Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why I love to practice

The other day I was anticipating my first practice session of the morning and contemplating the act of practicing.  How many times have you put off your practice?  “I’ll write just one more email” or “I’ll read one more chapter” or "Let's check Facebook one more time"….  We’ve probably all made excuses at one time or another. Now, however, I find that I really like to practice.  This transformation of attitude has come for me, I think, because I have become a very effective practicer.  I really can see improvement happen from day to day and I find this to be very exciting.

Some things I do:
- Slow, accurate practice.  I often tell my students to “never miss a note.”  If we are alwaysplaying the right notes, mistakes are much less prone to happen.
- Many, many repetitions.  I had a piano teacher once who told me that he never practiced anything up to tempo, because what we really need to do is to teach our fingers where to go; the speed will come naturally. I find that after a zillion repetitions my fingers just play the notes all by themselves.
- Stay relaxed. Tension is like static for the brain.  If we play with tension then the brain is busy sending signals all over the place when all you really need is to just move one finger down 37/100ths of an inch.  Relaxed practice really helps my fingers to remember what they've done so I need fewer repetitions to actually learn something.
- Practice small bits.  I always break difficult passages into small pieces, often as small as two- or three-notes long.  Smaller groups are easier to learn.  I often boast that I can play any two-note lick.  (And, of course, this is probably true for most anyone.)  Isn’t everything we play made up entirely of two-note fragments?  And practicing small bits helps me stay relaxed.

“There is nothing more precious to an instrumentalist than the ability to work efficiently -- to know how to accomplish the maximum in beneficial results while using the minimum of time to do so.”
–Ivan Galamian

Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) taught violin at the Curtis Institute and at the Julliard School during an American teaching career that spanned more than 40 years.  He was a teacher and mentor to many of the world's most celebrated violinists including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jamie Laredo, Dorothy Delay, and Glenn Dicterow (concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic). In his 1962 book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Mr. Galamian describes three different kinds of practice:
1. Learning notes.  An essential, and rather self-evident, step with which we are all well acquainted. For many, this takes up the bulk of the practice day.  Great performing artists need to do more than just this type of practice.
2. Shaping the music.  This is a separate way of working on a piece where musical concerns take priority.  Maybe you miss a note, or have bad hand position at times, but during this type of practice the focus should be on shaping the phrases, refining the vibrato, working to be sure the music sings through your instrument. To some extent, this is a part of all of our practice.  However, consecrating more time solely to this pursuit may make the difference between becoming a good player or becoming a great player.
3. Practice performing.  Performing on stage in front of hundreds of people is quite a different experience from the woodshedding most of us do in the practice room. Regular time spent visualizing the concert experience and playing sections without stopping and with great energy and concentration helps to make the concert experience a bit less foreign.

Someone recently remarked that many young players put down their instruments because they are not happy with how they play. They went on to say that many of these people should really be the ones continuing in music because they have a critical ear and can tell that something needs work.  I would add that the trick is finding the way to improve. Good teachers, a discerning ear, and excellent practice habits are essential keys to making significant musical progress.