New piece to polished performance, in 10 steps.
In my approximately 13 years of teaching the violin, I have seen my students benefit from the many skills that transcend the lesson and the classroom. Arguably, the most important lesson taught that applies to one's day-to-day life is the ability to see through a large project from start to finish.
Music lessons by far provide the student with the opportunity - no, necessity, to break down a whole into many parts. In order to do so, however, one must have a vision. This vision is not fully realized, however, without the help of a qualified and experienced teacher, for a teacher has had the prior experience of being able to guide and mentor the student on his or her unique journey of making a piece of music his or her own.
So what exactly IS the creative process and how do we practice in the most effective and efficient way to maximize our creativity?
In my experience, creativity is all about logic, systemization, and presentation. You might think that this sounds quite left-brained for a musician to admit - and it certainly is! Here are my ten tips on how to practice the violin and any other instrument you might play:
- Listen to the entire piece of music on a recording and/or live performance many times.
- Do some research about the music and the composer. Even knowing just a few facts will help you to understand the emotional, cultural, and historical context of what you are about to learn.
- If it's a long piece of music, pick 1-2 pages to start with or even 1-2 sections if the piece seems to be a big technical leap (even, if not especially professionals keep learning!). If it's a short piece, pick a section that seems reasonable to learn within a few days.
- On the same day of following step 3, find any really hard parts in the entire piece that look like they will require lots and lots of extra time. This particularly applies when one is learning a new technique never accomplished before. Work on this section every day and, with the help of a teacher, pedagogy treatises, or prior training, nail it!
- Going back to step 3, spend no more than 45 minutes at a time working on the particular section. Taking a break every 45 minutes allows the brain to relax and gear up for another one to four 45 minute sessions (if you have the time and are so inclined). Never practice more than 4-5 hours in a day - I do not believe that it is beneficial. Even 3 hours is quite a bit for some, but there is no magic number. It is up to your own time constraints, goals, and physical/mental abilities. Remember that more is not always better. Quality matters more than quantity! In talking about how to practice the violin, one of my former teachers, Michèle Auclair, said that you should be so focused that even after 10 minutes, you should feel like your brain is exhausted. Yes, it's an exaggeration, but in other words, it's not about mindless repetition of hard parts, but more about analyzing what it is you wish to accomplish and having a plan of action (more as we segue below). You may wish to work on a new section within each 45 minute time chunk, so as to challenge your brain and not get caught up on the same material all the time.
- Do you play with your brain or with your fingers? Every section can be further divided up into subsections. For instance, if you decide that in a 45 minute time-frame, you think it is realistic to work on 4 or 5 lines, within those 4 or 5 lines, do you see areas that are technically difficult? This is where a good teacher comes in and will be able to advise you how to teach your fingers what they must do. Slow, deliberate practice for these sections is the name of the game. For those with a more masterful technique, this is your chance and opportunity to pick fingerings that resonate (no pun intended) with you. In this case, not only will you want the fingerings that show off your opinions about what the piece should sound like, but you will also be looking for the fingerings that are technically the best fit with your unique physiology. I cannot stress this latter point enough. Many well-meaning teachers insist on their own fingerings but at the end of the day, I cannot tell you how many poor conservatory students I have seen suffer from perceived "intonation problems" because fingerings did not work for their hands. This is what I call real musical malpractice.
- Some time later (the amount varies depending on the difficulty of the piece), you will be able to progressively add more sections and combine the older sections together. This is truly an example of a + b = c logic. In other words,we are now building a "whole" and getting closer to the vision that we saw in listening to our recording and/or live performance(s) in step 1. This is also the best time to really focus on adding a metronome into the mix. While it is true that we will not play like robots, particularly if you are playing with an orchestra or accompanist, it is of paramount importance that you have a good sense of internal pulse and regular, sustained metronome work will keep you honest. Later, you will have plenty of time to decide how to bend the pulse for heightened expression, but you need a "baseline" first. Furthermore, no matter what you decide to do with the pulse, it must always fit into the overall musical style of the composer and abilities of the other musicians you are playing with.
- After the larger sections coalesce into greater and greater coherence and wholeness, if you have learned your music well, you will likely have just about memorized the piece without even realizing it! So many students believe that memorization is a skill that one must work on. In my own experience, I tend to disagree. If you have played sections, subsections, and the entire piece multiple times in such a way that your technique serves the music so that your body works like a well-oiled machine, you will likely be 75% of the way to being able to perform from memory. A good strategy at this point is to play one-half to one whole page at a time with the music open but only glancing at it when necessary. It is also a good idea to record yourself at this stage, see where things go wrong and then do some self-analysis. Day by day, you may add one or more sections/pages at a time.
- Our eventual goal is to get to the stage where our fingers can go on "autopilot". I am not advocating that one's mind wander during practice sessions, but rather, this stage is the final "polishing" stage, where one must be able to play larger and larger sections back-to-back, eventually culminating in playing the entire piece in such a way that the music belongs to the performer. Playing an entire piece multiple times per day (the exact number will vary based on the length of the piece and time one has to practice) is very important here and at this stage, the performance-process takes importance. Here, I like to divide my practicing into two ways. One hour, I might play through the piece from memory but if something doesn't work technically, I stop when I stumble and work on the problem spot(s) before continuing on where I left off. The next hour, I might play the entire work from start to finish, record myself, and never stop in the middle, so that I have the experience of performing and continuing to perform, no matter what happens (a skill one needs on stage). This allows the "autopilot" to come in, as mentioned before. It is also brain-training, because if one suddenly thinks about what one ate for breakfast, it should not in the least impede the fingers, which now have a mind of their own! In fact, another skill learned here is the ability to bring back focus when the mind wanders. Another saying from my late teacher, Michèle Auclair, was that one must have a "strong mind" to be a successful violinist. This is a prime example and "mind over matter" is truly the name of the game.
- Finally, the last technical step is to perform the entire piece multiple times in the location where one will be performing. Unfortunately this is often a luxury and pianists have it even worse since they can not bring their own instruments to the stage!
I hope this exploration and examination of the creative process has been helpful. As you can see, music is truly a "process-oriented" activity. Good luck on your journey!
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians Academy
Parent tested, Child approved
Greater Boston, MA, USA
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