How not to get overwhelmed when practicing?

August 22, 2016 at 03:04 PM · Right now I am preparing to record pre-audition tapes to submit for college and I feel like I am making absolutely no progress. I am working on the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 and Bach Partita no.2 Sarabande and I am getting so overwhelmed. I need to ace this audition tape and the audition but I feel like there is just too much to fix and I will never be able to get my intonation right. Being the emotional person I am my solution is to practice then cry, then practice and cry more because I don't know what to do. Even just taking small sections and trying to get them perfect is driving me crazy. I get it to sound as perfect as possible but then when I try to put it back into the piece it sounds exactly like it did before I isolated the problem!

I want to be good enough to get into this specific school and I feel like I am just setting myself up for failure somehow.

any advice? practice methods to try? anything? thanks

Replies (15)

August 22, 2016 at 03:33 PM · When joining two well-practiced segments, they should usually be practiced as if they were new. Speeding them up will be much faster than speeding up the seperate segments had been.

August 22, 2016 at 04:00 PM · I wish you luck and have admiration for your goals. Having such goals, I also assume you consider yourself at least pretty close to where you want to be.

I presume you have been recording your playing and it is from that that you have been assessing your intonation and why you have some doubts about it.

I also assume that it is the chords and double stops in the Bach that are most trouble intonation-wise. For that I'm sure you know that first working the individual chords/double-stops and then linking them to their phrases should be the object of your intense practice - and record them when you think you have them.

For the Mozart, I think it will mostly be a matter of style (dynamics, phrasing and bow technique) - except for the cadenzas -and for those it would be worthwhile to compose your own or abstract portions you are most comfortable with from existing cadenzas.

Working on small sections is the way to go when you have any doubts. When I studied cello as a teen there were some weeks when my concerto assignment was just a few lines of the music that involved techniques new to me. I worked them so thoroughly that now, 66 years later, they are still burned into my core memory so thoroughly that I run through them some days when I first sit at my cello - and there was about a 50 year gap between studying them and running them from memory that way for warmups.

Good luck!

August 22, 2016 at 06:47 PM · This isn't really a practice strategy so much as something I've noticed -

When I'm preparing for an audition or a performance, I become hypercritical of myself. I often think I'm getting worse, while in reality, I'm getting better at the pieces all the time. I bet you're still making progress.

I second the ideas of working on small sections and focusing on style in the Mozart.

Good luck!

August 22, 2016 at 08:17 PM · Don't just practice the pieces themselves. Try to fix the meta-issues away from the repertoire itself. Also, remember that for every time you play it wrong, you might need to play it 10 times correctly to overwrite the memory of the wrong time. When it's isolated, "as perfect as possible" once isn't adequate -- it has to be at that level every single time. Else it's just a crapshoot what's going to come out when it's not isolated.

So, for intonation issues, you should do a lot of exercises in the key of the pieces you're working on. Scales, arpeggios, shifting exercises, intonation exercises (Fischer's "Basics" is great for this). That cements the key in your ear as well as teaches your hands where the notes go. (It's also worth trying to figure out whether you're not hearing it precisely or your finger isn't going where you intended it to, as the fix for each is different.)

August 22, 2016 at 08:39 PM · Re Mozart 3 and Bach Sarabande: Are these particular pieces required for the audition? Or could you substitute other pieces at or about the same level that you have thoroughly mastered and have already allowed to go through the ripening process?

If I were you, I would seriously consider this alternative – provided that it is an option. Otherwise, what you’re attempting to do now is a little like cramming for a test in school. Auditioners will be more favorably impressed with a well-mastered, well-rendered Mozart 2 than a Mozart 3 that still has “just too much to fix.”

You asked about practice methods. One thing I do when learning new material is intersperse hard-core practice on it with older material that I’ve already polished and ripened. This breaks the tension and helps me counteract the tendency to feel overwhelmed. As you advance, the problems that seem overwhelming today should become less daunting. This is what one of my teachers told me, and my experience has borne it out.

