Practicing for Consistency

May 19, 2007 at 08:33 PM · I've enjoyed reading the recent practicing threads, especially the one on repetition, and have a question of my own to raise. I'm currently doing auditions and come up again and again against the problem of consistency. In a nerve-wracking situation, I haven't yet found a way to be dependable enough from start to finish.

What are some ways to practice for consistency, especially without losing musical freedom and spontanaeity? I use slow practice, drill exercises, metronome work and focus a lot on tension release, but still haven't managed to find that magic ingredient. Ideas?

Replies (41)

May 19, 2007 at 09:28 PM · Interesting topic.

"In a nerve-wracking situation, I haven't yet found a way to be dependable enough from start to finish."

I wonder what you mean by dependable here? No mistakes? Equally good sound in all parts? Same overall quality no matter when and where and to whom you play?

I guess none of these factors matter to the professional violinists, not only because the technical security they've got and also the experience to handle the nerve under these circumstance. But as a violin student, I personally find that my performance has been consistently the worst in front of my teacher or someone that I perceive to be examining me with a sharp and critical ear and mind. For the same token, I can be self-critical too, so I would do really badly in my practice room when I'm tired and get overly self-critical. I think the chief reason for my inconsistency is technical immaturity and, more importantly, I know it.

May 19, 2007 at 10:08 PM · Hi,

Consistency is hard to achieve at any level, whether student or professional. I guess the best person to answer this would be one of the fantastic soloists who frequent this site... (Mr. Gringolts - please?)

Cheers!

May 19, 2007 at 10:23 PM · " guess none of these factors matter to the professional violinists, not only because the technical security they've got and also the experience to handle the nerve under these circumstance."

Don't kid yourself--even well-known soloists feel the heat and have the same problems as the rest of us. Recently, a soloist came to play a concerto with my orchestra. I asked him if he'd been able to relax since the previous evening's performance, and he said he spent the morning playing through his concerto slowly--15 times.

Don't underestimate how much repetition it takes to solidify the neural pathways.

May 20, 2007 at 04:22 AM · If I was famous, on my website I'd have a place to click to ask me a question, and Paypal would take $20 out of your bank account and put it in mine.

May 20, 2007 at 05:20 AM · Your teacher is listening critically to help, not hinder your playing. If you make mistakes there it couldn't happen in a better place because you will soon learn from your teacher how to fix the problem.

May 20, 2007 at 05:31 AM · Good point Ray, but it also depends on the teacher too. I had a teacher would tell me what I did was wrong but can't help me to fix it. That's honest but when such comments came up more than a couple of times, it's little problematic.

May 20, 2007 at 08:44 AM · What is your nerve-wracking situation? Can you simulate it somehow? For me, turning on the tape recorder at a specific time (3:45 PM, play through concerto) is enough to get me nervous.

If you can discover what changes for you between normal practice and the pressure situation, you will take a major step toward smoothing out that change. Be specific: what changes in the right hand, left hand, etc? What passages suddenly feel insecure?

May 20, 2007 at 11:37 AM · i like the idea of breaking it down to smaller parts, or even matching the time of practice to time of performance (after all, we follow a diurnal pattern with our hormones changing by the hour).

the other thing i would suggest, if you aim to start afresh during each take over a longer period of practice, is to get physically fitter (my assumption you are just fit:) it is easy to lose mental focus when fighting fatigue, physical or mental. you may need to do some cross training to increase aerobic capacity.

in addition, between takes, there should be a refractory period where you can rest your mind and body and recharge quickly (again, you have to be fitter to recharge quicker). there may be some meditation/imagery techniques that can help.

finally, learn to reward yourself (in your own way, no, not a shopping spree) each day if you achieve your goal of quality practice, to set a pattern of what may come tomorrow, to gradually condition yourself to levels higher and higher.

May 23, 2007 at 11:52 AM · Thanks for the responses. I'm thinking and trying things out, but the past two auditions have shown me that there's still a long way to go.

Yixi wrote:

"I wonder what you mean by dependable here? No mistakes? Equally good sound in all parts? Same overall quality no matter when and where and to whom you play?"

