How a practice session should be?

May 23, 2018, 2:11 AM · Hi everyone
I feel very stuck and unproductive with my practice and very lost!
What should a practice session look like? Eg repertoire and scales
Would also love to know how everyone practices scales without getting so bored!

Replies (14)

May 23, 2018, 3:25 AM · "Would also love to know how everyone practices scales without getting so bored!"

If you are getting bored playing scales it probably means you are not listening intently enough. The whole point of scales is to improve intonation and become familiar with intervals and the fingerboard.

Edited: May 23, 2018, 4:41 AM · I don't agree entirely with Peter that scales are only for intonation and fingerboard mastery, although they are essential for those purposes. My teacher showed me how to focus also on changing strings smoothly (because I am weak on that), and this is covered in Simon Fischer's book "Scales" too.

And if you've conquered all of that with your scales, you can: (a) increase the speed, (b) add another octave at the top, (c) do chromatic scales, (d) practice different fingerings for your scales, (e) do scales in broken thirds, and (f) do scales in actual thirds, sixths, octaves, tenths, and fingered octaves (e.g., Flesch sequence). And don't forget arpeggios. Finally, are your scales musical? Make them so. Try putting a big crescendo toward the top as a starting point and pretend you are arriving at the climax of a huge concerto. (Or the Scherzo movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5.)

For many, practice sessions are divided roughly into four parts. Scales, a study, lyrical repertoire (or solo Bach), and concerto repertoire. If you have orchestra music too, that has to be fit in somewhere. It is very important to work with your teacher to learn exactly what you should be focusing on in each part. On the other hand you cannot compartmentalize your training. In other words, you cannot leave behind what you have been learning from your scales when you are working on your concerto repertoire. The biggest problem I find with scales and studies is that "technology transfer" issue.

May 23, 2018, 4:39 AM · Of course it goes without saying that all those other aspects should be covered as well. (Including tone production).

Heifetz said he had only to hear a scale played to know if the violinist was any good or not.

Getting bored playing scales is an easy way to waste time.

Edited: May 23, 2018, 4:58 AM · Yes! Tone production too!! Yeah I guess the string change issue is kind of obvious but I only mentioned it because that was (and still is) where I seem to need work, more than other students at approximately the same level. That's the thing ... find out where your weaknesses are, and use your scales and studies to bring them up. Often it's a bowing issue too, not just left hand stuff. I find scales less helpful for bowings than studies, but that's because 3-octave scales are still kind of hard for me, I haven't mastered the left hand part of them yet. Whereas you can always find a study that's easy enough in the left hand to concentrate on bowings.
Edited: May 23, 2018, 5:21 AM · hi Alison, if you find scales boring, do them every practice session, but for a limited time that you plan in advance, e.g. 15 minutes. During that time pick a key and pick a number in the Flesch scale system, then work only on that number (or perhaps two numbers). like Peter said, be super critical and try to get it as right as possible. since you are doing only one key and one single number, you should get the notes and fingering quickly and then continue practicing by heart, so without looking at the page. I find that improves concentration. Those 15 minutes will be over in no time!
May 23, 2018, 5:44 AM · No one knows Alison's level, so it's hard to say what she should do with scales.
The main thing is to have some method in mind, like practicing the scales in groups and rhythms.

Yes, scales are boring. But the fact of life is that people who are successful in any field are those that have a high toleration for boring tasks. Just ask any doctor, lawyer, investment banker, or any professional athlete.

May 23, 2018, 6:11 AM · From years of practicing with kids with varying levels of motivation, I highly suggest splitting up your practicing into small chunks. My youngest does 15-20 minutes of scales, etudes, and review in the morning, and 30-40 minutes of technique and repertoire in the afternoon. Both chunks are manageable because they are short. It would be overwhelming--and likely boring--if all done at once.
May 23, 2018, 7:50 AM · I somewhat disagree with Scott's statement that people who are successful in any field are those that have a high tolerance for boring tasks. I think that highly successful people can manage to cope with tedious tasks when necessary, but they actively strive to reduce the number of boring things that they have to do, and/or minimize the tedium and time spent doing them.

Anyway, broadly, if you're at a loss for how to divide your practice time, the classic formula is one-third, equally, of scales/exercises, etudes, and repertoire. For advanced students, one-fourth, equally, of scales/exercises, etudes, a concerto, and other repertoire.

May 23, 2018, 8:50 AM · "No one knows Alison's level" she told us earlier that she was accepted at three conservatories.
May 23, 2018, 9:12 AM · I think for players at that kind of conservatory level, it's important to have clear practice goals in mind. That holds as true for scales as it does for anything else. If you're already playing at a very high level, one has to be aware of what incremental refinements are desired. I would suggest that anything that has become mindlessly tedious should be replaced with something that requires an alert brain.
Edited: May 23, 2018, 9:18 PM · A thumbs up to the first comment of Paul Deck. There are tons of thing to do to the same scale: combinations of dynamics, mix of bowings, adding a double stop here or there...

However one can understand the point. The way that I make them more interesting is by focusing on its usefulness. I try to practice in as many variations as my level allows me, the scales only in the key of the lyrical piece that I have as homework and the results are so immediate and noticeable that it's impossible to neglect them.

So according to the piece I am learning, I select and do all the scales and arpeggios I can do properly, and also some etudes in the same key. Sometimes I do the opposite. If one key has been neglected for too long, I choose scales, studes and a piece for that key. In TV there's the "Shark Week". I have the E-flat major fortnight.

What "loses" me, as maybe that's what happens to you, is to have a scale program, a etude program and a lyrical program unrelated in the short term.

May 23, 2018, 10:39 PM · "how a practice session should be"?

