How do you practice?

May 21, 2019, 8:15 AM · Because I forgot. I don't know how it happened, but it did.

This is what I would normally do when I have to practice:

1. Exercises and/or etudes. Sevcik often.
2. Scales in first, third and fifth position. Scales in thirds. Arpeggios.
3. Selected bars from the target piece. Slowly repeating small groups of notes, attempting to improve something I want.

I have to problems: (1) Quite often I find I don't have the time to reach 3., when I do reach 3., I'm somewhat tired my practice becomes mindless repetition. (2) I'm feeling less and less excited of practicing sevick and scales each day, slowly turning them into mindless repetition as well.

Replies (14)

May 21, 2019, 10:01 AM · I'm not sure what you mean by "what I normally do when I have to practice"? (I don't recall your relationship with your violin - are you an, as Rocky would say, avocational player or vocational player?)

Regardless, I take a break every 30-40 mins to give my mind a rest. Have goals for every item that I am practicing to keep me on target, and I'll interleaf rep practice (say, a tough few bar section) in with my exercise/etude practice. I'm working on a piece with fingered octaves, so I've been practicing the relevant scale in fingered octaves and also working on the rep section itself. Then I'll move on to something else, and mix my rep practice further into my exercises/etude practice (in addition to the octave example, I've also been trying out the following: Sevcik then work on rep with tricky bowing passage; Trott then work on rep with annoying section of double stops; Yost in between all sections, scale practice according to the key signature of the relevant piece, and so on). Then I'll return to the rep portions (time permitting) at the end of practice to drill it all in for the day and return to them the following day.

I used to follow a strict practice formula but because I have so much assigned right now (would take me 2 hours alone to do all the technical non-rep work) I started to feel like I had nothing left for the rep work (even after a break!), so I'm trying this method now and am liking it. I still get as much as I can squeezed into my practice sessions (abbreviated as the tech work is these days), it's just in a different order.

May 21, 2019, 10:54 AM · When I am short on time and/or energy (which is almost always, these days), I warm up on technical passages from repertoire that I am trying to reinforce. I normally effectively have a mental priority order of what I want to accomplish in a practice session, and I hit those segments.

Slow repetition of notes often doesn't really improve something, unless you are just trying to learn the pitches. You have to figure out what makes the passage hard, and then think of some kind of little exercise that fixes it. It's a feat of puzzle-solving that makes practicing interesting.

May 21, 2019, 11:58 AM · Demian, you are not alone with the problem of getting tired or losing concentration before getting to the "good stuff". The solution I often use for this is to "switch it up" day to day. If I have the time and energy, my routine is similar to yours, in that I start with the "Galamian 24 note scale" (Look for the video of Zuckerman giving a viola lesson where he shows this scale), then perhaps some technical exercises/etudes, then onto the literature. I take breaks every 30-45 minutes, unless I only have an hour total, then I might just practice for an hour straight.

But then sometimes, I'll find that my mind wanders, so I move on to something else. Some days, I just decide to "play music" and choose something easier, and play for sound and musicality only, not worrying so much about the notes. Or, play along with a recording, sometimes at a slower tempo, as if it were a performance - counting all the rests, thinking about my next entrance, etc. This way, with all these options, I can keep my mind engaged.

May 21, 2019, 2:22 PM · Maybe rotate the order.
May 21, 2019, 2:31 PM · I suppose each person's practice routine will be unique, and different to the next individual. For me, I practise 2-3 hours a day (violin and viola), I start with scales, for around 20-30 minutes, moving onto set pieces from my teacher for viola, and orchestra pieces for violin. And I always end a practise session with something fun, be it a fiddle tune, a favourite movement from an easier piece or a notebash at something far too difficult, that just gives me a giggle. During a practise session, I also break down anything difficult, play it over slowly to try and get the hang of it.

I don't practise for 2-3 hours straight, its usually over the course of a day, in 45 ish minute blocks. Taking breaks is really important, and try to end on something positive.

