We need to talk
So you’ve got your fiddle, your music, your music stand, and you’re about to dive head first into a practice session. You think you’re ready. Nay. You KNOW you’re ready. You’re going to walk out of that room playing like the result of a mad scientist’s efforts to combine Paganini and Jascha Heiftetz. The only thing now holding you back is your need for rosin.
Well, put down the tree sap and get comfortable. We need to have a chat. I’m going to let you in on some pro-production secrets for practicing. By the time we’re done here, you truly will be ready to tackle anything that’s put in front of you(within reach of your current skill level, of course). So since we talked about some bad habits to avoid in a previous article, I thought we’d talk about some good habits. Let’s make it real, friends!
Find a quiet place
Unless your goal is to work out some nerves by practicing in front of the county courthouse, my first piece of advice is to find yourself a nice quiet location where you can focus on your task. Sure, it’s great to be within earshot of the family’s current conversation topic so you can chime in. But this is only going to slow you down. Ideally, you want to harness your inner blinders.
Shut out the world and pay attention to the subtleties of your sound production. Meditate on the structure of the song. Feel the rhythm in your mind’s eye. Ok, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away here, but you get the point. What I’m saying is, if you’re not able to stay on task, you’re not going to be doing much practicing.
The practicing you ARE able to do will be little because you’re so distracted. If you’re anything like me, you enjoy being “in on it”. What do I mean? I mean if you’re like me, you don’t like to miss out on any fun stuff the family might be engaging in. You don’t want to be the only one of your friends who wasn’t there for the party.
You don’t want to be the guy or gal who misses the inside joke. That’s all fine and dandy. But do you want to be a great violinist? Let’s back that up. Do you want to play violin at all? I mean instead of producing noises that make felines flee in agony. If you want to make sweet music, then you’ve got to get to a place where you can be alone and can practice without interruption.
Write it down
This seems insignificant but this is huge: get yourself a pad and a pencil. You want to catalogue nearly everything you’re doing on your stringed instrument.
There’s two parts to this. A) you can write down any mistakes you make and revisit them the next day for further correction. B) So you can catalogue your progress long term. It’s not enough to simply practice and walk away. You need to keep a log of how many times you played a passage, how many times it took for you to get it correctly, how difficult the piece was for you.
If you’re taking notes and taking stock of your efforts, you’re much more likely to see improvement and therefore, much more likely to stay motivated and want to keep playing. So…write that down.
Make a plan
This is something that happens before you even draw your bow across the string for the first time. Once you’ve gotten your pencil and pad(or just your iPad…because technology), you need to establish your point of attack. What should you practice? How long do you have to practice and therefore, how should you divide up your practice time? Where are your weaknesses? What needs the most improvement?
This tip works hand in hand with the “write it down” tip. Ideally, you want to spend time on your warm-ups(etudes, scales, any other skill builders your teacher might have for you), and your pieces, somewhat equally. That may mean breaking your time allotment down even further if you don’t have much to begin with. But this rule changes when you’e got a performance, or specific goal. What I’m saying is the equality rule isn’t set in stone, but you certainly don’t want to neglect any part of this practice formula for too long.
When I say “make time” I mean that literally. Scrounge up anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour (depending on your skill level and your teacher’s direction) AT LEAST 5 times a week. This is important. Practicing for any amount of time less than 20 minutes will be ineffective in this writer’s opinion. If the student is 3 years of age there may be an argument for 15 minutes. However, those are extenuating circumstances. Other than that, 20 minutes is a minimum.
You may need to wake up 20 minutes early and practice before you go to work. You may be the night owl that stays up later in order to hash out that section of the Four Seasons you’re missing. You may be the mid-day warrior. In any case, make time in your schedule and if possible, make it a regular appointment. Almost as if you are having a meeting with an important client or board member, you need to set aside a specific time each day and get a routine going.
Studies have shown that a task performed at the same time each day becomes ingrained into our psyche. That’s exactly what we’re hoping for. So find the best time of the day, make it a daily appointment (and treat it as high priority), and you’ll find that you make regular progress and possibly accelerated progress.
Make a goal
Unlike making a plan, this is long-term. Where do you want to be in 6 months? Where do you want to be in a year? What would you like to be able to play in 2 years? Establishing your purpose for playing is important as well. Do you want to become a professional violinist? Would you prefer playing violin as a hobby?
Perhaps you want to bridge both and be semi-professional. In any case, it’s important to have a long-term goal and structure everything you do according to that goal. Maybe you simply want to learn how to play “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Maybe you want to play a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Are you interested in Lindsey Sterling songs? Perhaps your goal is simply to play “Somewhere over the Rainbow” for a loved one.
Establish these long-term goals so you can make a timeline for your skill growth and you can therefore more efficiently plan the use of your individual practice sessions
Make a video
You might say, “Excuse me, Mr. Sir. I just started playing. I’m not ready to be recorded and I’m certainly not ready for my close-up.” I understand how you feel. I was once there as well! But this goes beyond being shy. This is about establishing where you were so that you can monitor your progress and have some tangible evidence that you are improving.
My suggestion to all of my students is to record yourself playing once a month. Record a song you have worked on and feel confident in playing. Then, and this is important, DO NOT WATCH IT UNTIL THE NEXT TIME YOU RECORD. There is a reason for this. Could you tell when you grew an inch? No, you couldn’t. How were you able to tell? Because you measured yourself on the door post and made a little mark.
Later, you came back and found you had grown! Same principle here. So record yourself playing at the beginning, end or middle of each month and do not watch it until after you record next month’s video(always record at the same time each month). This way, you will have a way to see your progress overtime from yourself. Trust me, it works. It helps you stay motivated and motivation is key!
Staying focused on your dreams can be difficult. However, if you use this guide to keep you on track, I know you will see the results and sounds you are looking for. Remember that this list applies to any instrument you desire to learn. I hope this helped everyone out. Make every day count and don’t waste a second. Keep on practicing, and those goals you have will become reality!