Practice smart

If you play an instrument, you probably know the struggle of practicing a new piece. You play the new piece over and over again, sometimes for many hours and days, until it finally sounds good. Unfortunately this method is very inefficient and not very professional as well. I am playing the violin for about ten years now and with the help of my different teachers I learned a lot about practicing and certain training techniques. In this article I will show you, how you can improve your practicing in a few steps, to learn new pieces much faster and easier.

Step 1: Sit down and listen

Bevor you start practicing, it is always good to get an idea of how the piece actually sounds like. So search in YouTube for a professional recording, sit down, take your scores and read through them while listening. Sometimes it is also good to take some notes. This is also very helpful if you already know how to play the score, but don’t know how to perform it. This way you can receive new impressions and learn from other musicians to interpret the music.

Step 2: Start practicing

After listening to a recording and reading through the scores it is time to actually start practicing. Now it’s important not to rush through the scores. Of course you can play the whole piece for one or two times to get a general overview if you are able to read while playing. However I would recommend practicing only the difficult parts at first. Now, how do you do that? Well at first, start by finding a few bars, which are building a phrase, e.g. a fast part of sexteenth or 32 notes going up and down, similar to scales or triads. Now seperate them in many small parts of two notes, play them at normal speed and stop for about one second (or less) between each pair. Make shure to already prepare your fingers on the strings, keys, etc., between the small breakes.

Do this over and over again and slowly widen the seperated parts, to pairs of four notes and eight notes. While you are doing this it is also very important to listen to each note carefully and immediatelly correct wrong notes. My violin teacher always told me not to “scrawl”, this means don’t try correcting the notes and still go on playing. Stop and repeat! Don’t rush this step. I know it can be very boring sometimes, but this way you already practice at the right speed and prepare your fingers for this difficult parts. After a while you can start playing the whole phrase, at first more slowly of course and then faster. There is a nice game a violin professor of conservatory told me, to practice in a proper way. Play the small phrase or part, if there was no mistake you receive one point, if not, the “other team” gets a point. You can only win, if you have at least three more goals/points then the other team. You will see, it will be worth it!

Step 3: Connecting the phrases

Now, after you have learned the difficult parts seperately, it’s time to connect them to the rest of the piece. Practice slowly the easier parts at first, to make shure you are able to play them in context. After this you go to your difficult phrases and start playing from a few bars before until this bigger phrase or theme is finished. Then take for instance one third or one half of the page, depending on the quantity and length of the notes, and practice this part with a metronome. Start at a slow to medium speed. Also play the other parts in this speed, very clean and with a good sound. You can already start to do some phrasing (forte/ piano, crescendo, etc.). Finally you can even play the whole piece in context. As always, don’t rush and slowly increase the speed. Remember: If you practice at moderate or slow speed for one or two weeks, it should be easier for you to play with increased beats per bar over the next days or weeks. The more you practice clean, with the same amount of expression at slow speed, the faster you will be able to play with normal speed.

Step 4: The interpretation and expression

This is last part of practicing. With the technique I showed you, you should be able to play your piece without any big mistakes and ideally from memory. In general it is always a good idea to memorize the music, so you can focus more on performing. Unfortunately I can’t help you with the interpration. Now it’s time to really make music and you have to find on your own, what you want to express if you don’t have a teacher or another musician, who can help you. Finally practice performing. When you are on stage the people want somebody, who is opened and not someone, who plays for his own. So if you plan on performing on stage, be selfaware and show the audience, what you want to express, however don’t exaggerate of course.

I hope I could help you with this short article. Certainly besides all the steps it is unavoidable to bring the hours on your instrument, which means practicing technique, scales and sound quality. Only then you will become good at playing an instrument. Still it is always a good idea to use your brain and work smart and effecient.

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

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