Best way to practice

August 2, 2018, 2:11 PM · OK--so as a reminder I am back playing for 3 mos after having been off for 38 years. :-) So I'm still reminding my muscles about how to play. But it's going OK.

I mostly am practicing orchestra music by necessity. I got shanghai'd into the community orchestra earlier than I had really planned, and I very much don't want to be the weak link. My teacher is happy to use the passages I need to work on in lieu of etudes.

For the first concert I mostly concentrated on obviously hard/fast passages, and every time I practiced (an hour or so), I would play through all of them from 4 pieces. So a little on each.

But this didn't work so well, as I would be able to play a section when practicing, but I would be caught flat-footed by it in rehearsal, not having practiced the bits leading up to it.

So this time around, for the August chamber music concert, I am focusing on one piece at a time. Last night I practiced 2 hours and this AM for 30 min b/f work, all on the first 2 movements of the Haydn "FIre" Symphony. I work on the hard bits, with the metronome, then play a few lines above that over and over, going into the hard part. Then I go back to the beginning and do the whole thing, so I really know where the hard bits fit into the whole.

The downside of this is that I will probably be pretty well prepared for 2 of the 4 pieces at the next rehearsal, but will have done nothing on the other 2. Can hit them next week.

So I'm torn. I basically think my new way is better, at least for me, but it puts me in the position of still being borderline useless on some of the music at the next rehearsal.

Thoughts?? Should I focus tightly as I have been doing, or hit all the pieces instead?

Replies (11)

August 2, 2018, 4:32 PM · Elizabeth,

I highly recommend: Whatever works for you. As to being "borderline useless" that brings back memories of my first days in the community orchestra that my teacher and his friends (also teachers) ran. I think when we started reading Schubert's Unfinished (yeah, that is where I started) I could play about one note per measure.

While my teachers advice on how to practice was helpful, juggling work, church, spousal duties, with the violin and orchestra made me develop a practice system that was based on accomplishing specific goals and progressing from there. Over time I found my own "groove" as it used to be called.

FWIW: by the time we got to the performance date I played about 95% of the Schubert along with the other pieces on the program. The next season I did better, I was becoming a better musician at my own pace.

Whatever works best for you and don't agonize over missing a note or making a mistake. I still remember that first rehearsal and the conductor (my teacher's teacher) who told us all: "If you're going to make a mistake, please make it loud so that it's interesting." We all laughed and relaxed - after all making music is all about having fun and doing what you love.

August 3, 2018, 7:13 AM · Perhaps laying out a practice routine that also includes some technical exercises outside the repertoire you will be performing. Building up scales, arpeggios, sight reading, etc. This will help you develop as a whole player and will be able to approach more repertoire effectively in time. Interleaved practice works well spending about 2 minutes on each difficult section, but don't forget to play the whole piece or larger sections through a couple of times in each session. It may be a good idea to record yourself playing like its a performance and not self analyzing. We can only keep track of about 3 areas to work on while doing playing and accessing. Then listen back while notating in the score the most important sections to work on. This works well for me, but maybe also finding a good teacher to help you achieve more faster. It sounds like you practice a wonderful amount, and it's so awesome that you are playing again!
Edited: August 3, 2018, 9:55 AM · I recommend very strongly that you ask your teacher to spend an entire lesson showing you nothing but practice techniques for various different *kinds* of passages from your orchestra music. "Fast string changes." "Scale passage with fast shifts." "Arpeggiated passages." Etc. Tell him/her that you hear "slow-practice" was helpful and that you'd like to learn more about "slow-practice techniques." Make sure each specific technique is demonstrated for you, and explained to you why it works. Ask how you go from slow to regular speed -- that will vary according to each technique. You'd be surprised how many teachers assume you can figure that stuff out on your own just because you're all grown up.

As for getting blown away when it's time to try out your newly-practiced passages during orchestra rehearsal, you could try finding a recording, fast-forward to that passage, and play along. And if you don't have much orchestra experience, then honestly this is something that everyone struggles with when they're new to orchestra because you're situated differently than you would be in your practice studio, and there are myriad distractions that are impossible to model at home.

August 3, 2018, 2:30 PM · My teacher is very helpful and has made many good suggestions about practice techniques. :-) She had a few great tips for a hard, fast triplet section at our last lesson.

I do have orchestra experience, but it's 38 years old LOL. And I'm different now. I am never one to blame age, and normally I feel about 30 at the most, but my fingers are definitely not as quick as they were back in high school. Hoping that will improve as time goes by.

Back in the day, I practiced orchestra material (I was at one time first chair seconds of a very good youth orchestra) by mostly going over the hard bits. That worked then, and left me time for etudes and scales and pieces (Oh, my!). But it's different now, and I think I just have to devote more time to it. The good thing is that orchestra rehearsals aren't yearround. We get a month-long break in Sept and another one Jan-Feb. So during those times I will work more on other stuff. But the orchestra is important to me and I need to focus on that.

