a piece) over and over again without a clear picture of WHAT you need to improve, and HOW to accomplish that improvement.  Always begin by practicing slowly.  There is also a great importance of learning to practice certain techniques for speed – but again, the first step is to do what you are trying to do precisely and slowly before you go for speed.

                                                                                                                                                 

I.                    Technique

Practice of scales and etudes is extremely important in your development as a performer.  Some people dislike practicing technique, citing “lack of musicality” or claiming that the technical elements that are needed are already present in the music.  However, I feel that your technique is the medium through which you express your musicality – if your technique is weak, your expression of the music is less effective.  If your technique is solid, you can divert your attention from matters of “how” (how to execute that big shift, how to make your bow bounce at just the right height, how to negotiate that tricky fingering or string crossing) to matters of expression – the “why” of music.

1.       Scales

Scales and arpeggios are the fundamental building blocks of tonal music!  In general, practice of scales should include all major and minor scales in three (sometimes four!) octaves, arpeggios, chromatic scales, broken thirds, and double stops.  The primary goals of practicing scales are intonation and tone. In order to achieve good intonation, various specific aspects of left hand technique (shifting, finger strength/flexibility/placement, etc.) must be addressed.  In order to achieve good tone, you must first have good intonation, PLUS the right hand must be used effectively (even bow speed, clean string crossings, correct contact point on all four strings, etc.).  Here is how I recommend practicing scales:

a.       Without vibrato (at least for a time).  Keep the left hand relaxed but do not vibrate.  Vibrato is by definition an oscillation of pitch. For consistently clean intonation, the finger must land precisely on the pitch, and vibrato can obscure your perception of pitch and give you an opportunity to make minute adjustments, which can inadvertently encourage sloppy intonation.

b.      Slowly, at first, with single bows, legato.  Pay attention to the following:

                                                               i.      Right hand: each note should use an equal amount of bow.  Avoid any fluctuation of strength of tone both within and between consecutive notes.

                                                             ii.      Left hand: pay attention to shape of hand in each position – it should remain as consistent as possible.  Notice your thumb – make sure it travels with the hand to each position.  Listen to your shifts – listen for a light, smooth, not too fast shift.  When you are working in a very slow tempo, you must pay attention to when the hand begins to move. If it moves too late, your shift will sound jerky and fast.  Pay attention to the coordination of the shifting and the bow change.

c.       Slightly faster, with slurs of various groupings:  slur 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 – gradually building tempo.  Eventually you should be able to play the entire ascent in one bow and the descent in one bow. 

d.      Arpeggios:  begin as above with single bows.  All shifts should be smooth and connected, regardless of what particular shifting approach you use (old finger shifts, first-finger shifts, etc.).  Progress gradually to slurs of 3 and finally to 9. 

e.      Double stops:  you may choose to start by playing in broken thirds, broken sixths, etc. and holding the bottom note while adding the upper note.  As you learn the distance between notes, however, you must make your focus on landing precisely on BOTH strings together.  Try fingering both notes but playing only one (top or bottom) – this allows you to isolate intonation problems and is a great coordination builder.

2.       Etudes. 

a.       Many of the same ideas discussed above are also applicable here.  Bear in mind that most etudes focus on one or two particular areas of technical development (left hand facility, bow stroke, string crossing, arpeggios, double stops, etc.).  Make sure you first identify the purpose of your etude and then isolate specific aspects for practice.

II.                 Learning New Repertoire.

a.       Learn about the piece you are going to play.  When was it written? For whom? Who premiered it? Is there a facsimile of the original manuscript that you can look at? What are some of the historical performance practice issues that you should be aware of for this composer/work/time period (i.e. ornamentation, articulation, etc.)?

b.      Listen to a recording of the piece if available, following the score and taking notes. Ask your teacher for a recommendation if you are having trouble finding a recording.

c.       Some teachers prefer you read through the piece on your own before listening to a recording.  I feel that this can be helpful for more advanced players; however, if you have less experience, I see no reason not to start by listening to a recording.  Just don’t lock yourself into ONE IDEA of how the music should be played –listen to more than one recording and compare interpretations.  Let this simply be a starting point for your own creativity.

d.      Play through the piece slowly to get an overall picture of the piece and note any problem areas. 

e.      Develop consistent control of difficult passages.  THIS IS THE BULK OF YOUR PRACTICING AT THE INITIAL STAGES.

