Until it's perfect, you are not practicing. You are only "fixing!"
This was one of the many concepts that violinist Endre Granat talked about in his class called "The Art of Learning Violin," sponsored by Shar Music at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City last week. Granat, whose teachers included Zoltan Kodaly, Gyorgy Ligeti, Josef Gingold and Jascha Heifetz, has had a distinguished career in performing, film recording and teaching and is currently based in Los Angeles. Recently he has published new editions of Ševcík exercises and Heifetz arrangements.
"Today I'm going to talk about a very depressing topic: practice," said Granat in his opening words. "It never ends."
Pedagogues such as Carl Flesch, Leopold Auer and Ivan Galamian all agreed: it takes about three to five hours of practice a day, seven days a week, to acquire and maintain a high level of technique.
For the teacher and student, this makes for some interesting math: the professor (and often the private teacher) sees his or her student for only one hour a week, or 15 hours per semester, 30 hours per academic year. In a little more than a week, the diligent student practices for more hours than in all his lessons for the entire academic year!
"In just seven and a half days, the student can get even with you!" Granat said. This means that the student had better be practicing well, and it's up to the teacher to "deputize the student to teach herself or himself."
That means knowing how to create a practice routine that uses time most effectively. A good practice routine involves working on technique, scales, etudes and repertoire pieces.
"Don't practice for things," Granat said, "prepare to be a great violinist."
One part of practicing should involve building a toolbox for your technique. "You fill up your toolbox with the tools you need as a violinist," Granat said. This includes left-hand techniques such as scales and right-hand techniques such as spiccato and various bow strokes. Related to this are exercises and etudes.
Why do we promote scales? They are not necessarily fun, but then again, "if you are a doctor and doing a colonoscopy, it isn't fun. But it's necessary!" One should learn three-octaves scales, and double-stop scales in thirds, in sixths, in octaves. That way, when these patterns occur in music, they are well-ingrained in both hands. The same goes for arpeggios.
"Etudes are the transition from scales to repertoire pieces," Granat said. The Ševcík exercises that Granat has been editing with Stephen Shipps break things down as etudes do, but perhaps even more.
Ševcík wrote so many exercises, it's hard to count them all. "It's not what he wrote, it's that he didn't know when to stop writing!" Granat said. He even wrote exercises to accompany the Kreutzer etudes, and those exercises are "even more boring than the original, and that is hard to do," Granat said. Nonetheless, "just because it's boring, don't belittle it, it's useful." Ševcík also wrote sets of exercises to solve just about every technical problem in specific pieces: the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto; the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; the Brahms Violin Concerto; Paganini Concerto No. 1; Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantelle, and Wieniawski Violin Concerto in D minor.
Why would someone go to such lengths? Because "at every level, the technique has to supersede the level of the piece," Granat said. "Your technical level should be beyond the level of the artistic demands."
For example, the Beethoven Violin Concerto opens with a tricky passage of octaves. "To practice Beethoven for the purpose of learning to play the violin is sacrilege," Granat said. Those opening octaves are not the time for learning octaves, the time for that is well before one attempts the Beethoven.
Instead, technique has to be at about 150 percent, so that under the inevitable stresses of performance, one is still prepared to perform with ease.
"The music has to be choreographed," every crescendo, every tenuto. All those musical things must be prepared; they don't just come by themselves in the inspiration of the moment. "You have to practice the performance from a technical standpoint."
Practicing is the repetition of perfection. "It is already perfect when you start practicing; up to that point, you are fixing, not practicing." Of course, the fixing might take some time. But the first time you play it and it doesn't have to be fixed, that is your official "first time." Then do 15-20 perfect repeats -- they don't count, if you are still fixing. One reaches a point of diminishing returns after about 20 repeats in a single practice session; to secure things further, one must come back to it later in the day, or tomorrow. And keep in mind, "just because it worked on Monday morning, doesn't mean it will work on Friday afternoon!" Granat said.
One also needs use correct motions when practicing.
"It is generally true, practice slowly, but always with the motion you will use," Granat said. For example, can you jump slowly? No! So one must take these kinds of things into consideration, when practicing slowly. Concentrate on solving the problem using correct posture and motion, then the proper execution. Then, evaluate what you have just done.
"You have to do it the exact same way every time" in order for your technique to be reliable in performance, he said.
So again, how much do we need to practice?
"It has to be every single day," Granat said. "That is the sad truth. There is no shortcut."
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