August 3, 2018, 3:57 PM · In general, in a community orchestra, your core goal should be maximizing your contribution to the performance, rather than thinking of things on a per-rehearsal basis.

However, it can be a good idea to spend more practice time on the things that will be on the next rehearsal (a well-organized conductor may specific sections or movements to be rehearsed each week, for instance). But there will be many things that you need to work on for several weeks, even if your progression in the practice room has effectively zero return in rehearsal. (In particular, you may totally fake fast passages for a few weeks until you get it up to tempo. In my experience "almost fast enough" is almost as bad as "totally fumble fingered".)

In a community orchestra, I generally think it's more important for "skill-challenged players" to not detract from the sound of the section sound when the group can generally sound good, than to sort-of-get difficult passages that almost everyone will play imperfectly and one more player doing it wrong won't make much difference.

I would start by focusing on rhythm. If you are out of rhythm, you are screwing up the whole section and possibly playing in silences. After that, you should be playing the notes with the right articulation and the right dynamics.

Then you go and work on the passages that are somewhat more challenging but where you're pretty confident that just a little bit of practice will allow you to nail them.

Simultaneously, you start breaking down very difficult passages, especially fast ones, so you learn them gradually, but you emphasize hitting the "waypoints" in the passage (the structural notes) so that you consistently get some notes and you're not playing random stuff at random times. For instance, it is far preferable for you to consistently get the first note in a group of four sixteenth notes, and hit every one of those notes in the passage on time, even if the notes in between are a blur, than for you to kind of stumble your way through the passage.

Those passages should be prioritized by how transparent the texture is. If the section is going to be clearly heard in the orchestral texture, it needs to be practiced. If you have a blizzard of notes under a big brass fanfare, forget it; it won't be heard and it should be low on the practice priority list.

The notion is that you should contribute well to as large a percentage of the work as possible, rather than playing everything sort of okay. The things you can't play well, you should focus on what it takes to not mar the section sound in that area. It's different from preparing something to play solo.

August 3, 2018, 4:06 PM · Also, as a community orchestra concertmaster myself, I want to share a pet peeve: What drives me nuts is players who assume that their job is to hit the correct notes -- i.e. a big left-hand focus. But the right hand is of just as great importance, maybe even more.

This is not about having your bow moving in the same direction as everyone else (although in most orchestras, you are expected to follow the bowings given by your section leader). Rather, it's about creating the right articulation. During rehearsals you should be trying to use the same bow-stroke as your section leader. Don't get so focused on hitting the notes that you miss that coordination with the section sound.

August 4, 2018, 6:03 AM · All great points, and I am taking them to heart. The reason I am a extra concerned about the notes is that there are 3 second violins, and one of them is 13. And we are working on the chamber concert, so it's all very exposed, with no convenient horns and trombones for cover. So every wrong not or missed note is heard, alas. Faking is impossible. Hence my stress level.

I'm making good progress, but there are a few places--fast passages with detache bowing--where I just can't get the the bow moving fast enough, although I can play them at speed legato. And my teacher is out of town gigging the next 2 weeks. :-(

August 7, 2018, 9:08 AM · I had a meltdown over the weekend LOL--Just felt as if I was not EVER going to be able to play some of the stuff up to speed. I practiced SO MUCH this week, and all on orchestra music, and it seemed as if I had not improved at all. Au contraire! I played WAY better at rehearsal than last week, and kept up most of the time. When I did not was primarily on sections I had not really gotten to yet. So it's paying off and I feel much better. :-) I don't mind practicing my butt off as long as I see a return.
August 7, 2018, 3:35 PM · Kindly check "Violinist’s home practice – axioms and useful advices", the article of mine, maybe you'll find it helpful -
Edited: August 7, 2018, 6:09 PM · Sounds like you are doing OK!

When I was the CM of my community orchestra I would practice the hard bits and then be sure I could connect them - that is one of the things we sometimes forget to do in home practice. I did not practice the orchestra music very much - if I could play the fast bits 10% faster than its seemed we would perform it - no worries (except, of course, if you can play it that fast there is a danger you will).

A potential problem one might have returning to violin playing after 4 decade hiatus is loss of technique and development of bad habits. Playing with better players and seeing if you think you are doing the right things might help, but there is nothing the equal of having a teacher or at the very least getting into some coaching sessions, such as some of the chamber music workshops can provide. In my experience it is most likely the right hand technique which will suffer and be difficult to observe and fix on one's own. It's good to see the OP has a teacher.

August 7, 2018, 6:19 PM · Never fear, Andrew--I've always sought out good instruction in everything I have attempted, from riding horses to kayaking to music. :-) I agree that it's important!

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