By dependable, I mean being able to deliver 5 minutes of a Mozart concerto accident-free from beginning to end - at a consistently high level with beautiful sound and natural, musical phrasing and energy, of course without sounding like a techique machine. In an audition, you have very little time to give the jury an impression: you have to be on from the word go - there is no warm-up for you and them to 'get into' the performance. They hear dozens of violinists a day, and can 'turn off' very quickly if your playing doesn't seem to fit right away. You often don't have time to play through your nerves, which for me manifest in my shoulders, and warm up your sound - you have to be able to manage that despite sometimes feeling like you're about to be sick.

I think there's something wrong with how I practice - possibly that I let little slips slide by saying that they won't happen again. And then they show up again at auditions or in other high-pressure situations. Feeling unsure about what will happen is never good, and can be detrimental to the overall impression, even if you don't slip up. I'm looking for a way to practice for security, so that I can be more confident about how my playing will react to nerves. Because that will already ease the tension.

Nathan,

Good point about recording and playing for people. It certainly helps, and has helped, but it may only be half the battle for me. I actually think I could be being a bit negligent in my practice as well. I think I'm missing some building blocks between tiny detail and isolation work and the big picture.

And Al, thanks for the notes about the other side of preparation. Just goes to show how everything really is tied together - what you eat affects how you sound, for instance.

The more ideas, the better - I'm experimenting and doing a lot of searching. I'm sure there's quite a bit to be gleaned from the process.

May 23, 2007 at 12:43 PM · i think the most precious asset you have is your open-mindedness, the willingness to experiment, take risks and change, if necessary. for violinists, i can imagine this can be quite hard, to convince yourselves that you may, at times, for a better future, change. it is easier said than done, more mentally than technically, that you welcome the change. but you have the mental part in place.

one thing that has been tossed around is the videotaping of oneself. i will speculate that if you videotape yourself habitually, ie, on every single session of serious practice, knowing full well that "someone" is watching, your level of focus and performance may improve at a faster pace with time. the taping not only allows you to look back and critique yourself, but also serves as a fictitious being to condition you and your nerves on how to work a crowd... to change from i- play- better- when- no- one- is- around to i-play- the-same-regarless to i-play-better-with-an-audience.

May 23, 2007 at 03:11 PM · Hi,

Megan - the Rachel Barton article on the competition thread may be of interest to you. Check it out.

On the psychological side, I find that the need to prove or make an impression rather than just playing often creates tension and the kind of slip-ups we try to avoid. I see that in myself and my students. Just a thought.

Cheers!

May 23, 2007 at 09:51 PM · Megan,

getting yourself immersed in the music/score will make a big differrence.

If you learn the road map (musically) of the particular piece you are working on, and imagine you were the composer playing /composing this work, many technical challenges can be overcome using your own instincts.

If one addresses learning pieces in this way, sort of like the Stanislavsky method (in the Acting world of Drama), then your focus and concentration is on the right stuff.

Rather than master a work technically first, and then try to turn on the music inside you.

There are ways to practice technical parts of any piece with musical intentions. The issue is one of habit.

Just like excellence is a habit to be practiced daily as well.

If you are ready to try new habits, you may be surprised as to how quickly new changes will occur.

If you have certain issues to resolve in your technique, analyze what they are, and address them in a new way, using new strategies that involve musical intentions.

Then you foster a whole new self (the confident musician inside you that has always wanted to come out).

May 23, 2007 at 10:36 PM · Mr.Filimonov,

Great adivce and so glad to hear from you again!

A lot of us are afraid of making mistakes during these high pressure momemts so I wonder if you can address this issue as well. For instance, would it be wise to say to oneself, a mistakes here and there is not as fatal as a poor overall presentation?

May 23, 2007 at 10:51 PM · Greetings,

I think Gennady gets right to the heart of what is fundamentally wrong in most people`s practice with the following:

>Rather than master a work technically first, and then try to turn on the music inside you.

If you tried to paint a portait by taking a numbe rof small piece sof canvas of approximately the right size and working on each one to produce a component part of the whole (a delightfully fnished ear for example) then tried to assemble the whole the result would hardly be successful.

Unless of course you were Picasso...

Cheers,

Buri

May 24, 2007 at 12:11 AM · Thanks for the kudos guys.

