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Efficient practicing for the time-crunched

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Published: January 5, 2014 at 9:06 AM [UTC]

There never seems to be enough time, physical energy, or mental focus to get in the amount of practice that I'd like. I am an efficient practicer, because I'm forced to be.

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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From Rashmi Thomas
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 4:40 PM
This is such a useful post Lydia. I've also found keeping a notebook to brainstorm and set clear goals and action plans with regards to my practicing has been really effective in making the most of my limited time. I'm resuming lessons next month so we'll see how it goes


From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 4:43 PM
Some good thoughts, but I can't say I agree with "Don't waste time on scales"! A regular scale routine is so good for warming up, improving/maintaining overall intonation and keeping muscles in shape!
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 4:48 PM
Skip Scales?
A day without scales is a day wasted!
If you have little time to practice, say 20 minutes, do ONLY SCALES.
Scales work wonders within everything you do, you can't just skip them because you don't see an immediate effect!
From Karen Collins
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 5:23 PM
I think your suggestion about listening to repertoire (and especially different versions of it) is excellent. As someone who has played music by ear (and thus by feel) most of her life, this helps me to connect the technical aspects of a piece to what it's supposed to sound like.
From Lydia Leong
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 6:07 PM
Even when I had a lot more time to practice, as a teenager, I can't say that I ever found scales to be as useful as other technical exercises. I also find intonation exercises in a specific key -- especially Simon Fischer's finger-patterns in Basics -- to be much more useful. Scales are sequential. Actual music isn't. You had better be able to play a scale fluently and in tune (and more broadly, arpeggios, etc., as well as scales in double-stops), but I don't think scales are a great use of limited time on a daily basis. (My teacher combines scales with bowing exercises, which I think is nicely efficient when I do his scale-based warm-up.)

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.

From Samira Phillips
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 6:47 PM
Great post! I agree about the scales for an advanced player with limited time. Once you know the half/whole patterns and shifts in 3-octave scales, time is better spent practicing in context of a piece or using scales for bow technique. I do think it's good to sometimes just play, though. When I make time for that I usually go for something relatively easy and enjoy letting go and playing freely.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 5, 2014 at 8:16 PM
I am in a somewhat similar situation -- an advanced student with time crunch. I also find my 40-60 min/day routine has been quite effective.

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 ├ętudes, 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 ├ętudes 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.

From marjory lange
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 3:36 AM
Very good post, even though not everyone will agree with every point (myself included!) I'm with those who feel scales (in moderation, and with all the attention you suggest for everything in the practice routine) are valuable.

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!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 5:25 AM
Well, Marjory, I have to disagree with your teacher. It depends on what and how many performances you listen to. I don't know how others do this, but when I'm learning a concerto, I use CDs, iTune, Rdio and YouTube to listen to as many performances as I can get and then pick a couple I particularly like so I can dig in a bit deeper. I don't know if I learn any habits from them because I dont copy their sound or phrasing. I do pay a lot of attention to the orchestra part and this is something one doesn't get by listening to other works of the same composer. Yes, I listen to Mozart operas a lot anthat does inform my playing Mozart concerti to such a degree that some people told me my Mozart sound is too "big" for their taste. I like it because I think Mozart is not what a lot of people think as being only light and playful. Still, what I try to say is each piece has its own unique music language and structure and to get a good grip on a piece, listen and analise that piece again and again is one of the best ways to achieve that.
From Lydia Leong
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 6:00 AM
The thing is, if you're time-crunched, if you put something in, something else has to go. My typical practice day is about 10 to 15 minutes of etudes, and the balance of the time on repertoire (i.e., 25 to 30 minutes to work on two, maybe three pieces of music). I don't know that 5 or even 10 minutes of scale work would be more useful than some kind of hyper-efficient technical drill, for instance. Certainly 20 minutes of scale work would eat almost the whole balance of the day's practice time.

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.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 10:21 AM
well, I think the idea of not listening to other interpretations of the same work but listening to the composer`s general ouvre owes quite a lot to Galamian who advocates this approach n his book. I erred in this direction for a long time but I have to confess I tend towards the opposite view more these days. I thinkit is very useful to try and explore how a violinist produces a specific kind of sound in a certain passage and if it be copying rather than creative then so be it. Probably one of those cases where a healthy balance is best.
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 1:52 PM
Anybody that says "skip the scales" is getting it wrong. Scales are the most important part of practicing - not just scales, but arpeggios too.

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.

From marjory lange
Posted on January 6, 2014 at 2:26 PM
Yixi, the point you make about the number of different people's interpretations you listen to is very valid; I studied (yes, Buri, with a Galamian student!) mostly in the days of vinyl, morphing into tapes, when there just weren't that many different interpretations (except for the most popular concerti) available. Listening to many versions does offer a different perspective, compared to absorbing 2 or 3, but I'd still worry about (even unconscious) imitation of another's idiosyncracies, rather than the style of the piece (--I pick up the accents of people I speak with unintentionally, so it may just be my problem). But acquiring personal habits, imo, would apply even more to memorization by only listening. When I commuted via bus and underground/subway, I studied scores...another way of multi-tasking music into the world.

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.

Posted on January 6, 2014 at 5:32 PM
Thanks for the informative post and I agree with all of your points. Although I am not a violin player myself (Suzuki dad), I think I have watched enough lessons and learned what works for my daughter.

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.

Posted on January 6, 2014 at 11:08 PM
2 marjory lange:
Why not listening to virtousos then? I can't say, they have a bad habbits, but unattainable ones only ;)
Students of fine arts used to copy famous masterpieces during their learning process. There is no need to explain why.
So we could do the same. Honestly, I don't see any valid reason why it may be harmful.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 4:38 AM
Wow, thanks! Your practice routine sounds a lot like mine, for similar time-crunched reasons. I admire that you put it out there like that. I especially have a very similar attitude and approach to you with respect to scales and warming up. Various people have shamed me into scales although I don't really like them, so I do them, but pretty much as you describe: with a specific goal in mind like vibrato or a particular bowing exercise, or to get my ear back into a particular groove (key). And warming up on what you're working on--yes! That's the only kind of warm up I've ever found to be at all useful.
From Nick Hulme
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 11:32 AM
This has been an excellent discussion, thanks to everyone who has contributed. The main contentious point seems to be on the use of scales, and it might well be that they work better for some people than others for various reasons.
The one addition that I would make is in respect of the value of recording your practice sessions and listening back to them. This can give you a completely different appreciation of what you need to focus on in the next session.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 7, 2014 at 11:02 PM
although I say so myself, I wrote a very good blog on scales many moons ago called Scales from a Dead fish. Look it up in Buri's studio her if you have time.
It is a little out of date because since then Simon Fischer has published 'Scales' which ism in my opinion simply the best scale book around since it combines all the scales with a plethora of technical and practically advice that makes it as much a manual as a scale book.
While scales are essential for beginners way up until advanced level there are certain situations such as the one Lydia finds herself in whereby the many years of advanced playing and myelin deposits are so deep that omitting scales for periods of time is a non issue. in my case, Right now I am pushed for time so I practic Paginini caprices. slow practice of the arpeggios; large shifts on first finger; double stopped glissandI and so on give me an intellectual and musical work out that would not be added to by an extra ten minutes of scales, much as I would love to do them.

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