Practice makes Permanent: Improving Practice Skills

December 6, 2017, 10:15 AM · I've been reading a ton of posts here on practicing, and clicking on the various links and posts folks have provided. But I'm hitting a personal stumbling block within my own practice (my teacher and I have been addressing and talking about this, so I do have one-on-one guidance). I'm hoping to get others' input/ideas as well, as sometimes hearing multiple perspectives is helpful - sometimes it isn't.

First, because I know this forum has the tendency to make assumptions: I am an adult returner, one year in, and have been taking lessons since I returned twice a month for an hour. I spend as much time practicing as I can manage with two jobs (one full-time, one part time) which works out to at least an hour a day during the week, and between 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day on the weekends (depends on the weekend). As far as the rep I'm currently working on, in various stages of learning and refinement, so that you know where I am at: Roumanian Folk Dances, Telemann Fantasias (#1), De Beriot (#1, 12 Scenes/Caprices), Thais Meditation ("done"/passed), adding in either the 2nd movement of Bruch or Tchaikovsky soon, Sevcik Op9, Wolfhart (because I started that with my first teacher upon returning, we're going through it all to have a completed book, I usually complete two a month), Schradieck, and I work on Trott's Melodius Etudes and Hrimaly scales as well. It's a lot for one hour. (FYI - When I stopped playing I was working on the Bruch concerto, had solos in my school's orchestra for various concerts/performances, and had taken private lessons for four years. But, my technique needed to be completely overhauled when I returned, which was/is frustrating but SO worth it.)

My problem, now that I'm working on multiple pieces and so many books is how to prioritize an hour's worth of time. I can easily spend at least a half hour "quickly" going through the technical/etude end of my work, and then only have a half hour for the rep. When I do this, the rep suffers, and my teacher agrees that a half hour for rep for me right now is not enough time (in that spending half the time on technical work is too much). If I could spend more time practicing in a day I would, but I cannot.

So then my problem goes back further into very old (and common) established childhood practice habits wherein one plays the music, repeats the troubled phrases a few times, then moves on whether the phrase is fully corrected or not.

In short: to date, I've been very happy to be able to play the music and not so concerned about the issues, but now that the stakes are rising, I need to be more concerned about phrasing issues! It's a mix of happiness to simply be playing and ultimately laziness to work to get better - I know this is a common stumbling block.

I KNOW how to practice efficiently, and, I know that if I continue on my current track, my progress will stall and I do not want that in the least! I have goals and want to reach them in a reasonable period of time - and I'm impatient in that I want to make the best use of my time now that I've enjoyed returning to the violin for the past year, see that I've been mismanaging my time, and want to be able to play (at a more than passable level) more advanced music. I am ready to really work out the bugs from my practice system so I can keep growing and learning as much as possible. (I also see this as not only not wasting my valuable practice time, but also my teacher's limited teaching time with me - as I feel VERY lucky to be working with them and don't want them to give up on an adult returner and accept them where they are at.)

Hope this makes sense despite it's ridiculous length!

Looking forward to your help and insight as to how to crossover from being a "you practice a lot" student to a "you practice efficiently" student.

Replies (25)

December 6, 2017, 10:32 AM · Lydia had a great post about this a while back.

It generated some friendly controversy because (at that time anyway) she skipped scales. But regardless, her results are impressive and her tips seem useful for a broader range of adult returners.

December 6, 2017, 10:42 AM · "My problem, now that I'm working on multiple pieces and so many books is how to prioritize an hour's worth of time."

I hate to say it, but maybe the thing do to is to have fewer pieces and fewer studies at a time. Are you really just sawing through Wohlfahrt so you can say you did a whole book? Grooving your bow strokes, securing your intonation, generating better tone, increasing your facility ... these are the reasons to do studies. If you're approaching Bruch level I would have thought you would benefit from working on a more advanced book like Kreutzer or at least Mazas. If you do scales, with your practice schedule I would think one study at a time is enough.

December 6, 2017, 10:42 AM · For me, if I'm short on practice time, I skip the things I'm good at and only review them when I have the time. I often skip scales/exercises (not the greatest idea, but works for me) if I'm really short on time.
December 6, 2017, 10:47 AM · Paul - my teacher feels it is important to complete a book, and no I'm not just sawing through it! There is emphasis on the musicality of these etudes, and playing them correctly. If I were just sawing through it, I'd be done with it by now (my first teacher as a returnee would have let me saw through it!).