Yixi,

In a way yes. Funny enough though, when you approach practicing from the other point of view (which I described above), things are actually flowing naturally (in performance situation) without worrying about peripheral disctractions and or mind games.

Your mind should be focused/absorbed in the text (music score) and your heart should evoke everything that you have envisioned in that text.

May 24, 2007 at 01:21 AM · Thanks Gennady and Buri, that is really helpful.

I’ve just got a new teacher who is known for great techniques, and right now I’m working on Bach Partita II Allemanda, Bruch concerto g, Kreutzer #1, plus Flesch scales -- a pretty rich ground to start the new approach to practice you two recommended.

BTY, any tips on playing Bach Allemanda will be most appreciated. I read some discussion in other thread but one can never hear enough on Bach Partita, right?

May 24, 2007 at 02:56 AM · Greetings,

Szigeti has some good ideas and excellent fingerings in his book- Szigeti on the violin. I like his fingerings bette rthan Szeryngs. Very thoughtful. I don@t remember if he mentions this but I am not keen on the first section ending by going up the a string for the final g sharp and then the chord. I much prefer staying in first which I think exemplifies the basic adage of stay with lower positions as much a sposisble. I have never felt Szigeti was bending this rul with his insistence of a greta command of second position , that is pretty much first postion anyway ;)

Cheers,

Buri

May 24, 2007 at 04:18 AM · Thanks Buri! I've got that book on my shelf -- confess confess I haven't read it yet but will now!

Yes, stay in the first position since I don't need to scratch my nose when playing the Bach. Szigeti's fingerings are not in the first position though.

May 24, 2007 at 04:42 AM · >Rather than master a work technically first, and then try to turn on the music inside you.

I don't think this is wrong, but I think it's potentially misleading. I do think music naturally comes from technical mastery - if it would come some other way. The problem is somebody could be doing something that works, the suggestion above for that matter, but understand it in some other terms, and change roads. On the other hand, it can become such a drudge that nearly anything that gives a new slant and spices things up can be beneficial.

It's the same thing for continually being told here to relax, relax. I can see how someone could be doing fine, but become convinced he needs to become a limp rag. The answer has to be be aware of what's working and what's not. Not easy if you're a beginner I think.

May 24, 2007 at 04:45 AM · Jim,

A good teacher will offer advice that is tailor made for that particular person/student.

Megan seems advanced enough to be taking auditions.

My advice is "tailored" to her inquiry.

It goes without saying that same advice would be difficult to apply for begginers, not knowing all the notes or how to hold a bow etc.

May 24, 2007 at 04:51 AM · Yes - a good in-person teacher is an answer :) I'm trying to think of how not to exclude everybody else though...

>what is the extent of your proficiency on the violin?

Why? Do you want to jam with me? I hope!

May 24, 2007 at 04:46 AM · BTW Jim,

what is the extent of your proficiency on the violin? and have you played professionally? and who did you study with?

May 24, 2007 at 04:43 AM · Greetings,

although Gennady was discussing an advanced studnet the same is also true, in my opinion, for beginners if one adopts the principle of having the student clap the rythms, sing the melody etc prior to playing the work.

Cheers,

Buri

May 24, 2007 at 05:31 AM · Jim,

you have a funny way of trying to answer questions by putting them in the previous post (like in the past) appearing before my question.

A fresh post makes more sence.

Still, can you address my questions.....?

don't be shy.

what is the extent of your proficiency on the violin? and have you played professionally? and who did you study with?

May 24, 2007 at 05:40 AM · Gennady, I already gave you an answer. But since you didn't like it, twenty years ago I was doing what you're doing. But then, so were you.

May 24, 2007 at 07:34 AM · Hi guys,

Thanks again - lots of activity here overnight.

Christian, I saw that RBP article yesterday and found a lot of good ideas there, specifically practicing the stop/change gears part of auditions, which I've realized makes me anxious. Not knowing when I'll be asked to skip makes it difficult for me to stay in the music, or in the moment.

Gennady, thanks! That's something I'm thinking about again - and actually seriously reconsidering learning another Mozart concerto for a breath of fresh air! Problem is, D major is almost ideal for auditions (everyone here seems to play A, and with G, it can be more difficult to make an impression).

