Written by Lydia Leong
Published: January 5, 2014 at 9:06 AM [UTC]
Classically, an advanced player's practice time is essentially divided into four parts -- scales and exercises (often serving as a warm-up), etudes (usually two), a short work or two (often including solo Bach), and a concerto. Each of these portions gets equal time. There might be a fifth portion for chamber music, orchestra music, or other ensemble repertoire. However, it's usually assumed that you have two to four hours per day to do all of that. I don't have that kind of time, but I still want to get through that routine.
On the average, I manage about four and a half hours of practice per week. That works out to be, on the average, 40 minutes a day. Usually I try to put in an hour on each weekend day -- more if I can manage it. My best week this year, I put in 8 hours and 58 minutes (averaging 1 hour 15 minutes per day); this was during the three weeks leading up to my concerto performance with orchestra, when I was relatively religious about practicing an hour a day, and trying to aim for 2 hours on the weekends. So compared to, say, a conservatory student, I practice pathetically little.
As an adult with an exceptionally demanding and time-consuming career that involves frequent business travel, I have enormous difficulty maintaining a regular practice schedule. My schedule shifts from day to day, and even my sleep patterns shift as I cope with jet lag. There are days that I don't practice because I'm away from home, days that I don't practice because I'm physically tired or mentally drained, and days that I don't practice enough because I'm out of physical energy or simply can't focus any more.
So what can you accomplish in 40 minutes a day? Quite a lot, it turns out, but it has to be all deliberate practice, with no wasted time.
This is what I do. It might not work for you, but if you're someone who, like me, is chronically short on time, you might want to try it.
Know exactly what your goals are. Before you play anything at all, know what you want to accomplish. Work on just those things. Don't noodle around. If by some miracle you have extra time, no doubt more things will suggest themselves as needing work. Every segment you're working on is likely to be short. Match what you plan to do to your energy level and available mental focus.
Stop as soon as your concentration fades, or fatigue makes you screw up. Depending on the day and the particular thing being worked on, I might be able to fully concentrate only for five minutes, or as much as 20 minutes. After that I need a break, whose length will be determined by my physical and mental energy (and is thus very much affected by time of day). Playing when you're not focused is a waste of time, and can actually make things worse, since then you're practicing in your mistakes.
Don't waste time with things that aren't improving. If you work on something for a minute, you'll have a general sense of whether or not your practice approach to it is making it better. If it's not, try another approach. If multiple approaches aren't making it better within five minutes, stop and move onto something else. Try it another day or at another time in the practice session, but don't repeat your mistakes a bunch. Passages that are intransigent get left for discussion with your teacher at your next lesson. Similarly, if you hit a plateau with something that has been improving, stop for now; return to it either later in the practice session or another day.
Review what you did the last time. If you got something nailed in the last practice session, repeat it in the next session to make sure that the learning sticks in your head. You may need to re-practice it; each day, more of it will stick.
Break up your practice. Nap in-between if you can. If you can break up your practice, for instance into a morning and evening session, and get a nap of 60 to 90 minutes between them, you should better retain what you've learned.
Skip the scales. The time invested in scales often isn't worth it. If I'm playing repertoire in a weird key, I might do exercises in the key to tune my ears, using the intonation exercises in Simon Fischer's Basics. But that's usually not an everyday thing; it's something done for a few days until I feel oriented and then I drop it. If I'm going to play scales, something else useful has to take place at the same time, combining them with some kind of other technical drill (my teacher likes bow division, measured vibrato, and colle', for instance).
Warm up on what you're working on. I usually either start with an etude that I'm learning, or a fast technically difficult passage in repertoire I'm learning, played at a slow speed and gradually sped up. Normally this will be something that's starting to feel comfortable, as opposed to something that's still very shaky. Warming up is important, and I don't do passages that have extensions or are otherwise strenuous until I feel warmed up.
Reduce etudes to their most useful bits. Most etudes are trying to teach you a specific technique. Often, I do just do the first few lines of the etude while I'm trying to get comfortable with whatever skill is being emphasized. That way I can focus entirely on that skill, and not having to learn two pages worth of notes. Once the skill is learned, getting the rest of the notes will become correspondingly easier, too. I spend five to ten minutes per day on each etude, usually.
Have a plan of attack. Don't just repeat something. The least efficient way to practice a passage is to just repeat it over and over again. Find exactly what's difficult in it, and do that bit and that bit alone. Super-isolate, and then stitch everything back together (practicing the connection points explicitly). There are tricks for practicing nearly everything; use them (your teacher should be suggesting ways, and Simon Fischer's Practice has a large collection of useful tricks). You are teaching your brain to play something, not your fingers.
Don't work on things that are already okay. Resist the urge to admire what you've already accomplished. Yes, things you've gotten to a good point will decay if you don't practice them for a while. That's fine. You'll go back and rebuild them, and they'll get more solid with each rebuild and refinement. In general, some spots will continue to be hurdles for a long time, and you will pour practice time into a black hole for them. By no means is practice time equally divided across a piece of music.