I'll check out Lydias post, thanks Katie.

Thanks for that tip Ella! I keep a practice log, so perhaps it's time to review what really needs to be focused on and make some hard decisions.

December 6, 2017, 11:10 AM · Pamela I totally agree with the idea of getting a super solid foundation. I'm not dissing the studies per se (I like studies, personally), but if you don't have time for everything on your practice agenda, then all I'm saying is your effort could be more concentrated if you replaced two or three lower-level studies with one that's more challenging.
December 6, 2017, 11:10 AM · Katie, Lydia - that post is extremely useful!

What Lydia does insofar as the work with the etudes is what I do, I'm going to have to find a good rotation schedule for everything - or save the Trott and scales for the weekends or days when I have more than an hour.

To be clear, what I listed in terms of rep is not what I go through on a daily basis. I am glad for the variety.

December 6, 2017, 11:13 AM · Paul - I may propose that we move on to a different book then. The Wolfhart etudes are easy for me, and they were when I returned to the violin. So maybe it's time to let it go knowing that I have squeezed the value out of it.
Edited: December 6, 2017, 1:43 PM · If time is limited, I strongly feel it is damaging to plough sytematically through books of studies. Basics for pure technique, scales (and especially arpeggios), orchestral excepts, and extracts from "real" music.

I take my Kreutzer on vacation to work at when I have a good 3 hours to spare. They are "good" music; Wolfhart's are not. Life is too short to stifle our musicianship with silly figurations, what-on-earth-shall-we-do-next fake modulations and cadences etc.

And I too really appreciate Lydia's contribution.

December 6, 2017, 1:52 PM · Adrian - how is working systematically through books/studies damaging?

December 6, 2017, 3:09 PM · Thanks folks. :-)

The Wolfhart sounds like it's an odd waste of time at this level; the repertoire you're playing is drastically far beyond the skillset that Wolfhart is intended to teach. Kreutzer would be the norm. If you're practicing for beauty of tone, easier repertoire would be preferable to playing these etudes.

The balance between technical exercises and repertoire is player-dependent. If you're working on a piece that hits technical weaknesses in a targeted way, you might not need to do as many etudes. If you're still building a lot of fundamental technique, I would argue that at least half of your practice time, if not more, should go to technique. That's especially true if you're doing rehab work.

The technical work shouldn't be "run through". It should be the core of where you're focusing your time and attention, because in theory this is where you're building new skills. The repertoire is then used to apply, in a musical context, what you've been learning in isolation in the technical work.

Your teacher sounds like mine, in the stack-up of lots of repertoire. In practice, though, I tend to focus on a smaller percentage of the repertoire rathe than working through all of it at once. I rotate through it as my time and attention shifts, and it's useful to have more because if I get stuck on something, I can move onto being productive with something else. Also, some percentage of my repertoire I'm learning in order to perform it, without any particular emphasis on a major pedagogical goal.

I'm currently in a mode where I'm not really doing any etudes. My teacher assigns them, but I find that the more tired I am, the less I can focus on making progress with them -- although I know I should, because this is where new skills are built. But I have so much other stuff to work on that they end up getting neglected.

December 6, 2017, 4:27 PM · Pamela, I feel that books of etudes are not usually "methods", but collections, where one can choose a study or two for a particular weakness, rather than work through them. The goal is surely to play beautifully increasingly complex "real" music. In a given volume of etudes, many of them may have a dulling effect on the mind, which is the last thing we want, not to mention the risk of physical damage through not "listening" to one's sensations.

With limited time, I find that a one-line excercise repeated 10 times with full attention is more effective than 10 lines of a study played once.

To my ears, scales can be like rainbows, while many studies are like urban lanscapes.

December 6, 2017, 8:33 PM · Others have give you very good advice already. I just want to add one more thing that I've learned from a recent Juilliard grad (apparently they do learn new practice tips based on the latest science).

Practice small chunks and do them three sets. Take a break and repeat. This is how: get a stop watch, practice 5 min on chunk 1, them move on to the chunk 2 for 5 min, move to chunk 3 for another 5 min. Now repeat this set for 3 times. Now you've done your 45 min most efficient practice. Take a break. If you have time to do one or two more sets after the short break or later, do. If not, next time when you can.

Practice is about retain and recall motor memory, the very idea behind "Interleaved Practice", which is well explained by Dr. Noa Kageyama:

December 7, 2017, 8:48 AM · Wonderful - thanks all!