By the way, how does it work in Seattle - are your auditions accompanied? Here, you meet your pianist when you get on the stage - but I wasn't sure if that is also the case in the States.

-----

p.s. Buri, what you say about learning technique and then 'pressing the music button' is something I'm aware of - but when first learning a piece, I find it difficult not to get musically carried away and let in all sorts of little technical slips and imperfections - which are then that much more difficult to iron out... Balance is so hard to find!

May 24, 2007 at 07:51 AM · so Jim,

anotherwords, you were a member of which Symphony orchestra and which quartet? and who was your teacher?

inquiring minds want to know.....

May 24, 2007 at 10:50 AM · Hi,

Gennady - your post on how to focus the mind and practicing the art of excellence is truly wonderful and really well said! I am printing this out for future use!

Cheers!

May 24, 2007 at 11:45 AM · If it's in a performance situation mostly, then really, schedule as many high pressure performances you can in a short amount of time. Performing also has to be practiced, and the best way to gain experience is to do it a lot, without a long break in between. Too long a break in between performances, and you have to start all over.

May 24, 2007 at 05:48 PM · What a great thread . . . Don't worry Megan, you’re not alone — this is a question I’ve struggled with many times. From what I can tell, there are two solutions to this problem, which go hand in hand:

As you’ve been noticing, the way you practice and prepare will often determine how well you can perform under pressure. A conductor once told me that “everything happens before it happens.” This can be applied to many things, but the way I see it in relation to practicing is that if your practicing allows inaccuracies to slip by, it will carry over in a performance — only magnified by being nervous. Last summer I had what I guess you’d call an epiphany, when I realized that around 75% of my practicing was actually fixing mistakes that I’d allowed to creep in while initially learning the piece. I felt so stupid because somehow had never considered the fact that right from the start, I should be practicing a piece as perfectly as possible, always with the end in mind. Now, obviously there are some new techniques, difficult passages, etc. which will be impossible to play “perfectly,” even at slow speeds, until you use a significant amount of repetition and experimentation to solve the problems. However, in most cases, we have the ability to play music very well even at an early stage — we just either don’t pay attention, or haven’t used enough slow repetition. As they say, “practice make permanent” Every time we practice, we add a level of habit, good or bad to our playing in general, and our pieces in particular.

Now, of course we can’t play a piece slowly forwever. You have to find a way to keep that same accuracy at tempo. However, the same principles apply at faster speeds. The idea is to maintain a mindset that does not let mistakes “slip” past. So, when you are playing through a passage at tempo, there are three basic steps that help:

1) Listen carefully as you are playing and identify specific problems (e.g. “my 3rd finger is out of tune”)

2) Figure out exactly WHY this problem exists. You may have to play the section (still at tempo) several times, listening, feeling, and watching to see what is wrong. (e.g. my thumb is sticking during the shift beforehand) Sometimes we can play a section perfectly at a slow tempo, but things begin to fall apart as we notch up the speed. This step is to identify what problems occur when you play the passage quickly

3) Lastly, and most important, you need to implement the correct solution and fix the problem as thoroughly as possible. This may involve a relatively simply change you can perform immediately. However, more often it requires some slow, correct repetition of the passage. (e.g. continuing the same example as above, this would mean shifting several times smoothly and accurately). Then you can bring the passage back into tempo, and integrate it into the rest of the piece, speeding it up gradually with a metrenome if necessary.

The second thing to help consistency is to change your psychological attitude towards performing. I don’t know about you, but every time I’ve stressed out about technique during a performance, guess what? I’ve made technical blunders. Other times, when I’ve deliberately chosen to forget my critics, focus solely on the piece I’m playing, and express everything I love and want to say about the music, I do much better, both technically and musically. For me personally, it usually boils down to the “fake it till you make it” philosophy. Every single human person gets nervous to some extent when he perceives a pressure to perform. Sometimes you simply have to “pretend” that you are not nervous. If you put your focus on exactly what you are doing and feeling through the music in that moment, your mental “faking” will often translate into a real sense of greater relaxation as your mind “tricks” your body into being comfortable, and you transfer you focus from self-conscious criticism to awareness of the music. And guess what? This greater relaxation then helps you to make fewer technical mistakes as well.

