- Dedicate time to working on your technique.
- Isolate the difficult sections of pieces and practice them by themselves.
- Play through the piece only twice when you practice it.
- Don’t practice all of your repertoire in one day.
- Know when playing won’t accomplish any more.
While some people feel that the time used for technique practice is better spent working on repertoire , I firmly believe that technique practice is not a waste of time. Continuing to refine and develop your technique can save you time in the long run. The place to push your technique isn’t in a piece of music. Students and recreational players often make this mistake. They are excited to play a piece of music, without any regard to the difficulty of the piece. Typically a student will become frustrated because of the piece’s difficulty which leads them to loose enthusiasm in playing the piece (or the instrument) or injuries by pushing themselves far beyond their technical abilities. Instead, technical development occurs first outside of repertoire. My personal goal, technique wise, is to constantly refine and develop my technique. I want to be able to pick up a piece of music and have very little (or no) technical issues to work out. Drilling out technically challenging passages is not something that I find interesting, and more importantly isn’t the reason why I chose to be a musician. So the faster I am at solving and fixing those areas or the more developed to where my technique is, the easier it is to learn the piece and the quicker I’m able to perform it. I don’t wait for the technical issue to show up in a piece of music before I work on it, but rather refine and hone my skills before I see it in a piece of music.
Isolate Difficult Passages And Practice Them
I’m sure you’ve come across teachers who have suggested that you isolate problem spots and work on them. This is a typical practice method. However, I’ve started to take this advice a step further. I have recently started to make photo copies of sections of pieces that I’ve been having trouble with, or spot that I feel I need to work on regularly. I have then taken these photo copies, and put them into a binder kept separate from the full pieces. I heard Scott Tennant suggest this in a master class a few years back at Hartt. It makes perfect sense, but it a bit over-organized for my tastes at the time. However, now I can see the usefulness of this system. Typically, when I practice a piece of music, I drill out the same sections, now I can do so without being distracted by other parts of the piece. I’ve also taken this advice and added upon it. I’ve decided to devote about 1/4 of my 4 hour practice sessions (about 1 hour) to only working on these selected excerpts. This ensures that I work on these parts daily and continue to refine them.
How Many Repeats Until You Believe That You Know How To Play A Piece?
Most students and recreational players loose precious practice time because of how they use their time. We’ve all been told at one point or another that repetition is the way to make us remember. However, when does playing the piece become counter productive? As I explained in Setting Time Limits, I only play through a full piece two times while practicing it. The first time is right at the beginning of the practice session on a particular piece of music. This accomplishes 2 things:
- I get to hear how the piece sounds without any warm-up or practice time on the piece. This typically will give you the best assessment of how the piece is coming along. If you are happy with the performance, it would only get better after you’ve practiced it.
- This is a great way to practice performing a piece of music. While we cannot recreate exactly what kind of situation we will be placed in during a performance, if you can perform the piece to your standard without warm-up it’s a good sign that the performance will go well.
The thing to remember is that if you can play through the piece once, you’ll be able to do it again. Many do not believe this fact, and ultimately will repeat the piece over and over again until they make a mistake. Typically those students become self-fulfilling prophesies, and make their mistakes and think that the time spent working on the piece because it is not perfect.
In addition to this, if I’m looking to work on consistency, I typically will play through a passage or a full piece at least three times in a row. Sometimes if the passage is small enough I’ll go up to 10 times in a row. I also use this for technically demanding pieces. I’ll play the full piece three times in a row, only stopping to reset myself up again to play the piece over. I don’t do this every day, but once a week or twice a month. This method is only used as a way to assess my progress, and isn’t how I typically practice.
I think what is important about doing something in sets, whether it is repeating something 3 or 10 times is that you have a goal to what you are trying to accomplish. Repeating the piece over and over until you make a mistake is inviting the mistake to happen. At a certain point, you will loose focus and make a mistake. Instead if you have a set number of repetitions that you are trying to accomplish. This sets a limit to how long you need to stay focused, which will always be longer then the amount of time you need to perform the passage or piece once.
You Don’t Need To Practice Everything In One Day
Another wrong step people make is practicing all of their pieces every day. Typically, once we have a piece well learned, it can go to at least an every-other-day routine. Learning how to maintain your repertoire is an important step to using your time to wisely.
Depending on the student, I’ll either keep a list of pieces that they have been playing over the years, or if they are more advanced I’ll have them decide on pieces that they want to continue to perform. From there we talk about how much time is actually needed with the pieces, do they have to be practiced every day? Typically, these pieces can go on at least an every other day routine.
The moment you put pieces on a rotating routine, you instantly free up twice as much space in your day of practicing. This allows you to work longer on pieces of music, to make more progress, or to add newer pieces into your repertoire.
Sometimes The Best Thing Is To Stop Playing
Often times, the best thing to do is to stop playing. Many of the issues we encounter are those of interpretive cloudiness, not knowing exactly how you want a section to sound or be phrased. Taking time and doing things like score study can greatly influence and improve these sections. Not everything needs to be drilled out, sometimes you need to figure out what the passage or piece needs to sound like in your mind. Typically while doing score study, I’ll sit down and:
- Sing the melodic line out loud while reading the score (or other melodic/moving voices) to help clarify what is going on.
- Sing-count and conduct myself, rhythmically this allows me to work and clarify my rubato or the rhythmical structure of the piece.
Often times, sitting back away from my instrument allows me to work in a way where I am not limited to what the instrument can do, thus allowing me to think “outside” the box.
These five topics are what I speak to students the most about as we continue to develop their practice habits. I hope you find them useful, happy practicing!