August 22, 2016 at 08:44 PM · Do you have a skilled teacher helping you to prepare for the audition? For as many things as you can be told on this site violing playing is very complex, nothing can substitute the information and help provided by a good teacher standing by your side since there could be other things going on with a negative impact on your intonation. Everything said before can be useful, but in my opinion the best thing is to have your teacher helping you. Good luck!

August 23, 2016 at 04:13 AM · I really resonated with Lily's, Andrew's and Lydia's comments. Jim Hastings often has good suggestions too but what he is proposing here is really "outside the box" and would really depend on your time line. I didn't really understand what Adrian meant.

For that Sarabande, honestly I would be practicing a lot of scales in double stops in D minor and closely related keys.

My teacher taught me a good way to practice scales in thirds.

BD (rest) BD-CE (rest) CE-DF# etc. Minimize open strings by using third position. You totally stop the bow during the rests and the hyphens indicate a slur with constant bow speed. If you cheat when you practice by sliding around then you're not learning. Use gaps to reset your fingers and then gradually shrink the gap.

Also Kreutzer No. 36 is great. If anyone can recommend a comparable D minor double-stop study that would be cool.

I presume you are playing just the first mvt of M3. Which cadenza are you playing? Franko is the most common. Flesch is harder. Concentrate on creating musical episodes within the cadenza but a unified musical statement overall. And remember that the cadenza is romantic music -- it was not written by Mozart. It should point to the themes Mozart established, but you can take some Kreisleresque liberties with expression as long as you do it tastefully.

August 23, 2016 at 01:35 PM · I was trying to be brief: I don't imagine folks will be bothered to scroll my posts! I'll try again.

1) Very slow and attentive improvement of short segments, not more than 4 or 5 notes at a time; then gradually up to speed.

2) Joining segments 1&2, 2&3 etc as slowly as if they were something new, rediscovered, before speeding up each "pair". They will probably be "learned" faster than the individual segments in stage 1).

The other posts contain detailed and excellent advice, of course...

August 23, 2016 at 04:56 PM · Hi,

Some of the best slow practice I have seen was posted by Hilary Hahn a while back on her website. I have posted this here before, but here is the link:

It is easy to feel overwhelmed. One of Ms. Hahn's great tips is going through the piece slowly from beginning to end. Taking things out of context doesn't really solve everything because the mind remembers in a continuous fashion. So, if you isolate something and then try again from the beginning, your mind remembers only how and when it started to go wrong. So, being able to get through it well from the beginning safely, is important.

The other thing, is to plan as you are playing. Things like knowing how you shift (intermediate notes and which finger) and having the finger on the string before you leave (an old Heifetz trick), helps to map out and remember how you are moving from one place to the next which helps with consistency.

All people are different, but for me, the process of going through thing slowly from beginning to end is a process that I have to repeat every day. I have played 24 concerts this summer, and the case of one series, 16 times the same programme, and every time, I have to start the same process.

Now, like someone mentioned above, practicing while having macro-issues in your playing, most often caused by imbalances and incorrect movements of problems of setup, can make it next to impossible to address a problem passage and these need to be fixed in addition to anything in your piece. To a good extent, they are more important than any specific issues in a piece, as no matter how much you practice, they will get in the way.

Lastly, I wrote the following blog a while back -

It is kind of a list of the basic issues that affect everything in all that we play, and how to address them.

Hope all of this helps you...

Cheers and best of luck!

August 23, 2016 at 04:56 PM · Oops! Double-posted...

August 23, 2016 at 08:21 PM · I agree with Ms Hahn! My suggestions concern the nitty gritty which follows the careful exploration of the whole piece, (and how not to get bogged down.)

