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PRACTICING EFFECTIVELY

by Summer Lusk – Violin and Piano Instructor

So many music lessons include the saying— “practice makes perfect” — however, I would argue that it should be phrased as “effective practice makes perfect.” How then, do you practice effectively? What strategies can you use to ensure that you are getting the most out of your practice sessions, and that you are on the right track to improving musically in the best ways? I would like to present a few tips that you can use to streamline and organize your practice, so that you can learn and retain material more effectively.

These methods are not specific to any one instrument or ability level, per se, but I will say that I am gearing these towards a) beginner students who do not quite have a handle on regular practice time, b) students who are unsure of how to proceed through and improve on a technically-difficult passage, or c) more advanced students who need some additional organization to their practice sessions, due to time constraints (like heavy involvement in other endeavors outside music).

SLOW DOWN!

I say this so often to my students in violin lessons, so I must emphasize it here — please SLOW DOWN when you are initially learning a piece! In other words, please fight the urge to practice new material at performance speed. While it may seem boring at first, slow practice really is your best friend in the beginning. So, starting off, make sure to pick a tempo slow enough that you can take in enough thorough information about the music in real-time (such as note patterns, dynamics, accidentals, metric changes, etc.), have the time to look and plan ahead, and can play through any technical hurdles with relative ease.

As you become more comfortable with the material, then the opportunity arises to push the tempo a little more. USE A METRONOME, and increase the speed one or two clicks. Practice at the faster tempo until it feels just as comfortable as the old one, and continue the process until you can play effortlessly at performance tempo.

PRIORITIZE / ISOLATE / MAKE A GAMEPLAN

At times, especially for longer pieces, you might have to forgo looking at the music as a whole, and instead concentrate more on individual sections. There is nothing wrong with practicing this way. In fact, it is a very efficient way to do things, especially if you might be pressed for time. For example, in a few specific measures of a particular section there could be a fingering issue, or a series of difficult position shifts, or a new technique required that you do not quite have a handle on yet. Whatever the difficulty may be, isolate it, and focus your attention completely on that. Leave out what is familiar to you and focus solely on the unfamiliar for a while. In essence, do not continue to practice what you know; practice what you do not know.

Perhaps you might also notice that the beginning of your piece sounds a whole lot better than the end. This happens quite a bit. In this case, start practicing backwards! Work on the end of the piece first and continue working your way back towards the beginning, until the end (and middle) sections reach the same level of preparation as the beginning.

Also, be sure to prepare a game plan or roadmap for your practice sessions. Before you play a single note, take some time to skim over your music and try to be conscious of what might give you some trouble. Please do not be afraid to write in your music— put in fingerings for that weird scale that you keep getting stuck on, highlight that sudden dynamic change that can be easily missed, circle those half-steps so you know how your hand should be framed, write in that sharp or flat that is so easy to forget, etc. When you see these little instructions to yourself written in your music, in your own handwriting, it will be just a little harder to bypass and might provide exactly what you need to get through the piece smoothly.

WATCH

Whether teaching piano lessons or violin lessons, I highly encourage all my students to practice in front of a mirror and/or videotape your practice sessions on occasion. When your eyes are engaged in this way, you will be able to easily hone in on a number of things such as maintaining good posture, tone production, and memorization progress. Take notes on anything that you notice, good and bad. I also encourage my students to turn the tables and invite parents, siblings, or friends to watch them practice every so often. I would say that this little bit of pressure is an excellent way to ensure you maintain a good level of preparation. While it is sometimes hard to do, especially when you feel like you are not at your best, make sure to welcome any comments or critiques. Learning well means to always keep an open mind.

LISTEN

Lastly, make sure that you are listening to your pieces frequently, if not every day! In my experience, students do not listen nearly as much as they should, and it can really keep things from progressing. If you can, listen to several different artists and at a number of tempos you will benefit greatly. It is very informative to hear stylistic differences. If they are not doing so already, you might also ask your music teacher to record the song{s} for you, so you can hear their take on the music as well. I know they will be more than happy to oblige!

While you listen, make sure to follow along in your music, and you might try singing along as well. You do not necessarily have to know how to sing well, just enough to carry the tune and execute the rhythms accurately. Once you are able to sing through the piece with ease, that generally marks a high level of familiarity with the music, and I would see how this translates through performance.

Take care not to just listen to others, but also take the time to listen to yourself. In keeping with what I mentioned before, try recording yourself and listening to the playback, taking careful notes regarding things that went well and things that did not go so well. If you do not have the time to practice very long at all, I would suggest that taking some time out of the day to listen to your music is perhaps the best step you can take.

Practice Effectively

Practicing takes dedication, it takes time, and it takes a whole of effort.

Practicing the same song over and over again at performance tempo is often thought to be the prescription for good practice, but really that sort of repetition is not the most effective. Slow things down, take the time to organize and prioritize the most important things for you to focus on during a particular practice session, break things down into chunks and unconventional orders, write notes for yourself, record/watch/listen to yourself, and dutifully listen to others. Try exploring around with some of these methods and you soon will be getting the absolute most out of your practice sessions and improving quicker than ever!

Do you have any creative or effective ways to practice?