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Mendy Smith

A Well Tempered Practice Diet - The 'Easy' Stuff

May 5, 2011 at 3:56 AM

I realized something about my practice routine recently - I spend well over 80% of my time on the "difficult stuff" and while giving the "easy stuff" a passing run-though.  It is all well and good that I spend more time on difficult passages. However, skimping on the easier passages is like a crocodile lurking just beneath the waters.

The ensemble that I play with was working on an "easy piece" a few days ago in preparation of a recital . "Easy" meaning that there were no fancy left-hand fingering or tricky bowings, no odd rhythms. Just a piece filled with half and quarter notes, occasional runs of an open string for several measures, and a short jaunt up to 5th-7th position for three notes.  Nothing fast, nothing fancy. 

In other words, all the "easy stuff". 

What is incredibly difficult about this piece is getting the group intonation absolutely perfect, nailing the note transitions and bow changes down to the millisecond, matching vibrato styles perfectly, and balancing the dynamics between three violas, not an easy feat when the instruments range from 16 - 17" covering three different octaves.  The "easy stuff" takes an incredible amount of control to make it work.  One has to focus on continuing the vibrato through a note change without any dead spots.  The six measures of open string notes must have color and interest o match what the others are playing.  Though the viola is a stringed instrument, breathing plays a significant role in building and defining phrases.

Easy stuff.... but at the same time extremely difficult. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 5, 2011 at 3:02 PM

 Reminds me of yoga. There's no "easy" stuff, no matter how easy it might look to the eye, or to a more advanced yogi. It's just an opportunity to delve beneath the surface and work on layers upon layers of improving in tiny but important ways.

From Terry Hsu
Posted on May 6, 2011 at 7:28 PM


I heard the Calder Quartet play and asked them about what they do to play with good ensemble. The cellist suggested clapping.

My first thought was that this was a bit of a red herring. I considered myself and my group "too advanced" to resort to clapping.

Well, we tried it, and it works.

One other thing my group does is play passages nonvibrato and piano. At the open rehearsal of the Calder, they did the same thing. I also find that extremely helpful.

From Eloise Garland
Posted on May 6, 2011 at 8:49 PM

 It's funny how we start learning with the easy stuff - simple rhythms, steady bowings etc. But it always ends up being the thing coming back to bit us in the butt!! :) 

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on May 7, 2011 at 11:57 AM

It's like they say about Mozart – almost too easy for the amateurs, but always almost too difficult for the professionals.

I divide my playing near enough 50/50 between classical and folk (mostly from the British Isles), and therefore  I can agree 100% with the thesis that technically "simple" music is often among the most difficult to play cleanly in all its aspects, and with thought. In most of practice sessions I spend some time on Pleyel Op 8 –  imo just as demanding as those violin duos that Mozart never wrote! I don't ignore those little Seitz concerto movements in Suzuki Book 4 either; they may look simple and "easy" (1st position mostly) but they are not unmusical and there's a lot of work involved in bringing them up to performance standard, work which when done properly is always beneficial in the long run.   

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