What is the best way to practice and improve effectively?

October 16, 2014 at 04:06 AM · I thought it would be an interesting topic to discuss. It's obviously been brought up before, but opinions always differ and I think it would be useful to review/contemplate (at least for myself). How can you master the violin, or any other pursuit, of that matter? And do you think there is a 'fast track', or a faster way to improve?

Replies (26)

October 16, 2014 at 03:01 PM · For me it's all about efficient & effective practice.

From a similar thread recently:



October 16, 2014 at 04:10 PM · I think for a great many of these disciplines that require "10000 hours" etc., it comes down to one's ability to concentrate.

October 16, 2014 at 05:44 PM · the findings in the 1st link ChristinaC posted above comport with one of the most valuable lessons I learned from a great teacher- Don't ever play anything incorrectly or inconsistently. Every time you do, it's imprinted on your nervous system, and hard to override. Analyze a piece early for your preferred fingerings and bowings, select them, then always use them. In order to play correctly always, go as slow as you need to, even if it's one beat a minute. You can always speed up correctness, but it's very hard to "unlearn" incorrectness.

October 16, 2014 at 08:22 PM · What do I think about the 10,000 hour "rule"? I'm far too old for it ;)

October 16, 2014 at 09:38 PM · As I wrote the other day in a similar thread,

5,000 hours and you play it right, 10,000 and you can't go wrong.

That said, Christina's links confirm my own findings, albeit at a higher level..

October 17, 2014 at 01:01 AM · I had a teacher who would always say something to the effect that it took only three times to ingrain mistakes into your playing and 30 times to fix each said mistakes.

October 17, 2014 at 10:01 AM · Yes, John, every wrong or bad note is inscribed in the History of the Universe until the Last Judgement! All we can do is try to forget it, or try to help others to forget it!

I tell my students, if they make a mistake, play it right staight away, twice: once to cover the mistake (like Typex), the other to replace it.

Usually though, the mistake re-appears through the Typex and we have to repeat the process.

October 17, 2014 at 12:48 PM · I have three pieces I want to learn. is it better to select one piece for a half hour session or do each one for 15 minutes? which is the better learning experience?

There would be a rotation such that all pieces ultimately would receive equal attention.

October 17, 2014 at 07:29 PM · I know about the law of averages which must be how I stumbled on the stated principles for practicing strategy. I can bear witness that "random" works best and I really regret past practice marathons.

The less I practice, the better I get.

Glad to see this info in print and I think many people will benefit.

October 17, 2014 at 07:53 PM · I tend to use the "random" route a bit, but I usually use it to practice something that is relevant to a technical problem. But, of course, the random route gets put on the back burner when I have a concert of three Sibelius symphonies in one programme and only two weeks and three rehearsals in which to prepare it, as happened a few weeks ago. That concert went very well, btw.

October 18, 2014 at 01:18 PM · For what it's worth (probably not a lot) I think many of these ideas are very good, and I also find that thinking in finger patterns and left hand shapes in fast and difficult passages works better for me. (Especially proceeding a downward shift).

But everyone to their own. It's all a personal journey of discovery.

October 18, 2014 at 03:26 PM · When I started to randomize, I became more aware of another issue. I watched carefully that I was not exceeding the limit for what I could absorb at a sitting. And, the question, "Is all this sounding better now and will the improvement make a difference tomorrow?"

When I repeat a piece several times and it still sounds the same, I simply surrender for this session.

So, the question of "how much practice" includes the ability to absorb the corrections.

IMHO, such absorption is at least as important as the purely technical matters. Or, better said, the technical issues may have a slightly different set of "rules" for practice routines.

October 19, 2014 at 12:53 AM · Random practice may work on material that is already learnt and needs fine tuning, because we are working on the recall of the memory. As an example, if you have to repeat something that is already learnt 3+ times to get it right, well the problem is with recall. I find random practice works well with recall problems, but can cause problems when learning new skills. When learning a new skill the mind requires a lot of processing time and prevention of interference.

Things that can cause interference of processing time or slow down the learning of something new:

- medications and alcohol

- lack of sleep. 8hrs. is require

- practicing something similar afterwards.

- practicing with your eyes looking at your fingers, or even just open. Eye hand coordination techniques require more processing time and the memories are less stable(easily acceptable to interference) than memories formed with the eyes closed.

- over repeating or force learning. Don't over repeat when learning something new, because this bad habit can become very counterproductive: the mind requires processing time. Generally repeat something new 3-6 times and then leave it for the next day.

- poor diet: high carb, high salt, high sugar, processed food, white bread and rice, or basically anything that slows blood flow.

-practicing things at the same speed. You need to mix it, slower or faster, because you are not learning if you repeat things over and over at the same speed: it's boring for the mind.

Things that speed up learning:

- 8hrs. of sleep

- Cold showers after practice: stress hormones strengthen new memories.

- Practice difficult things or trouble areas 2-3 times a day. Have short practice sessions 10-15min. with 4-5hr. intervals between sessions.

