It’s easy for practice to turn into a game of whack-a-mole, pouncing on problems as they arise. If we are extra diligent, we might slow things down to the speed of no mistakes. Then we work up our tempo… only to play whack-a-mole again. A more proactive approach is to train comprehensively from the beginning, like an athlete does during practice. After all, musicians are fine motor skill athletes. We imagine sound and move to create that sound. Practice is the detailed study of that movement.
Imagining sound is best achieved by singing, score study and listening to recordings. This blog post is about physical practice, about how we refine our movement. Movement has speed, angle, weight, shape, & sequence.
Here are the five main categories of practice that great teachers instill in us in order to practice more fully. You will recognize these, even if you don’t use these particular labels. These five categories make up the anatomy of deliberate practice:
1) Isolation Training - working on only a few notes, but with acute intention. This allows us to learn a little bit, but very well. You may know it as chunking. It’s usually our first go-to, and we start slowly.
2) Separation Training - only working on one aspect of movement at a time. For example we could work only on intonation in whole notes, or rhythm alone, or open strings for string crossings.
Here is an example of left hand alone practice:
Here is another example. If you only want to focus on bow distribution, here is a technique you can try:
3) Pattern Training - taking a tricky spot in a piece and practicing as a “pattern”. Turning a repertoire chunk into an exercise induces automaticity. Attaching a tricky bowing to your scale practice, for example, can work wonders:
4) Sequence Training - Sequence training breaks down the order of events, in slow motion. What happens first, what happens second? For a passage across the strings, it might be: bow moves, third finger goes down, first finger lifts and moves towards new string, first finger goes down, finally bow moves again. As an example, here is a wonderful practice tutorial by Nathan Cole on synchronizing the hands:
5) Cross Training - practicing notes backwards, in rhythms, playing intervals upside down, adding or subtracting slurs, or any other kind of wacky practice challenges the brain and the body. Cross training creates “desirable difficulties”. It allows us to make new discoveries and makes the original seem easier.
6) Ergonomic Training - Practicing that focuses on the whole body rather than our two hands. Here the focus is on releasing tension, good posture, flowing breath, avoiding physical fatigue, etc. I sometimes call this freedom training, because I often feel that it sets me free and makes all of my other hard work pay off. Here is an example where I’m working on horizontal movement in the whole body in order to help me regulate bow speed:
In all five categories, exaggeration can be our best friend. The more ingrained your habit, the more powerful an antidote is called for. The word anatomy comes from the Greek “to dissect”. So, don’t repeat passages to "get familiar". Instead repeat in order to reinforce a new approach. In the words of Pilates Guru Fred DeVito: “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”.
There are many, many different practice tricks that fall in the above categories. If you have a favorite practice strategy that a teacher passed on to you, please describe it in the comments, it can help us all!
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Susanna, Thank you for this wonderful article and videos! I particularly appreciated: "So, don’t repeat passages to "get familiar". Instead repeat in order to reinforce a new approach."
Really useful, thoughtful suggestions, Susanna - many thanks. And +1 to Diana's appreciation of the 'reinforce a new approach' idea. No more whackamoling after today!
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November 22, 2022 at 11:14 AM · Really helpful advice Susanna, and wonderfully clear videos. Many thanks!