How to avoid wasted effort in practice?

February 3, 2014 at 04:37 AM · Things I wish someone had told me 30 years ago: There is such a thing as smart practice. There is definitely such a thing as wasted effort. I don't know about fiddle players, but if you are a classical trained violinist and believe that poor practice is worse than no practice, please join me by adding to this thread the things violin students tend to do that are clearly a waste of effort.

By waste, I mean time and work spent in practice that is counterproductive to one's improvement in violin, even though in some sense might be beneficial to overall personal growth (e.g. good work ethics or perseverance). In fact poor practice often creates bad habits that can be very stubborn to correct. I will start a few:

1. Repeatedly play the wrong notes hoping the right one will show up is a waste of effort.

2. Practice when one is very tired or ill is a waste of effort.

3. Self-teaching beginners are almost always wasting their effort.

4. Practice with mind wandering is a waste of effort.

5. Practice without paying attention to one's intonation and sound is waste of effort.

6. Working with a wrong teacher, being misguided, emotionally wounded, is a huge waste of effort.


Replies (20)

February 4, 2014 at 02:32 AM · Well, I agree that one won't gain much from practice when one is exhausted, but some of us simply can't give the best part of the day to the violin. When one is physically okay but mentally drained, there are things like Schradieck. In the opposite circumstance one can study the music with the violin resting in its case or review recordings or videos of one's own playing.

February 4, 2014 at 05:58 AM · So your advice to people who do not have access to a violin teacher is they should not bother trying to learn? That seems a little harsh.

Not everyone can live in a place where they can have access to teachers nor can everyone afford to go to a violin teacher regularly. I believe music should be played because someone loves it, not because of who they have access to.

February 4, 2014 at 07:04 AM · @Paul: good point! I too often in the situation you described and desperately want to do something just technical to get by when I am tired. I find over the years though this approach to be unproductive. As you probably know, technical practice is still mind work, no matter how mindless it appears to be, and a tired mind doesn't retain new information very well. My bigger concern is of course the bad habit- building during such practice. As often said, practice doesn't make perfect; only good practice does.

@Angie: are you refering to my point no.3? All beginners want to play, at least the ones I know. I was that way too when I was a young beginner long ago. As I have defined in my OP, by waste I mean counter- productivity. I'm not referring to music-making, which is a different point entirely. If one just wants to play the violin and is not too concerned with how well their potential as a violinist can be realized, then my concern doesn't apply to them. On the other hand, if one is seriously committed to the learning of the instrument, then yes, it is my belief that without guildence of a teacher, the beginners should be aware that their self-taught practice will most likely be a waste of effort in the above-mentioned sense.

We all love music and we all want to play no matter what. But this was not the topic I had in mind when I post the question. Maybe we should adress this issue in relation to wasted practice. Any suggestion?

February 4, 2014 at 11:06 AM · On self-teaching, I spend more time in the world of folk than the world of classical. And here there are many decent self-taught fiddlers, including, I hope, my good self.

I think what you say is probably true if your aim is to achieve a high level of classical accomplishment, but it's certainly not true if your aim is simply to have fun making music on the violin.

February 4, 2014 at 02:47 PM · Yixi, I do agree that everything ultimately is mental. Still there are a few things that can bring about physical improvement -- that's why I cited Schradieck, look at No. VII for example, lots of stretching of the fourth finger (fingering 3-4 across minor thirds).

I think there is nothing wrong with self-teaching the violin, so long as one is aware of the limitations of that approach and calibrates his or her expectations accordingly. Folk-fiddle music often does not require much if any shifting, for example. And if you're never going to shift or play faster passages than fairly routine things, and if everything is going to be mezzo forte quasi detache, then you can get away with awful hand positions, etc. But not if you want to play like April Verch or Mia Orosco.

February 4, 2014 at 05:42 PM · Paul

Many of the self-taught fiddlers I know are much better than you are suggesting. They have decent technique, and can play challenging material such as Hot Jazz and Klezmer in as many positions as you can shake a stick at.

With the fine pedagogic materials available these days online and in print, anyone with decent body awareness, a mirror and a little music in their soul can travel a fair way down the road.

I'm not expecting to record Caprice 24 with DG in the near future, but then again, I wouldn't have the talent to do that with even the best of teaching...

February 4, 2014 at 05:51 PM · Geoff, thank you for your clarification. I have since edited my original message to make it clearer that my concerns are strictly related to classical violin practice. I know absolutely nothing about fiddle playing nor would I discourage people trying to teach themselves in anything. I myself has self-taught most of things I do everyday, including speaking English, as you may be able to tell.

That said, I do wish someone had told me years ago the danger of poor and unproductive practice in classical training. I know telling such truth is not easy and can offend people. But I personally prefer short-term pain and long-term gain.

February 4, 2014 at 05:51 PM · Tell All The Truth

~ Emily Dickinson

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant,

Success in circuit lies,

Too bright for our infirm delight

The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased

With explanation kind,

The truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind."

I wish I could tell it slant, but since I can't, I'm asking your help :)

February 4, 2014 at 07:53 PM · Thank you for your response. I agree that to get to a really high classical level you probably want someone giving you a hand getting there. :)

In regards to the rest of your points, I agree with all of them to a certain degree. Especially point about having the wrong teacher for a student. I am amazed at the amount of people who don't want to change music teachers when it is obviously not working out. I know from experience (not in music thankfully)that the wrong teacher can absolutely ruin something that is supposed to be enjoyable.