Obviously, it is much harder to “fake” being relaxed and confident if you truly if you haven’t prepared a piece thoroughly. However, if you combine careful practice with a healthy mental attitude, it is so much easier not only to play more confidently, but to enjoy yourself more too! Isn’t that the reason we’re all playing music in the first place?

Sorry for rambling on so long, but this isn't a simple question, so it doesn't have a simple answere. I’m still working on all of them myself, and am still a ways to being as comfortable as I’d like. By the way, while you’re researching this topic, I would highly recommend a book by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallway called “The Inner Game of Music.” It is the BEST book I have EVER read about practicing and performing.

May 24, 2007 at 06:42 PM · Ruth,

I sympathise with you, but I do suggest you re-read what I have said.

As I much as I like the Inner Game books (been there and done that), for many, putting their attention on learning the music (inside and out), achieves best results.

There are those who try the Inner Game method, but from my experience it works better for those who have technique already and the fundamentals figured out.

Those who don't (have the basics figured out), it could lead to a major detour in the wrong direction.

One can try as much as they will "to be ONE with the TARGET" (until you are blue in the face), but unless you know how the story goes, and have clear convictions about what it says and means to you, it is to no avail.

Another issue the book talks about is selflessness......sorry, but in music it is all about developing the inner SELF (musical ego if you will), without which it is very difficult to succeed.

This business is all about competition, and to play on a high level whether it is solo, chamber music or orchestra, requires a great deal of this realization.

Music is not a selfless art, it is quite the contrary (if one wants to be a working professional).

Practicing "performing" is a skill in itself, and some have already mentioned using recording devices and or playing for people helps immensely.

I don't know if anyone has mentioned this, but there is also FAST practicing in SLOW motion. By that, I mean using the same attitudes of left hand and right hand as if playing fast, but in slow motion. The amount of bow is different, finger action is different etc. etc. etc.

Give that a try.... :)

May 24, 2007 at 06:55 PM · "Music is not a selfless art, it is quite the contrary (if one wants to be a working professional)."

Gennady, you're full of real truths today. Keep up these posts!

May 24, 2007 at 07:22 PM · “there is also FAST practicing in SLOW motion. By that, I mean using the same attitudes of left hand and right hand as if playing fast, but in slow motion. The amount of bow is different, finger action is different etc. etc. etc.”

Gennady, would you (or anyone else) be able to recommend resources that expand on this particular concept? I’ve been trying to hammer it into my head that slow practice is the way to go and I think this would help.

May 24, 2007 at 08:23 PM · a good teacher can explain with hands on experience.

Much is "lost in translation" when it is written down either here or in a book.

But imagine, when you play anything fast, what are the strokes like, what is the action of the left hand fingers and how do they differ from slow playing etc.

Incorporating all of those elements (in describing playing fast) in slow motion practice of fast playing. Keep the mind thinking ahead, linking a chain of events (phrase by phrase) etc. etc.

That is why developing a strong musical conviction about the things you play, is essential, for it helps to work out the technical details of how it works when the emotions are involved. Analyze where are the "peaks" and where are the "valleys" in the phrase. Figure out how they affect you emotionally (harmony, melody, rhythm) and what does the music convey to you?

BTW, I think that "Basics" by Simon Fischer is excellent. he has a new book on the art of practicing.

May 24, 2007 at 08:27 PM · Christina,

One way I learned to practice fast "slowly" is to practice with breaks in between. Gennady means something different, I think - and what I think he means is hard to explain without showing. What I'm suggesting works particularly well for awkward string crossing passages, for instance. It works like this:

Let's say you want to play something like Kreutzer 2 (C-E-G-F...). Play the C as you would in tempo - same contact point, same amount of bow, same pressure in the LH - and then prepare the next note (open E). This means do your string crossing, prepare your left hand, and then STOP. Check you're really there, not tense, that everything's lined up well. Play your next note and the connection to the following one.

You can use this exercise in reverse as well: play, stop and imagine the feeling you will have playing the next note, move, play.

And you can also use it with larger groups of notes - play 4, 6, 8, stop, think, and go on.

