While Heifetz and the ‘Heifetz sound’ may no longer be as well known or even considered the gold standard by a huge number of professionals (as it was for my generation) it is still somewhat shocking to look at old footage of him playing with such fantastic ease and control. Nothing dated there at all. This while suffering quite badly from nerves on occasion! I mention him because I am reflecting once again on Auer’s oft quoted views on practicing.
I can’t reproduce the quote verbatim right now, but basically he recommended three hours and suggested four if one is a little stupid (violinstically challenged). To a large extent, this amount of practice would be met with derision these days and it may be that pedagogues such as DeLay who advocated more like five have established a more appropriate norm. However, I think Auer’s idea merits a little more examination. For example, there are absolutely outstanding violinists who did this amount of practice or less for much of their lives and did just fine. I notice for example, Rodney Friend , talking about 2-3 hours coupled with the words ‘intelligent practice.’
My feeling is this combination is what Auer was getting at and it actually merits a closer look. It is not only a question of intelligent practice, but also ‘focused practice. ‘ Looking at the question of intelligent practice, this is actually relatively rare from mediocre even up to advanced level students. I think in a nutshell it covers the issue of identifying -exactly- where the problem is and having/creating the widest range of methods to resolve that specific problem before reintegrating that spot with the whole. Typical practice, even at conservatory level, often simply focuses on a short passage or phrase which is not quite right, with ‘x’ number of repetitions making it sound ‘better’, thereby adding satisfying minutes to one’s practice time and a misleading sense that one has solved the problem.
The question of concentration is perhaps the more complex of the two. When I was taking Alexander lessons from Vivian Mackey (the last pupil of Casals) she talked a little about her experiences. I was bowled over by the degree of intensity of concentration he forced on her so she could rebuild her enormous but damaged playing ability (so much for world class conservatoires) from the ground up. This level of concentration was so intense it often left her hard pressed to do even 40 minutes of practice without taking seriously long breaks often involving just lying on the ground. The figure 40 minutes correlates well with Auer’s views, but clashes with Galamian’s view we could do 50. I think Galamian made a valuable contribution to pedagogy in getting us away from the obsession with ‘number of hours practiced’ which is a number rather than anything to do with the issue of learning the violin. However, perhaps even he may have taken it a little too far. In other fields it is very common to come across something called the Pomodoro Technique which argues for 25 minute blocks followed by a short break and then another block (Pomodoro). The research cited to back this approach focuses on how we remember basically the first 10 minutes and the last ten minutes of what we study, but not so much the bit in the middle, therefore short sessions lead to better learning and retention. This principle and strategy can certainly be usefully applied to violin playing. A beginner who practices 5 minutes correctly 3 times a day will make a lot more progress than one who practices badly for an hour and a half or more in one over-enthusiastic blast. Sadly, the latter is more common.
However, this is not the end of the story. There is also something called ‘deep learning’ (discussed in depth by Carl Newport in his book ‘Deep Work’) which argues that we now typically inhabit a world of shallow learning and experience (multi-tasking sucks) and it is rare to find anybody with the ability to seriously concentrate on one thing for long enough to build up sufficient myelin in that part of the brain to engender serious learning. In order to build up this ‘physical change’ in the structure of the brain one needs to work with intense concentration for a minimum of about an hour and a half. Furthermore, this kind of concentration needs to be trained and, interestingly, it is a finite resource that cannot be used for more than about three to four hours a day which brings us right back to Leopold Auer!
So, if I had to hazard I guess it would be that the true giants of the violin world usually (but not always) practiced significantly less than the rest of us but with both intelligence and concentration. When it was necessary (such as preparing for a competition)they could ramp up the number of hours while retaining this ability to concentrate and practice intelligently, an ability the rest of us perhaps did not develop well enough from a young age. I guess they also had/have the ability to go into deep work on demand so that ‘grabbing five minutes practice’ has a much deeper effect for them than for players such as myself.
Players will ultimately have to find their own way in terms of time spent practicing, but the decisions made will be more reliable if some consideration is given to the contribution of studies in learning and neuroscience that have taken place over the last few decades. Auer may have known intuitively that things are not so simple…
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