Along with things one should not do when practicing, do you have any tips you have picked up over the years that have made your practice sessions better? Truthfully, that is what I really want to know.

Thank you for any suggestions you might have.

February 4, 2014 at 10:10 PM · I think bad practice is bad practice, whether it's classical, folk, etc. Sure, there is room for experimentation, but say, if you are trying to learn to play in tune, it won't help to practice things out of tune. If you are trying to cultivate a good bow arm, it won't help to play with everything out of whack.

As for avoiding bad practice, I suppose the key is to break it down to what you can do well, and practice that. Even if it's way under-tempo, even if you are practicing some bow stroke and have to divorce it from the passage at hand. Find your way into doing it correctly, and then make that permanent, then apply.

February 4, 2014 at 10:52 PM · I think what rankles a little is the implied suggestion that these "faults" are always things a student is "doing"; as if by choice, rather than perhaps out of necessity.

Some people just have to make do with the meagre resources they have (including reserves of spirit) and it does get tiring/off putting always hearing the same thing over and over from people in a much better place (whatever the intentions); that their efforts are, a priori and ipso facto, a waste of time.

On the topic, one obstacle to learning efficiently, whether with teacher or no, is accepting a bad setup. How many struggle with that one! It has taken me several years and the Kréddle (can you guess how much I like it?).

PS. Perhaps if you dissolved point 3) into 6)?

February 4, 2014 at 11:12 PM · Eric, I agree with you that sometimes we have to make do with less. In fact I don't believe that waste of effort is something we have to be ashamed of. With some exceptions, I suspect most of us all have done that and may still be doing it knowingly or not. Given that, and I assume that most of us are working bloody hard trying to improve playing each day, I do think it's good that we can talk about bad practice openly just as much as we like to talk about good practice.

Thanks for the tip on Kréddle. I'll have to give it a try some day.

February 4, 2014 at 11:17 PM · Yixi,

See my PS. above :->

February 4, 2014 at 11:24 PM · Very funny Eric!

I wonder how would that go... a super confident self-taught beginner greets a mean and incompetent teacher. Hmmm...

February 5, 2014 at 05:53 AM · As a regular "practice monitor" of 4 kids, various instruments, over ten years; the biggest waste of time I see is running through the hard parts as fast as possible without correcting mistakes.

It's easier to say what are good practice techniques. They are amazingly consistent, whether it's piano, violin or oboe.

February 5, 2014 at 06:39 AM · Here's one you may like: feeling frustrated.

To paraphrase your blog: "Being frustrated at times may be inevitable, feeling frustrated is optional".

February 5, 2014 at 09:13 AM · aimless practice is a waste of time. If you don't set yourself some goals in the near and far future you will not live up to your potential. But music making is never really a waste of time in a philosophical sense.

February 5, 2014 at 04:17 PM · In his book, Galamian describes several types of practice: Building Time, Interpretive Time, and Performance Time.

It's difficult to say that any one kind of practice is fully a waste of time because it depends on which of the above levels one is in.

For example, let's say you have a concerto to perform in a week. With only a week to go, you might want to be focusing on the flow of the entire movements (and piece), and building up the mental and physical stamina needed. So while it's nice to fix notes here and there, using the same degree of focus on notes and runs as you would have in Building Time 6 months earlier might be psychologically disruptive and hurt the performance as a whole.

Also, it was mentioned that practicing when one is tired is a waste of time. Not necessarily, because we have to perform when we're tired and under-slept (like a new parent), or have gotten sick, or have just driven 4 hours to a gig.

One simply can't leave practicing for when one is feeling fabulous. Especially when a performance is imminent. Only recently I caught a flu bug one week before an audition. I didn't feel like practicing, but I had to. And I had to take the audition feeling less than my best as well...

February 5, 2014 at 05:55 PM · Eric, as they say, “Pull out the second arrow!”

Scott, thank you for your insightful comment! So far the discussion has been mostly focusing on the problems a violin student tends to have during the building and interpretive times of the practice but not so much about our performance practice. Your advice is particularly helpful to me because I tend to micromanage my work even hours before a performance. I’ll make sure to always remember this.

As for practice when tired, do you think what you’ve described is equally applicable to all levels of violinists or only the professional or semi-professional violinists? I certainly saw the latter routinely doing this not only because they can (have already a lot stuff tucked under their belt) but also do so by necessity as they are almost always under a lot of time crunch. I’m always amazed to watch how quickly they can pull a really hard piece together within a short time and perform successfully while juggling with kids, illness and other obligations. I wonder if this is one of many abilities that separates a strong professional violinist from an amateur. And stamina and flexibility are certainly signs of a good musicianship and qualities any serious student should cultivate.

February 6, 2014 at 12:48 AM · Eric, I think you are onto something. Part of the learning process is experiencing all sorts of frustration, the feeling of which I believe by and large is a waste of energy. But learning how to deal with it is something else.

The better one gets, the more issues one needs to address to keep it up therefore it is harder. Sometimes it also seems that the harder we have worked,the harder for us to be pleased. We analyze so much that we ended up hating our own sound. Obviously this emotion is counterproductive, but it can be a good learning opportunity. For me, when this happens, I would try to do the "divide and concur" trick by isolating one issue at a time, breaking it down, and when I’ve done that, I see if I can break it down even more... At the very least it calms me down and made things manageable. Being a hairsplitter does have its own reward. I’d really like to hear how others deal with frustration.

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