Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to a panel of experts
In the seventh of the series, four specialists in practice techniques advise a busy amateur musician how to make the most of his limited rehearsal time.
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The dilemma I am a violinist with a full-time office job. I’m giving an hour-long recital in a couple of months, but I find it difficult to do more than two hours’ practice a day. Do you have any tips to help me prepare as thoroughly as possible within my limited practice time? I’m not sure how to fit in all that repertoire at the same time as scales, studies and other commitments, and I want to give a good performance!
SEAN KEMP, LANCASTER, UK
You can do a lot in two hours per day. The key is planning. Set yourself clear goals and subgoals for the programme and try to follow your plan instead of getting stuck on something. That helps you to keep focused on learning, not just on practising. You can also video or record your playing regularly. It gives clear feedback about your progress.
A practice diary might help you in both setting goals and reflecting your work. Write down a few lines after each practice session, such as what you’ve just learnt and what you are going to do the next day. It saves time and helps you to keep track. It also makes you practise everything needed.
Mental practice is effective and is something you can also do on your way to the office. You can clarify technical details by playing the music in your thoughts, plan phrasing and go through the actual performance situation. This work requires a lot of concentration, but brings great results. Just 10 to 15 minutes daily is enough.
Regarding the problem of dividing the time between scales, studies and repertoire: select the ones that are most helpful for your concert programme and don’t give them too much emphasis at this point.
Keep focused on what you are doing and why you are doing it, and enjoy the time you can put into your violin playing at this time. Pleasure and a positive attitude help you to learn more and get better results in less time.
You should start out with a greater portion of technical building work in your two hours, and gradually adjust the ratio so that you finish up with more time on repertoire. So, initially, plan for an hour of technical work, gradually reducing to 15–30 minutes. Keep a practice diary, noting all sessions, time of day, and content – allowing you to analyse and adjust as you go.
Isolate the most tricky passages, then practise them creatively. Applying different rhythms works well. If a passage is detached, practise it legato with rhythms. If a passage is legato, practise detached with rhythms. Vary your tempos, sometimes playing fast passages very slowly so you can think about the inner detail, and notice how you get from one note to another. If intonation needs attention, only spend a maximum of three minutes on slow, non-vibrato practice – the brain tires and switches off after three minutes. Even try playing very difficult bits backwards.
Constantly vary the way you practise. Be creative and experimental to avoid stagnating. Practise scales with two-, three-, four- and six-note rhythm patterns, detached and legato. Finalise your bowings and fingerings in your pieces to avoid uncertainty. Practise loud passages pianissimo to save energy and increase awareness. Working backwards in blocks is a good way to embrace an entire work.
As time goes by, start introducing performance practice, playing through entire movements or pieces. You could try recording yourself (but be objective when listening back – decide clearly what you are listening for), and then playing to someone to increase confidence.
A good way to enhance your progress is to spend time away from your instrument and to do visualising work. Time spent with the score and a pencil, or even playing a piece in your imagination from memory, has great benefits. Lastly, remember to take breaks – both body and mind need this.
With limited time, you should choose repertoire you can reasonably expect to prepare and be very organised. Each night,make a plan for your next day’s practice, rating your pieces on a scale of one to ten for overall preparation based on your work that day. Then divide up your available practice time, giving the most time to the piece with the lowest rating.
List what you plan to work on within each piece, and exactly how you plan to work on it. Bring a timer and set it according to your plan, sticking to it at all costs. This will be very hard to do, so you might want to schedule only 80 or 90 per cent of your time, leaving the remainder to return to tasks that feel incomplete at the end of their allotted period. Complete your plan first, so you get to everything on your list every day.
Remember rule number one of good practising: make everything you do as closely related to your performance as possible. If you isolate a section, preserve its character, articulation and bow distribution, so that it does not stick out like a blank puzzle piece when you put it back together. Also, remember to work in ways that help your brain learn, such as playing isolated sections more times correctly than incorrectly, using mental practice to work out problems in perception, and making sure that each time you play, you imagine what comes before, whether it is the start of the piece or a section from the middle, so you will be prepared when you execute the whole.
Recording yourself will help a lot – listen back with a pencil in hand and take very specific notes about what you hear. You can use these notes to write your practice plan for the next day. The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein and Practising for Artistic Success by Burton Kaplan have wonderful suggestions for further reading.
Two hours is a significant amount of practice time if it is used well. Here are some suggestions for making every minute count:
Limit distractions. Leave your phone outside the practice room and use a small clock to keep track of time instead. Along with the potential for obvious distractions, just the conscious presence of a phone in the room has been shown to change players’ focus.
Take advantage of the ‘spacing effect’. Divide your two hours into smaller practice sessions, for example two sessions of one hour, or three sessions of 40 minutes each. Countless research studies have shown that spacing practice over time is significantly more effective than compressing practice into one session. If this is not possible, make sure that breaks are taken to divide the practice time mentally and reset focus.
Interleave practice. Rather than doing all of your scales and studies before moving on to your repertoire, consider alternating between the two following a shorter warm-up. Similarly, instead of repeating a difficult passage over and over again in a block, alternate between a few different challenging passages, employing a range of different practice techniques. One of the most robust phenomena in motor-skill-learning research is the ‘contextual interference effect’: interleaving practice on different tasks is far more effective than doing one task at a time. Practising in this way is more cognitively demanding and such increased mental activity leads to greater retention. This effect shows up after a delay, so remember to test the effectiveness of your practice the next day, which is the real test of learning.
Start your run-through early. Playing through a piece or movement is different from practising it section by section. Start runni