- meditate or exercise

- diet and digestive system need to be at 100%

- analyze how you learn. Everyone learns differently and you should be looking for easy learning patterns.

- be creative and think of your own simple exercises.

- have a strong short term memory. If we have a weak short term memory everything is much harder to learn. You should be able to do multiplications up to 100; this is an excellent way to strengthen or keep a strong short term/working memory.


October 19, 2014 at 10:49 PM · Has anyone read HOW WE LEARN by Benedict Carey? I found it relevant to this topic.

October 20, 2014 at 02:07 AM · By the way, what's the difference between improving and improving effectively? Something I see in college-level pedagogy all the time is that we should be teaching our students to communicate effectively. As if we would seriously consider trying to teach them to communicate some other way: Ineffectively, perhaps.

October 20, 2014 at 06:56 PM · Point of order.

Would replies have been different if we were talking about memorizing a piece rather than using sheet music?

I would guess that memorization is in the 10K plus class!

October 21, 2014 at 07:28 AM · "By the way, what's the difference between improving and improving effectively?"

Grinding, repetitive, semi-conscious practice will probably produce an improvement, but one contaminated by superfluous tensions and residues.

Effective Improvement seems to me to be less wasteful in time, energy, and clarity.

My €0.02..

October 21, 2014 at 12:01 PM · Personally, nothing is impossible once you set your heart on it,

October 21, 2014 at 03:31 PM · I've just come across this link http://time.com/3518053/perfect-break/, which is about research into the optimum work/rest pattern. It boils down to working (i.e. focusing on an activity) for 52min, followed by a 17min relaxation break to allow the mind to assimilate the results of the activity. (Thinks: did the researchers actually do this themselves during the course of their research?)

This of course ties in with the well-known advice here that a long practice session for an experienced musician is best divided into chunks of about 40-45min separated by rest periods of about 10-15min. The less experienced student will naturally have much shorter practice periods. This method also ties in well with school lessons lasting about 45min each, it having been known through centuries of experience that young minds (and older ones, too) are liable to wander once they get significantly beyond 45min of focused attention.

One problem occurs to me: try explaining this theory to your office boss when you're discovered taking a 15min break every hour on the hour :)

October 21, 2014 at 06:45 PM · A long time ago there was a subject called incubation (mental). This was the notion that the subconscious can process information long after whatever stimulus is removed.

I read a lot about it back in the 60's which tempts me to challenge the 15/20 minute numbers quoted in the previous posts. I think, perhaps, some allowance for content is appropriate. The "rest periods" for incubation can be weeks or months for more complex tasks such as playing the violin.

October 22, 2014 at 03:19 AM · There are the building blocks of technique that need to be acquired timely and properly in order to have a solid foundation for creative expression.

Although different than mathematics, there are similarities in the fact that one simply can not comprehend or perform more complex material, unless the less complex is digested and immediately and automatically available at request.

There is also need to incorporate relatively dry building blocks into what makes music - music. So, in addition to daily diet of scales and studies, there simply has to be enough great music to inspire your progress. Proper selection of music can be tricky: if it is too easy, the pleasure is there, but there is no progress. The similar situation when the music is too challenging (contains material that we have not yet incorporated in our tool box), no progress, no pleasure. In other words, it has to be beautiful to inspire, and at the same time just enough challenging for us to keep learning from it. Just like a staircase, the size of each new step has to be proper in order for us to climb.

The challenge, again is not to face "the basic blocks" for the first time, but rather to combine them into more complex structures.

Progress is not aways linear; there are plateaus and times of perceived stagnation, or gestation of learned material.

It is also good to go back to previously played music and studies. I called this "spiral development". You re-visit the old material with new set of ears and can add to creative and interpretational aspect with less effort.

Lastly, alternating styles, forms, chamber music ensembles, eras, and instruments (viola, baroque violin) is of great help to re-focus and avoid habituation and mindless practicing.

October 22, 2014 at 01:16 PM · RM

Glad to read your post being that it is very much in agreement with my experience.

I have nothing to add except regarding scales. I often find scales in music I am involved with and, of course, in etudes. I find such music and scales to be very boring. In fact, I will pass up anything that resembles scale exercises.

Now,PLAYING in different keys is another matter which I take seriously.

October 25, 2014 at 12:27 PM · 5,000 hours of concious practice to get good, 10,000 to stay good whatever.

But 10,000 hours of approximate practice will make for a definitively approximate player.

October 26, 2014 at 03:10 AM · Lots of valid points made. Just wanted to pop in and respond to Helen Martin, yes, I have read it, actually! Bought it a month ago and it's quite an enlightening read. Dunno how much of it applies, though I can vouch for the success of leaving the project in the middle of a problem and letting it sit. Always seems to improve it (or maybe it's just wishful thinking, haha).

October 27, 2014 at 06:03 AM · As an example of how not to practice, I remember struggling with a passage, and my teacher telling me: "Now you have played it wrong five times in a row. What are you going to do now?"

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