I shot my teacher an email, and they agreed that I should bring my Kreutzer to start at our next lesson. I wouldn't have done this if it were not for asking here, so I'm grateful for your feedback.

Adrian - I recently started that one line practice method, after having a discussion with my teacher, and really like it.

Lydia - I agree with all of your points! I have no performance plans for any time in the near (or far) future, but I suppose it would be nice if the opportunity presented itself (and if I could get over my crippling stage fright). Right now, the "goal" is to play as well as I possibly can right now. I don't work on all of my rep at once in a practice session. What I've been doing to date is working on specific areas of my given rep, then when I grow tired of that (in terms of either my focus, or I've done all I can do for the day), I'll work on the next piece (if there is time) or play through a piece to make notes for the next practice session. If I have the energy to work on that piece's trouble spots, then I'll do that for a spell, and then move on.

Good point about easier pieces for beauty of tone - I just ordered a bunch of Barbara Barber's Solos books (4-6, I didn't know which ones to get so I got the last three...) Always looking for more solo rep without accompaniment. (I'm LOVING the Telemann Fantasies.)

Yixi - I might try the interleaved practice that you mention, and see how it works for me.

My next question: with your rep, how often do you play the entire piece to check on your progress?

December 7, 2017, 9:22 AM · You should definitely try interleaved practice. It's an efficiency boost, plus it does a good job of ensuring that you don't burn all your practice time on a giant rathole of a problem that's not improving materially.

I very rarely play through what I'm working on, until it's solidly learned and is being prepped for performance. Indeed, my teacher reminds me to practice the connections between sections to ensure that there's continuity between the chunks that I'm working on.

Edited: December 7, 2017, 9:38 AM · Pamela, my teacher picks etudes out of Kreutzer to help with the repertoire I am working on. The etudes were used to improve certain technical weakness. For example #33 for thirds and # 25 for octaves and so on. For the right hand, she picks various studies for different bow strokes from Secvick( spelling may be wrong ). This approach maybe more efficient than going through an etude book from cover to cover.
December 7, 2017, 9:33 AM · You might want to tune in to a live Facebook conversation this Monday on "Nws Connect" that deals with this specific topic. This is hosted by three NWS Fellows with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. "Join us on Monday, December 11 at 7:00 PM EST to discuss Productive Practice habits. This Facebook Live conversation will be hosted by Fellows Dominic Brancazio, Dan Fellows, and Margeaux Maloney and they will joined by NWS alum, Miles Jaques!"
December 7, 2017, 9:56 AM · Yixi, I am going to try that out with my little one. Thank you for sharing.
December 7, 2017, 11:01 AM · Great stuff!

Implicit in the idea of interleaving and working in chunks is planning. And if you think about it all practicing is just organizing, ultimately choreographing an ordered sequence of movements over time. Before you start, you have to pick your chunks, your set list of things to work on, which should beg the question why, which should remind you of what you did yesterday. One of the mantras I used to get students to say is 'progress not perfection', especially to students with such tendencies (and perhaps I'd suggest 'practice makes progress', rather than 'permanent' :) which emphasizes the process, the long game, rather than results (or lack thereof) and the immediate gratification we all love to get a 'hit' of, as often as we can. Interleaving is delayed gratification.

Similar to 'overlapping' when working on added rhythms and speed work in chunks, when working on contiguous chunks for interleaving, I would also overlap your chunks, i.e. finish chunk 1 at the beginning of chunk 2; finish chunk 2 at the beginning of chunk 3, which should overlap into whatever comes next. Also, there's nothing that says you can't choose chunks from different pieces, when you have lots of different material to work on.

I also assign etudes and exercises for specific problems only. Conversely, if you're working on an exercise or etude, always identify what the purpose is, then apply it to your rep., i.e. turn the relevant passage from your rep. and work on it like an etude or the exercise. Similarly with scales, take a passage from your rep, take away the rhythm (or pick one of the rhythms, or a bowing, from the passage) and simply fill in and play all the missing notes of the scale for that passage and voila, scale practice.

It's true there is cross over from scales, etudes and exercises, but according to the

Edited: December 7, 2017, 11:14 AM · [sorry broke with link]
SAID principle we should be working on stuff as close to what we want to perform as much as possible. And so if you absorb and apply the principle of the etude/exercise to your rep instead of actually polishing said etudes/exercises you can save a lot of time.