It should be designed to meet your goals in the shortest time possible, and with the least frustration in the process of doing that. In addition, it should be building skills/techniques that you'll have to use in the future, so when you encounter them you're not hitting a wall.


Have you asked yourself WHY you're practicing scales? Just blindly practicing random scales won't do you a ton of good if you're trying to meet a particular goal.

Let's use an example of an "ideal" practice session.

First off, identify how much time you have that day. Let's say you have 3 hours total to practice.

Let's assume that in general, your primary goal is usually to learn/master a new piece of repertoire for the sake of an upcoming audition, and then your secondary goal is to build skills that will be relevant for your NEXT piece of repertoire (that might just be the second mvmt of a concerto that you're working on the 1st mvmt of). Calculate the time you have before the relevant audition and figure out how many lines/pages you will have to learn, on average, in order to have the material mastered when the time comes. Base your practices around this. If the audition is coming up soon, you actually need to spend far LESS time on scales/etudes and far MORE time just preparing the piece through slow, methodical practice.

Think of scales and etudes as a way of preparing you for the FUTURE, and think of repertoire practice as a way of preparing you for NOW.

So you might spend 45 minutes on scales, 45 minutes on etudes, and 90 minutes of practicing your current piece (these ratios could change depending on your goals... in general spend more time on the relevant piece if an audition is approaching quickly, and more time on scales/etudes if you don't have an immediate need for a particular piece of music to be learned).

Now, even 45 minutes on scales might sound like a bit much for some people. But keep in mind, that's not 45 minutes of RANDOM scales. Ideally, you would choose the scale that's in the key of the piece you're learning so you have more immediate fluidity in that key when you switch over to practicing that piece of music. In your scale studies (let's take flesch for example), don't just play every study from beginning to end. Choose the studies that apply most relevantly to what you're working on, or what you WILL be working on in the near future. For example, if the 2nd mvmt of the concerto you're working on is going to have a bunch of fingered 3rds, then choose the flesch study in that key that has fingered 3rds. If it has a lot of runs (what concertos don't?), like 20 notes slurred in a scale upwards, then practice a 3-octave scale in that key with only a single bow to do the entire run upwards and a single bow downwards. Get the scale sounding GOOD. Don't just "play" scales. Study them and make them refined. The notes should sound perfect in a scale, since it only gets harder once you come across those same notes in the context of a piece.

Scales are also a nice place to experiment with fingerings that work for you. Although scales are hard, they're generally PREDICTABLE, and that is where we find the true usefulness of a scale. Since they are predictable, we can work on polishing things that might otherwise be hard to polish in the context of a piece of music.


Etudes are basically the same concept. In fact, most etudes are just modified scales, and most scales are just etudes. The difference is that while a single scale can be utilized for several different purposes, an etude is usually designed for a single purpose. If you look closely at etudes, you can quickly decipher what the purpose of each one is. Anyways, if you're going to have to do a bunch of upbow staccato in an upcoming piece of music, then that skill is going to take some time to develop. We can't "cram" upbow staccato study, so we have to start ahead of time, before we ever need to use it. This is a good example of where you could insert Kreutzer #4. We can't spend 45 minutes a day on just upbow staccato though (well we could, but it stops being useful after 15 or so minutes), so you might insert other RELEVANT etudes as well until the 45 minute are up.

And for the last 90 minutes of practice, hopefully you already know how to practice and prepare for a piece of music.

Edited: May 24, 2018, 1:32 AM · My practicing looks like this when things work out how they're supposed to, but my schedule is always all over the place so it's usually either less or broken up.

15 Minute A
15 Minute B
5 Minute break

15 Minute C
15 Minute D
10 Minute Break

15 Minutes B
15 Minutes A
5 Minute break

15 Minutes D
15 Minutes C
10 Minute Break

15 Minutes B
15 Minutes D
5 Minute Break

15 Minutes C
15 Minutes A
Finish.

There is at least half an hour between any two attempts at the same topic, with rests of either 5 or 10 minutes between each half hour. Sections are limited to ~15 minutes to maintain attention and interest.

This schedule uses psychology buzzwords such as spacing, interleaving, task switching, etc to build what should be a very effective practice schedule. If you're approaching something new for the first time it's okay to spend a little longer on that than you normally would to establish a base line of ability and then you can weave it into the schedule like you normally would. You can break down the blocks further as well if you want, so if you're treating block B as technique practice you can spend 15 minutes doing spicatto or you could spend 5 minutes and do two other challenges. The point is that because each block appears 3 times those 15 minute sessions end up being 45 minutes total, so even if you broke a block into three smaller blocks you still spend 15 minutes on each mini-block. It's important not to dissect too much though.

It also doesn't have to be hard and fast - you can stretch or shorten blocks to match whatever you feel works best for you. This is just an example.

Edited: May 24, 2018, 11:37 AM · Regarding boring / tedious tasks, I agree with Lydia that we strive to minimize them, but sometimes, there they are, and you've got to do them. Professionalism means, at least in part, doing those parts of your job well that are necessary but not your favorite activity.

In synthetic chemistry there are a lot of things that one does over and over -- distillations, chromatography, reaction work-ups, recording spectra, etc. What I teach my students is that doing these seemingly "boring" tasks very carefully and thoughtfully is often the difference between a synthetic outcome that is immediately publishable vs. one that needs improvement (i.e., rework) first; and that diligent observations of any deviations from "normal" or "expected" behavior of a compound during a purification step can be important and useful.

So it is with scales. I find they are the least "boring" when I'm really pushing to get the highest possible level of quality, and the most boring when I'm just going through the motions without any goal in mind because I feel I should be "doing scales." I imagine that should be true regardless of one's level.


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