Edited: May 21, 2019, 3:07 PM · DH, since you chose to use the surname of a great German author, and one of his most popular books as your first name, I guess you're part of the German speaking world. If so, I'd highly recommend "Einfach üben" from Gerhard Mantel, the now deceased but unforgotten, great and most pronounced German cello paedagoge. It's also available as an ebook edition, but for our non-German-speaking friends here, unfortunately there is no translation available. Especially the idea of "zirkulierende Aufmerksamkeit" (maybe to translate as "circulating attentiveness" or something like that) has made my practice much more effective. And plenty of other ideas, of which you'd say "sure one has to do it that way" - although you never knew... All in all its a wonderful book distilled from many decades of an intense and successful career as a teacher. You'll never get bored or drawn away from your practice anymore, even if you'd spend a whole week on a single phrase...
May 21, 2019, 3:36 PM · Vielleicht ist "rotating attention" eine bessere Übersetzung. I like this idea, and there's apparently plenty of research to back it up, that you should work on discrete tasks for short amounts of time and keep changing the tasks rather than always plowing through 20 minutes of scales, 20 minutes of etudes, and 20 minutes of repertoire per hour. Sassmannshaus recommends something like no more than three minutes work per task, IIRC. This is supposed to keep you attentive and focused. It certainly makes my practice more interesting than it used to be.

Also, like Lydia says, "slowly repeating small groups of notes, attempting to improve something" is not going to do much good unless you are consciously applying some technical idea to the passage. If you just play the same notes today the same way you played them yesterday and expect a different result, you will be disappointed. That's probably obvious, though.

Edited: May 21, 2019, 6:04 PM · I created an Access database with tables for Task, Time on Task, Notes, and logging negative self talk and a field for rephrasing said talk. I usually use the first two tables.

I go into the tasks and set a list as selected, so they show up at the top. I go to the Task Time form and click a Start button. This logs how long I'm on a task. I click Stop when done. When I'm through with iterations of a task, I click the Done field, and it hides that task. I then work through my tasks like this. I can come back later and finish my list, jump around as the mood strikes me, etc. I can really usually go for only 3-5 minutes at a time before I need a break. Just click stop, and begin again when ready. I do scales, melodies, portions of melodies, position work.

It's helping me. I'm up to sometimes 50 minutes a day practicing, whereas before I might get 10 minutes before getting frustrated at doing something, and not knowing what to do next. I have been diagnosed with ADHD so I needed some structure. The application is not ready for prime time. Someone not used to it would likely cause an error message immediately and not know how to fix it.

This same process could be committed to paper and pencil, or even a spreadsheet.

Take the mind rest breaks you need, and just keep coming back to it.

It's also been decades since I've read any Hesse. Do you feel "Beneath the Wheel"? Take a break and listen to some "Steppenwolf". God damn the etude man.

May 21, 2019, 6:13 PM · Lydia also posted a link about how to structure practice, break it up, mix it up before you get bored. "Iterative" something or other. I swear that needs to be a logged link somewhere on this site.
Edited: May 22, 2019, 9:30 AM · Being in several orchestras (which I thoroughly enjoy or I wouldn't do it) I put in 8-10 hours of orchestral rehearsal every week. My "practice" routine isn't a "routine" as such but is much more working on technical problems arising out of the orchestral material, equally divided between first and second violins. My experience is that the orchestral repertoire seems to include in one way or another most of the technical problems addressed by etudes, but in a musical context.

For relaxation, and warming up, I play, and sometimes improvise, folk music - English, Irish, and occasionally Eastern European.

May 23, 2019, 11:07 AM · "You have to figure out what makes the passage hard, and then think of some kind of little exercise that fixes it. It's a feat of puzzle-solving that makes practicing interesting." This, that Lydia and others said, and then feeling improvement based on this is what keeps me coming back practicing!
May 23, 2019, 1:13 PM · David - it was interleaved practice. Noa Kageyama from Bulletproof Musician has written about it.

May 23, 2019, 1:31 PM · The best practice routine is one that makes you want to pick up your violin every day.

As others have noted, why not start with some music you enjoy as a way of developing a positive attitude about practice.

But I would also work at enjoying your etudes and scales. Many people actually love etudes. Make them into a game. Make them into puzzles. Make them into beautiful music.

Etudes and scales are most beneficial when you really engage your mind. Just rote playing is of limited value. So try to really think about each note, each string change, each shift, each finger position and try to enjoy what you're doing or at least enjoy the progress that you should be seeing as you practice material over a matter of months.

As for fatigue, the ability to play for longer periods without being tired is part of your technical development as a violinist. As you become a better player, as your motions become smoother and more efficient, as your muscles become stronger, you should be able to play longer without getting fatigued.

May 23, 2019, 7:37 PM · I am rarely doing all 3 things you mentionned in one day. I would have to practice at least 3hrs, which I rarely can so I pick and choose alternating between days, so I might do 1 and 3 one day, 1 and 2 the other, only 3 etc. depending on what I feel like focusing on.

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