Up to your knees in sand or practice progress?

August 21, 2016 at 11:23 AM · How do you measure progress in your practice? How do you decide to move on to another etude or piece of music? What defines success?

Many of us wonder if we are progressing and what has the best results. Do you chart or journal? What do you keep track of?

Stay pawsitive


Replies (13)

August 21, 2016 at 01:38 PM · The real key to this, I've learned, is to choose the right thing to work on in the first place. For etudes, you want something where you can work on it for a couple of weeks and then you can play it through, perhaps not perfectly, but dealing effectively with the particular technical challenge posed by the etude (a certain type of bowing, say, or string crossings, etc.), and without breaking down at all. For those of us with limited practice time, two weeks won't be enough, especially for a two-page study, so maybe a month is a better estimate.

For a repertoire piece that you're going to perform, I think it really helps to avoid aiming too high. Last time I chose for myself without my teacher's input, and I chose Mozart 5, and it's taking me longer than I would prefer to get it up to snuff. And "up to snuff" isn't going to be professional snuff. There will still be audible flaws. I'm okay with that if you are. :)

By far the best way to measure progress in my own limited experience is to go back and play through something that was hard a year ago. You'll see you play it more easily, with better intonation, and the like. I can now sight-read etudes that contain a few double stops and they're mostly in tune! A year ago I could not do that, but I decided to get serious about double stops by practicing two-octave scales in thirds and sixths and by working on Kreutzers like Nos. 35, 36, 37.

August 21, 2016 at 01:44 PM · Good points. What indicates that it is time to move to the next?

August 21, 2016 at 01:52 PM · That's hard to gauge, but I try to ask myself whether my playing will improve more if I continue to polish the same etude, or if I move on to another. If it's mostly about bowing, often an extra week of polishing is productive. If it's mostly left-hand, generally it isn't because I'm likely to find the same challenges in the next few studies anyway. Very broad generalizations here.

For repertoire, it's a much harder call, and it depends on whether you are going to perform it, and for what purpose. My own feeling is that there is a lot of learning that takes place when you really try to polish something well, so if I choose a repertoire piece that is at my technical limit, I could work on that for a year. Mozart 5 will end up taking me 15 months by the time I perform it, which is next February, in the studio's biannual concerto competition (in which I am the only adult competitor and in which I will not place because I will be destroyed by teenagers including my own daughter).

August 21, 2016 at 03:13 PM · For me I usually work on points that I think need attention (they're messy, out-of-tune, etc) until they sound okay and move on.

August 21, 2016 at 04:03 PM · Oh those little kids, no one has a chance against them. We all try to be at our best but there is much to be realized from the performance itself. No matter how many 'mock ups' we do.

Ella, how do you judge when they sound OK, record and playback?

August 21, 2016 at 05:45 PM · David, look at it this way: If there weren't teenagers who could play circles around us, classical music would have no future. :)

August 21, 2016 at 07:17 PM · Very good advice is given above. To answer your question about using a chart/journal, I have a practice journal in which I write down my goals for that day's practice. The goals that I write have to be very specific, such as "play this passage of sixteenth notes at tempo cleanly and in tune". It is much easier to know one has accomplished a goal such as that rather than "play this piece better". Measuring progress in your practice can be done like that: break it down into a bunch of small tasks and accomplish one at a time. This system works very well. I would say that your teacher is the person who really knows best when it is time to move on, though. One more thing I will add is that sometimes you may not notice small improvements and it will seem as if you are "plateauing" in your progress. Then one day, you will notice a huge improvement, which is very gratifying. I remember when my vibrato was very tight and tense, so I started to do vibrato exercises every day but didn't see an improvement. One day after many weeks of vibrato exercises, I started vibrating and all of a sudden had this gorgeous, wide, relaxed vibrato. This is a very important and interesting topic, thanks for posting David!

August 21, 2016 at 09:07 PM · Thanks Helen. A group that I play with cycles through their repertoire once or twice each year. Recordings of my prep work give an indication of progress along with desired improvements.

August 21, 2016 at 09:28 PM · David M wrote: Ella, how do you judge when they sound OK, record and playback? Sometimes just using my own brain, record and playback.

August 22, 2016 at 07:05 PM · Thanks Ella. As an amateur that performs simple tunes, I'm trying to have a feeling of accomplishment for my practice. The Engineer in me adheres to 'we can achieve what we can measure', so I also try to find objective ways to guage subjective goals.

August 22, 2016 at 09:40 PM · The best way to measure your progress over the long run is to go back and try a tune that was hard six months ago. It should be easier now and you should play it better. Even if you haven't seen it in that long, you should be feeling like, "If I were starting this now, I'd have a much better go of it."

August 24, 2016 at 08:49 AM · Paul, in support of that, our group just had the first rehearsal after summer break and we are playing 5 to 10 bpm faster than last time through, across the board for 17 tunes.

Stay pawsitive,


August 24, 2016 at 08:49 AM · Paul, in support of that, our group just had the first rehearsal after summer break and we are playing 5 to 10 bpm faster than last time through, across the board for 17 tunes.

Stay pawsitive,


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