                                                               i.      IDENTIFY what aspects are difficult (is it hard for the left hand? String crossings? Articulation? Coordination?)

                                                             ii.      ISOLATE one aspect – for example, if a passage has a difficult shift, practice JUST THAT SHIFT several times, slowly, without vibrato, observing your technique and making corrections.

                                                            iii.      ADD another element – for instance, if you were focused on the left hand, add some attention to the right hand.   DON’T GO FASTER YET! 

                                                           iv.      When you can play the difficult passage in a slow tempo with accuracy in ALL RESPECTS (intonation, articulation, tone, shifting, vibrato, etc), THEN you can gradually begin to increase the tempo!

                                                             v.      Some good specific strategies for difficult passages:

1.       Add-a-note – practice beginning with just one or two notes – listen to intonation, tone, dynamic, etc. – then add one more note.  Continue until you can play the passage

2.       Rhythms – try using various rhythms to work on fast left-hand passages

3.       “Chunking” – take a very small chunk that you can already play slowly and play it quickly, then faster and faster – then do the same with the next chunk – and the next – and then put them together. 

4.       “Looping” – play a chunk forward and backward, or play a chunk over and over again

5.       To work on tone, practice large sections slowly in a loud, consistent dynamic.  Make no dynamic changes with the bow – just play slowly, forte (but not scratchy!), and listen for smoothness and evenness of tone and bow changes.  Observe any unintended articulations (i.e. portato). Work to keep the sound clear, full and consistent at the extreme ends of the bow - feel the transfer of weight from the front of the hand at the tip to the back of the hand at the frog.

6.       Intonation:  Play without vibrato; listen for ringing tones.  When you play a ringing tone pitch (one that matches one of your open strings), if it is in tune, it should cause the corresponding open string to vibrate.  Listen for the ringing sound and watch the string for vibration.  You can actually physically FEEL this ringing tone intonation!  Eventually, EVERY note should be a ringing tone! J

7.       To work on articulation, try playing the entire passage in tempo, with all dynamics and articulation, but WITHOUT VIBRATO so that you can hear what your bow is really doing.  Don’t disguise sloppy bow technique with vibrato.  Put the vibrato back in when you are confident that it sounds great even without vibrato!

8.       Work with a metronome.  The metronome is the final arbiter of correct rhythm.  However, do not just rely on the metronome to keep you steady – work to improve your inner hearing.  Instead of having the metronome click on every beat, try having the metronome click on every MEASURE – see how well you subdivide!

9.       Add your own tricks and ideas!

                                                           vi.      And always:  pay special attention to your state of physical and mental relaxation.  Identify areas of tension in your body.  Can you isolate which muscle is tensing? When? Why? How much? Just by paying attention to this, you can make great strides toward relaxation.  Practicing when you are feeling particularly stressed or hurried can be counterproductive – take a break, breathe, relax, stretch – then slow down and focus on tone/intonation.  Enjoy this time with your instrument!  Pay attention to HOW you are learning and the progress you are making.  Remember, you can conquer most problems by breaking them down into manageable steps. SIMPLIFY.

III.              Polishing works for performance

a.       Practice away from the instrument.  There are lots of ways to do this – simply use your inner hearing to study the score, use your kinesthetic imagination and audiation (inner hearing and feeling of playing the piece), listen to recordings, analyze the music to determine form, structure, phrasing, cadences, harmonic rhythm – all of these can be helpful in learning and memorizing music.

b.      Play through at a performance tempo without stopping!  This will test your endurance and your overall preparation.  When you have finished, mark any trouble spots for isolated practice.

c.       Rehearse with a pianist.

d.      Record yourself.  The tape recorder is a very impartial judge and will pick up things that you don’t notice yourself. 

e.      Play for others and invite comments and suggestions. 

f.        Practice in the space in which you will perform, if possible.

g.       Practice amidst distractions to aid your mental focus.  Turn on the TV; practice in a room next to someone playing very loudly and see if you can block out distractions.  Practice in a ‘dead’ room and try to make a beautiful sound even in a terrible acoustic. 

