Where's the limit when practicing over and over again a piece?

September 11, 2018, 5:25 PM · Hi, this may seem like a simple question, but it is one that has been in my head for a while.

When you're practicing a piece, say Czardas, where's the limit between...
A: OK, I need to practice this section and this other one, over and over again until the whole piece is so polished I can present it to an orchestra audition
B: Finally, I've learned it, it doesn't sound very polished but repeating this piece over and over again will get me nowhere, it will improve "by itself" when I get better practicing other pieces, making my overall violin playing better

Should you practice so much each single piece you learn so you can put it in your "beginner repertoire", or should you practice just enough each piece so you've learnt the basic core stuff of the piece and it will get better over time?

Of course this is a question from a beginner perspective, professionals must practice each piece the time necessary to be able to play it live in front of the public.

Replies (12)

September 11, 2018, 6:02 PM · Practise it only as long as you can intently focus on improving it and the piece shouldn't get boring. Mindless practise is a waste of time and burns you out.
September 11, 2018, 9:22 PM · It depends if the piece in particular is a mean or an end. If it's one of the exercises or lessons in the violinist's climb, it's probably there for a reason which is often to add a technique or a new element in the player's knowledge. For those pieces, you play them again and again until you drill that new technique (and get help to do it better).
For a piece which is an end in itself, mindless repetitive practice finds a plateau fast. It is then when the player should use mindful practice. Identify the weak parts of his/her playing, analyse the technique shortcomings that cause it and look for exercises, routines and etudes, different from the piece itself, to work on them.

That's my aproach at least. There are pieces that should be regarded as exercises and "Ok" is good enough, and there is "Repertoire" that you should look forward to play like you have it in your heart/head.

Edited: September 12, 2018, 6:34 AM · I see questions like this in classical guitar forums. There the word "perfection" is used frighteningly often, as if there were any such thing.

For a beginner (or intermediate or even "advanced") the concept of diminishing returns is important. You play a piece until you have a reasonable grasp of it, then you learn a harder piece. If you stand still trying to "perfect" any piece that is at the limit of your abilities, then you will stagnate and waste many months.

If you go on to harder pieces, you will be able to go back and play the easier pieces much better than if you had stuck with them.

September 12, 2018, 6:51 AM · "If you go on to harder pieces, you will be able to go back and play the easier pieces much better than if you had stuck with them."

That's exactly what I mean. How much of that sentence is true?

September 12, 2018, 8:55 AM · I think the answer depends on your technical abilities. If you pick a piece that's significantly too hard for you, it might never really sound polished no matter how much practice time you pour into it.

You will someday be able to come back to things you learned before, but you'll discover that things you polished may cause you to revert back to old habits. I experience the disconcerting effect of my technical evolution when I go back to repertoire that I did in my teens.

September 12, 2018, 9:22 AM · I think, speaking as a fellow amateur, that if one is practicing/playing the piece to learn it then when you've reached your max with it -and are at the point where you are repeating without a clear notion of why you are repeating and what you are consciously practicing- it is time to move on.

If you are simply "practicing" to play it with the hope of improvement without consciously working to improve it, then it is a waste of time. Now, if the piece is played for simple enjoyment - that's another matter entirely, right?

I have found that by working on harder rep, it makes a lot of the previous work much easier to analyze for improvement and in a lot of cases easier to play. It does not necessarily remove obstacles in the previous work.

In short, I agree with the above.

Edited: September 12, 2018, 9:41 AM · I think there is a great deal to be learned by fine polishing, but there has to be a limit. And that limit is, plain and simple, your existing technique. We don't hold children back from starting Book 2 until they can play all the songs in Book 1 as well as Heifetz. Pedagogically it makes more sense to move up to the next level so that you can stay on a steeper learning curve.

I think students of all ages benefit tremendously by taking a little time, say once a week, to review one of your old pieces. My experience is somewhat different from Lydia's. I find I do not revert so easily to my old ways. I find I'm looking at my old rep with a fresh approach and better technique, and they seem easier and sound better. But that could well be because I did not polish them as finely a she surely did with the repertoire from a very formative period in her overall training. This past week I reviewed the Accolay A Minor Concerto! Partly it was "This is much easier and better now," and partly it was "Hmm that passage still isn't acceptable, but now I have the skill and the practice techniques to overcome that."

Coming back to your Czardas, you would make a recording of yourself and circle three things in the score that you don't like. A shift you can't clean up, or a lick that's just not in tune, or a bowing that's not working. You take those to your teacher and you say, okay, how do I fix this, or should I just let it slide until I'm a better violinist?

September 12, 2018, 10:54 AM · Don't you also want to keep the purely musical aspects of the piece alive? So long as I continued to be inspired and energized by the sound and feel of playing a passage or whole piece it seems perfectly fine to continue repeating it. But when starting to lose the kick you get from playing it, maybe it's time to switch to something else.
Edited: September 12, 2018, 2:08 PM · "Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent"--someone said. Repeating something wrong only locks it in, makes it much harder to repair later, when your technique is better. Chop up the piece into smaller phrases, and do three or four repetitions of each section. Ten is too many, a waste of time and mental energy. Later connect the phrases into longer sections. You will get better results from 3 repetitions each, Monday Tuesday, Wednesday, than 10 times on a Monday, doing something else Tu-W. This is especially true for memorization. Something important happens when we are asleep, the back of the brain (speaking metaphorically) stays awake, processing the new, important information of the day, discarding the trash.
September 12, 2018, 3:06 PM · I once played a gig with Roy Clark (of Hee Haw fame). I was zoning out during the show, and zoned back in to catch the tail end of some folksy joke he was telling:

"...when you carrying' stove wood, it don't matter how many trips you take. Long as you git the whole load..."

So that's my answer.

September 13, 2018, 1:30 AM · The answer to this question depends on a lot of things. If you have a performance scheduled you'll have to use the time you have to make your rendition as convincing as you can. Even then I find that doubling practice time does not double the effect of the practice. You may have to make compromises (an easy fingering rather than the one you would like because it sounds well; play only one note of a double stop you can't seem to get right etc.).

If you work with no timeline you have time on your side. You can set the piece aside any time you want to and take it up again any time. In this case I never practice anything seriously whose musical quality I don't appreciate or that I have gotten bored with over too much repetition (this does generally not apply to exercises and studies tough there are often alternatives).

i find that setting a piece aside for a limited time, say a week or two does not set me back much but rather quite often things improve "by themselves". If I haven't looked at it for a longer time (months or years) then obviously I have to start as if from scratch partly because I forgot how I did it in the old days and partly because in the mean time my idea about the music has evolved and requires different tempi/bowings/fingerings.

The last point is this: Every time you fix a problem you discover a few more that you want to fix as well. It never stops and you will have to call an end at some point if you don't want to spend the rest of your life with the same piece.

Edited: September 24, 2018, 2:05 PM · Mindless playing actually reinforces defects rather than curing them.

I repeat some thing three times, choose the best, and try to do that one three times etc. etc.

I take a breath between every repetition, otherwise I shall have to "undo" an awful lot of superfluous joins later on.

There is no real limit to repetition provided it never quite the same!

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