December 7, 2017, 11:35 AM · Jeewon, what you said formed a question in my mind.
Let’s say you don’t have any upcoming performances or are not working on any specific piece right now, and your goal would just be to improve your overall playing abilities.
Would scales, etudes and exercises be useless, or of little efficiency, in that case?
Or rather, what to practice in a hypothetical scenario where you don’t have any repertoire obligations?
Edited: December 7, 2017, 3:11 PM · Good question Roman. If you had such a period of time available I think exercises, scales and etudes, practiced to the exclusion of repertoire is the most efficient way to change technique. That's how we rehab problems. I think making music and performing can actually be a distraction to close observation and careful habit building. If you have no technique work you need to do and you have no obligations, then well, skies the limit, I suppose everybody will have their preferences. Having said that, unless you're constantly playing new rep., how do you know what you have to improve?

When I was teaching a lot and when I had free time I would read through the whole of Sevcik Op.1 or all of Gavinies (not very pretty!) to get an overview of what that pedagogue was trying to achieve. But as others have said, I see no virtue in getting a student to do that. For the time crunched I think you want to get very specific about why you're spending anytime doing anything other than the rep you're working on, especially if you have to perform it. For instance, I recently performed Beethoven Op. 18, No. 4, which is a bit of a beast to tune. So I'd frequently do c- and related scales and arpeggios to a drone. But I didn't work on Flesch or Galamian. I did position scales, especially those used a lot in the piece, shift + finger pattern exercises, and a lot of slow tuning from the rep., especially the arpeggios and extensions and tricky bits.

December 10, 2017, 2:08 PM · Great discussion. Of course it depends a little bit on the student's schedule and level, but in general in my studio I try for the following mix:

1) Etude and Technique that is a stretch above the rep being played.
2) A newish piece (will take more time)
3) A piece that is in the polishing stages (will take less time in practice)

I also suggest to students to have some goof off time in their practice, even if it's just 10 min. - for playing old rep, sight-reading, whatever, just having fun. I like for the etudes and technical (scales arpeggios octaves etc.) to be harder then the rep and usually rotate the technique some. I sometimes assign just half an etude, and then save the other half if time is an issue. This way I also get to weigh in at the half-way point, which seems to be helpful to practice well and get the most out of it. The main thing is to balance things out so that practicing becomes a "really digging deep" process, not a once over lightly process (that's what goof off time is for). Every student and their time constraints are unique, but I try to keep the mix of this, just more or less material. Shameless plug, if I may: I have started posting "how to practice" skills on a youtube channel, since practicing is about efficiency and permanence and students spend so much time learning alone. Right now what's up is shifting, fast playing, vibrato, more to come. Just in case you are interested:

Good luck and happy practicing!

December 11, 2017, 1:13 PM · It's a shame to include playing known pieces in "goofing off".
Every note we play should be good, whether scales, known repertoire, or slowed-down fragments of new challenges.
December 12, 2017, 8:12 AM · What would you guys say is the amount of difficulty above your playing level that a particular exercise should be? For instance...if I play an exercise and it is at or below my level I should pretty much be able to sight read it and be able to clean it up with little to no time or real effort. If I chose a piece slightly above I would have to put in a small amount of work to benefit from the exercise. How many of those steps up is the "most beneficial?"

Another way of asking this question is this...if I have to work fairly hard on Wolfhart, is there benefit to "working" kreutzer? If there are benefits (I'm sure there is at least one) then is the return from the benefits worth the time that would be necessary to reap those benefits given that I would have to put in far more effort than i would for wolfhart?

December 12, 2017, 11:24 AM · I've started to learn recently that what's important is the utility of practicing something--if it's easy and you can sight read it almost perfectly, to what end are you polishing it? If to perform it, then that's the utility, and a pretty good reason. But I think the key is assessing the opportunity costs of practicing one thing or another--if it's too easy it's taking away from practicing something more challenging that helps you develop new skills. If it's too hard it will waste time you could have spent practicing more music that was at the right difficulty level.

One of the most important duties of a teacher is to assign the right level of difficulty. With my new teacher over the last year, I've seen better than before how well this can be done--he really picks just the right level of challenge overall and regarding specific techniques that need to be improved. And, he mostly does this with real music, but being a Shipps student this last point shouldn't have been a surprise to me.

Also, your rate of progress through repertoire helps the teacher to dial in the right level of difficulty. If you're just plowing through Wolfhart, it's almost certainly too easy (the other possibility being they're passing you when they shouldn't, but that seems unlikely in this case).

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