August 24, 2016 at 03:23 PM · If you have a specific problem spot, say at measure 123, then after you nailed the measure with a focused practice, play from measure 120 until measure 126, for example at the 80% speed (of your performance speed) to see if measure 123 blends well with the rest. If that goes well, repeat the portion at least five times at the same speed.

Also, I think some quantitative approach may be helpful. Look at a fresh copy of music and mark all the problem spots. Then codify the nature of the problems. Is it intonation? bowing? vibrato? string crossing? If you analyze the data, you can immediately see the problem pattern as well as the conditions in which such problem often arises. Then practice a little bit more generally to smooth out the common problems, following the excellent suggestions of other posters.

Regarding Mozart #3:

-- Think about the singing quality of the concerto; he is well-known as an opera composer.

-- Bow should be light and playful. This will help string crossing. Bow grip should be lighter, with particular attention to how the bow travels between the bridge and the fingerboard.

-- Vibrato should be faster and narrower in general. This will provide a nice contrast to the dark sections where dramatic vibrato is needed.

-- If you are using Mozart #3 for a college audition, then a cadenza may require more technical attention, esp. in double stops.

-- Repeatedly listen and watch how professionals do, e.g., Hilary Hahn's:

Sarabande from Bach D minor partita:

-- Also careful and repeated listening is important. I recommend Julia Fischer's encore performances on YouTube. There are several of them.

-- Use the metronome to keep a steady pace. Sarabande is a slow dance, after all. You can relax it a little bit later, but many people take too much license. Audition is not the best time for individuality/creativity.

Good luck with your audition.

August 24, 2016 at 11:28 PM · Thank you so much everyone for the advice!!

Adrian - I totally agree, in my lesson yesterday we worked on doing exactly that. One of the major problems I was having was I was expecting it to fit in its spot in the piece without having to slow everything down. Also I didn't scroll past your post don't worry! :)

Andrew - Thank you. I like to think I am close to my goal but its so hard for me to tell. I have been working on the piece for a while now so its down to the very nitty gritty intonation and style which is really difficult for me to remember since I play from memory. I might try taking parts of the concerto to focus on sort of like how you described when you played cello, you took small parts and worked on it.

Lily - I think that might be what's also happening here. I really really really want to get into this college and I have lost so much confidence because I haven't done amazing things like play solo with an orchestra or win a competition or something. :/

Lydia - I never really thought to do that.. it seems so obvious to me now... I shall try to play the whole thing slowly and focus on the little details!

Jim - It is too late for me to switch to another piece. The two I am playing now I have a very good grasp on its just the fine tuning of the pieces that is getting to me. This audition is also very important to me so I am being super critical of my playing and probably a bit too much so. I am a bit of a perfectionist so I really want to show all that I can do in the audition but what I am playing now is not the best I can do. I still have a lot of time too, i'm not cramming for anything. My application is due on December 1st so I am not worried about not having enough to practice, just worried that I am not preparing correctly.

Jose - I do have a very skilled teacher and she has been wonderful. We talked yesterday about my intonation and she said that the main thing keeping it from being the best it can be is my 4th finger. Since my pinky finger is very short it is hard for me to reach to get the 4th finger notes.

Paul - I really like that double stop technique you described. I will definitely try that! Also yes I am playing the 1st movement with the franko cadenza.

Christian - thank you for all the advice and the articles, it is all very helpful. I never really thought about planning while playing, I will try having that mindset!

Sung - Looking at some new music might be helpful, my copy is full of notes. Also thank you for the technique pointers for the two pieces!

Again, thank you everybody!! There is a lot of great advice here that I will take :)

August 25, 2016 at 01:17 AM · Rebecca, it might take some of the mental pressure off if you tell yourself you already have a very good situation. From your bio, it looks like you're already in a performance program and you think your teacher is wonderful, so even if your transfer application doesn't succeed, you'll still be fine.

August 26, 2016 at 06:48 PM · Just a quick quote (one of my favorites) -

Pablo de Sarasate: "For 37 years I've been practicing 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius."



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