Listen to your repertoire as much as possible. I try to have the pieces I'm playing running as background music. I will listen to repertoire with the score in hand, too, more consciously, when I'm unable to practice (usually because I'm traveling). To avoid getting just a single interpretation stuck in my head, I make a playlist with as many different versions as I can. I use Spotify, which has an impressively huge collection of violin recordings that spans a very wide range of artists, old and new.
Even when I have more time to practice, I don't really vary from this. If I have more time, I might spend more time on etudes and exercises, but usually, more time goes into repertoire, which usually means going over more spots.
If you have more time, you can get into the habit of not using that time efficiently. That can actually result in you learning less than you could, if you were actually extremely deliberate in the way that you're practicing, because you spend less time playing badly (and thus inadvertently practicing-in that poor playing).
Do I still wish that I had more available practice time? Absolutely, but I also feel reasonably good about how much I'm able to get done in a compressed timeframe.
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If you have two hours a day to practice, sure, devote 30 minutes to scales and exercises. If you routinely have plenty of time to practice and but on occasion have very little time, do just your technical basics, which will probably include some scales. If you routinely don't have much time? Spend it on something other than scales, unless for some reason you're trying to deal with an intonation issue that's specific to a key, in which case scales should be part of the technical exercises you do in that key as a prelude to the rest of your practice. But you'll probably only have to do that for a few days while you orient your ears and fingers, and then it stops being the most efficient way to get improvement.
I find Schradieck op. 1 book 1, first two pages, to be a great exercise for developing and maintaining the muscles (and nerve conduits) that control the left hand. If I were to find extra time in my practice schedule to do one exercise a day, this would probably be it.
This is really a question of "what are you trying to accomplish, and what is the most time-efficient way to do that?" Doing something highly focused on that thing is likely to be the best use of time.
I agree all your points on efficient practice with one qualification on scale practice. In general, scale practice (especially arpeggios in my case) is the best way for me to play in tune and it is the quickest way to get back to shape if I take a break due to travel or some sort of injury. However, when I work on some pieces, such as Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, scale practice does not appear to be very useful. Still, for overall improvement, I'd do it as much as possible.
As for études, as you rightly pointed out, prating portion of them,when necessary, usually is more effective than dong the whole thing. In fact, I find more useful to design my own études by picking out chunks of a piece I am workin on and changing the rythm/bowing/notes to acquire the technique or expression I need.
Also I let my brain to do its work on the stuff I practiced so I would not keep repeating the same chunk more than a couple of minutes; instead, I rotate different parts to do concentrated work over the week and find noticeable improvement on the parts I haven't been practicing. Perhaps our skills are related and our brain is working on the things even when we stop practicing. This is the same idea when I do other type of work (academic or legal/policy work) -- sleep on my idea always greatly improves the result.
Also, I don't agree with listening to the pieces you are studying. One of my teachers put it more or less like this: you want to learn Mozart 4th concerto, listen to Mozart--his operas, piano concerti, symphonies, chamber works--but not the 4th Concerto. If you listen to violinists playing the piece you are studying, you will absorb their habits--good and bad--as much as you will Mozart. I've found that useful. Gives me a wider palette of interpretive possibilities, and doesn't let the work I'm studying either go stale or become discouraging.
Your suggestions on time-management techniques are excellent!
As to listening to repertoire, it's invaluable. Knowing the general style of a composer isn't necessarily of huge help in knowing the style of a particular work. Interpretive tradition does matter and it's useful to know what it is. Listen to two or three dozen recordings of a work (which is usually what I try to do), and you don't get a single interpretation stuck in your ear. You do get a sense for what you do and don't like personally, and you may even steal the way someone does something, but you'll end up putting your own spin on it regardless.
Also, listening is hugely useful for memorization. If you can already "play" the whole thing in your head, getting it right on the instrument becomes that much easier. And you really want to listen to the harmony, too, unless you're lucky enough to have an accompanist all the time.
I suggest practicing all of the major scales around the circle of 5ths, 2 octaves; the relative minors and arpeggios.
Scales set the groundwork for everything we do in music. If you skip the scales, you are skipping the fundamentals of what we are all about.
And yet, I have to remember that in the world of traditional music, it's all done by listening, imitating, etc., so I'm probably being a bit 'academic.'
Lydia, I get it about being time crunched! I think I tend to do fewer things for each session and rotate them over a longer cycle; that works better for me. Thanks for making me 'attend' to what I am doing. Always a good thing.
Listening to (and watching) many different performances of the working piece is just like watching the cooking shows or studying multiple recipes of the same favorite dish. You can quickly pick up the common "theme" and particular flavors or unusual combinations in this way. You get to absorb the intonation, bowing, and dynamics quite quickly. That could lead to a super-efficient practice.
Regarding the etude practice, my daughter's violin teacher gave a time-saving tip: Attempt the first two lines of a new piece and if you can play it reasonably well, don't go further. Unless there are hard-looking measures somewhere in the middle, in which case you should attempt that part as well.
One point you did not mention in the article is to videotape the lesson and use it for reference in your practice. In an interview I read somewhere, Almita Vamos said she gives her advanced students about twenty different things to correct/advise, of which the student picks just a couple. By picking up more points per lesson in this way, any student can benefit. Certainly it has worked for my daughter.
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