---

EDIT: Wait a second, I don't think you necessarily need to hear this, at least if you're who I think you are. Play with Kerry DuWors from time to time?

May 25, 2007 at 12:08 AM · Gennady - those are all excellent points. Just let my clarify my opinions a little:

> "As I much as I like the Inner Game books (been there and done that), for many, putting their attention on learning the music (inside and out), achieves best results."

I'm not advocating strictly following Inner Game, or saying its the way that works for everyone. However, I also don't belive that the Inner Game is opposed to "learning the music (inside and out)." The most valuable things I found from that book are the awareness method that do so much to make one's practicing more effective. Like the introduction says, there are many sources for technique/musical advice (the "outer game") but this book is designed to focus only on the "inner game". You must have both to succeed.

>"There are those who try the Inner Game method, but from my experience it works better for those who have technique already and the fundamentals figured out. Those who don't (have the basics figured out), it could lead to a major detour in the wrong direction."

You're right that the Inner Game method wouldn't work without having good fundamental technique, and I did find it simplistic at times when the book dropped comments like "surrender to Self 2 and all your problems will be solved." However, I still believe that various levels of players could really benefit from its awareness, will, and trust techniques. (By the way, when I said above that when I cited instances where I have stressed out about technique and then made technical blunders, those were all cases when I was playing a piece that I had worked extensively on and felt I knew relatively well.)

> "Another issue the book talks about is selflessness......sorry, but in music it is all about developing the inner SELF (musical ego if you will), without which it is very difficult to succeed . . . Music is not a selfless art, it is quite the contrary (if one wants to be a working professional)."

I definitely agree with what you're saying here - however, I don't think the book is advocating "selflessness" per se. Rather, it is removing the negative, self conscious criticism that DISTRACTS us from our true inner self and the music we are trying to make.

P.S. Disclaimer: If I have an overly zealous approval of the Inner Game of Music, : ) it is probably because it was a welcome breath of fresh air after I had read "Mastering the Art of Performance" by Stewart Gordon (which didn't help me much).

May 25, 2007 at 02:36 PM · “If you learn the road map (musically) of the particular piece you are working on, and imagine you were the composer playing /composing this work, many technical challenges can be overcome using your own instincts. “

I’m trying this approach on Kreuzter #1 today and I think I get it. The old way of practicing this type of etude for me would be focusing on the sound and the movement of the bow and my intonation while listening to the boring metronome to get the beats right. I think the old way could get one’s mind to wander off in very short period of time thus renders practice ineffective.

The new approach for me so far is to find the musical line and start to sing it in my head right away. When the music flows, the bow speed, pressure and division worked together organically and meaningful. It may be a hard piece to do well but not painful hard. I love it!

“One can try as much as they will "to be ONE with the TARGET" (until you are blue in the face), but unless you know how the story goes, and have clear convictions about what it says and means to you, it is to no avail.” Gennady, I was silly enough to have tried the target thing and failed. That was partly why I started the other thread on repetition. Thanks, Gennady, you for clarifying this and for all the gems you brought to this thread.

“Fake it till you make it!” So very well said, Ruth! It’s like self-fulfilling prophecy -- a necessary precondition for success is that you have to believe you will succeed; if you believe you’ll lose, you will. I think this philosophy should be taught in 1st violin lesson for everyone.

May 25, 2007 at 09:48 AM · Gennady - more great advice. Bravo and thank you!

The fast slow practice thing is interesting. I think that in essence, it can also be explained by another saying:

Fast playing is slow practice speeded up and Slow practice is fast playing slowed down.

Eventually the two meet. Perhaps one of the most common errors is of playing too heavily in slow practice which creates obstacles in fast playing.

As for the rest, there is tons of things to deal with in this business. Gennady's point is a good one that James Ehnes made here in a masterclass. We are at the service of the music, the music is not at our service.

Cheers!

May 26, 2007 at 04:24 AM · I wonder if we can apply Gennady's approach to scale practice. How can I practice Flesch muiscally on daily basis?

May 26, 2007 at 04:35 AM · try dynamics, rhythmmic patterns, play lightly, then many other shades and colors etc. etc. etc.

May 26, 2007 at 04:44 AM · Ahh! Thank you!

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