IV.                GENERAL REMINDERS

a.       Memorize this phrase: The faster you play, the slower you learn.   String playing involves listening and muscle memory.  If you play too fast, you don’t have time to LISTEN CAREFULLY to each note and you will be more likely to make and even miss an error. Unfortunately, our fingers are just as quick to learn mistakes as they are to learn things correctly, and so once you have practiced your mistake, you are now involved in remedial learning!  So please, practice SLOWLY AND CAREFULLY first.  And as the great Suzuki teacher Ed Kreitman likes to say, don’t practice until you get it right – practice when  you get it right!  After all, playing a passage correctly after many missed attempts doesn’t mean that you’ve learned it – it just means that you’ve played it ONCE correctly and MANY times incorrectly – which way do you think your muscles will remember under pressure??

b.      Intonation and tone are fundamental to all good playing.  Musicality, speed, virtuosity are all lovely but if tone and intonation are not good, the rest goes entirely unnoticed.  Therefore, intonation and tone should be your FIRST PRIORITIES when practicing.

c.       WARM UP before you play.  Take five minutes and move your body – swing your arms, walk briskly, do some reaches to the ceiling and the floor.  When your body is warm, stretch a bit – gently, never forcing.  Then warm up slowly with your instrument – both hands – left hand exercises like Sevcik done slowly and gently, long open strings to warm up your bow.  Your body has to be ready to cooperate or you may find you practice excess tension – and remember, practice makes permanent.

d.      Set goals for your practice. Have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish each time you take out your instrument.  If you just feel like playing through your music, that’s fine – but remember this isn’t going to accomplish much (unless you’re working on endurance and flow right before a performance).  If you expect to improve some aspect of your technique or musicianship, you need to think about how to accomplish the improvement you are after.

e.      Memorization:  I highly recommend memorizing your music – even scales and etudes!  Once you have learned the notes and bowings, you will be free to focus on your technique and musicality without the impediment of “what note comes next?”  If memorization is challenging for you, start by memorizing a short piece, then move on to longer works.  Other strategies for memorizing include:  chunking (memorizing small chunks, then putting together); visualization; singing the music; analyzing the music; kinesthetic memory; writing out themusic. 

f.        Work hard to develop your powers of observation.  One of the most important skills you can acquire as a musician is the ability to analyze your own playing objectively.  In order to improve your performance, you must first be able to identify WHAT needs improvement. When something goes wrong, don’t get frustrated – NOTICE what the problem is, as specifically as possible, and then ask yourself rationally how to fix it.  Use all your senses – LOOK (in a mirror, at your left hand, at your right hand, at your posture), FEEL (notice tension and relaxation, points of contact, etc), LISTEN, and ANALYZE. In the beginning stages, recording yourself will help immensely as you develop your objective observation skills. And even later, continuing to periodically record your practice will help you discover if you are inadvertently slipping into old habits, and to give you an objective view of your progress.

g.       And finally – there does have to be some element of repetition and sufficient time put in for your practicing to be effective.  However, you will probably find as you become a more efficient practicer that you get more done in less time!  Practicing thoughtfully and efficiently will make your practicing more productive and less of a chore – it will give you a better framework for exploration of your instrument and your musicianship.  Happy practicing! J

SELECTED REFERENCES:

Leopold Auer. Violin Playing As I Teach It.

Madeline Bruser. The Art of Practicing.

David Dalton/William Primrose. Playing the Viola.

Carl Flesch. The Art of Violin Playing.

Ivan Galamian. Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.

Barry Green. The Inner Game of Music.

Kato Havas. Stage Fright.  and A New Approach to Violin Playing.

Edward Kreitman. Teaching from the Balance Point.

Julie Lyon Lieberman. You Are Your Instrument.

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