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How to Practice

Introduction

Practicing is a topic that comes up time and again. Everyone wants to practice well, but it can seem like something of a mystical endeavor. Below is a detailed article I wrote about practicing. I hope this helps to break practicing down into something concrete and manageable. 

Practicing and You

Perhaps you’ve played your instrument for a few years, but you don’t feel like you practice well enough. Maybe you think you could be a lot more efficient, or you might only learn certain types of pieces well, or your practicing simply doesn’t have the amazing results you want. If any of this sounds like you, you’re also probably fairly certain that other young musicians do have it all figured out. You might compare yourself to that mythical creature you’ve built up in your mind, the perfect young musician, who never watches TV instead of practicing, who always uses their metronome, and who never finds themselves at rehearsal feeling panicked and wishing they had practiced more. Rest assured: This creature doesn’t exist. No one actually has it all figured out, even if that’s how they appear to you. As comforting as this is, it also means that there’s no quick fix. There is no dramatic solution where you will instantaneously and magically morph into a stellar practicing machine. All you can really do is keep working in small steps day after day.

What is Practicing?

The goal of practicing is to turn something difficult into something easy. That’s really all that needs to be done. You start with something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and work with it until you know every aspect of it and it’s completely comfortable. 

Teachers guide us through this and they have a lot to say about how to practice.  “Great,  your  piece  is  really coming  along  well!  Go  for  a  nice  light

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If everything sounds fantastic, then go for it!

Strathmore Music Center.

sound when you get to this part, and drill the tricky spot 10 times each day. Don’t forget to… Fix this here and… Just  make sure that…” Teachers  are just bursting with all kinds of excellent advice. But where does it all come from? Basically they’re comparing your playing to an ideal in their mind. They’re looking at various elements, such as technique, rhythm, intonation, and so on. They’re also guiding you in the learning process–-how to practice when you’re learning a new piece, how to memorize solidly, how to be ready to perform a piece this weekend. 

So when you go home to practice, you might have lots of great advice about how to practice the piece that you’re working on, but to take the advice that’s given to you week after week and try to create some basic principles for practicing can be overwhelming. All of the categories intersect and it’s difficult to extract only one element without getting caught up in several others. Chances are good that you keep playing away each week without really thinking about practicing in the broad sense. Here are many short, concise ways to think about practicing. You don’t need to use them all, and they don’t necessarily work well in every situation or on every instrument. Try the ones that sound useful. 

The Goal

The Short Explanation: Does it Sound Good?

Basically all advice about practicing can be distilled into one question, “Does it sound good?” You want what you’re playing to sound good. So listen every time you play and see if you can answer that question. If everything sounds good–-great musicality, excellent intonation, rhythm is locked in, accurate notes, full sound, nice range of dynamics, and so forth, you’re all set. If something doesn’t sound good, fix it until it is good. Then go perform your piece. 

                                                                                      Fixing It
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Here I am practicing. I find the pencil, metronome,

and cup of tea all to be indespensable. 

But of course, fixing it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. What if you’re trying but it’s not getting much better? 

Make it Easy

Practicing is not the equivalent of a daring midnight rescue in the rain, fraught with peril and beset by dangers on every side, where you risk everything and hope desperately that you’ll be able to pull through on one slim chance. Instead, practicing is about making everything easy. So let’s say you are practicing and it’s not going well. Maybe you’re having trouble getting the high note, or maybe a passage is inconsistent, or maybe your articulation could be a lot better. The obvious thing to do is to try again. And again and again. This gets problematic when trying again doesn’t change anything. You can’t just keep playing through your piece and hoping that this time, by some lucky chance, if you just think hard enough, it’s going to get better. You have to break it down until you make it easy enough that you can do it every time. For example, you could isolate a tricky spot, or work out the rhythm first, or play without any rhythm and just listen to your intonation. Figure out how you can take what you want to fix and turn it into a baby step, making it easy enough that you can do it well. Playing something over and over and wishing that it will miraculously be good is not practicing. Working in tiny increments where you play something properly time after time is practicing. 

Can You Do it Slowly?

How about this: Can you do it slowly? If you play your whole piece really slowly, much more slowly than you think it should go, is everything just the way you want it? Are you able to control everything technically and keep it clean? Can you keep your tempo steady? Is your tone nice and full and even throughout? If you really know a piece backwards and forwards, then playing slowly should be easy. If playing slowly is much harder than it seems like it should be, keep doing it. On many instruments, practicing slowly and consistently, aiming for perfection across the board, sets you up well for playing cleanly when you go back to a faster tempo.

What’s the Problem?
You’re playing along and things sound pretty good, but you know they could be better. Can you pinpoint the exact spot on the page where your problem begins? If you think your problem is somewhere on page 3, that’s not specific enough. If you know that problems begin on line 3, measure 4, beat 2, then you’re halfway there.

Unless you can clearly and accurately define your problem, it’s never going to get better. Figure out exactly what you want to fix. Maybe it’s just one trouble spot that you need to drill. Maybe it’s a broader idea, such as a richer sound. Put it into words, complete with exactly where you need to start and stop working. Then work on it.
 

Link it Together
Maybe you’re not yet at the point where you’re fixing things, because you’re just starting to learn your piece. Learning a new piece is a fresh chance to practice well. Take it seriously right from the start. Don’t waste time playing it halfheartedly or telling yourself that the piece is new, so you don’t really have to get cracking yet. Learn in small sections, going over things again and again. For example, you might begin by working on the first phrase or line. Play it, then immediately go back and play it again, double-checking that everything is accurate. Play it over and over until it’s secure, until you know it cold and nothing about it surprises you. Then begin work on the second phrase. After you can do that, go back and put the two phrases together. Work through your whole piece this way, aiming to learn small amounts deeply rather than large amounts shallowly. It might seem like slow progress to you, but it is actually an extremely efficient and thorough way to learn.

 

Metronomes

You knew this section was coming, didn’t you? The student who enjoys practicing with a metronome is a rare and exotic variety of student indeed. Most students hate metronomes because they’re no fun, so most students avoid using one as much as possible. What if you think of it this way: Would you rather fix your rhythm and tempo at home when you’re alone or discover that you’re rushing like crazy in the middle of band practice when the conductor calls you on it? It’s true that having a little machine on your music stand that relentlessly points out your mistakes is no fun. But playing well is fun. You’ve got to work through it to get there.

 

If you’re certain that your rhythm is not great, it's time to get out your metronome. Even if you only suspect that your rhythm is not great, get out your metronome.

 

Put it on a slow tempo, much slower than where you think you ought to be able to play the piece. There is no one to impress. Select your tempo based on your slowest section, so that playing along is easy. If you do this, then playing with the metronome might be a bit boring, but it’s definitely not a struggle. Once you’re absolutely sure that you can play everything beautifully and smoothly with the metronome at the initial tempo, begin speeding it up gradually. Gradually is the crucial word here. Practice with the metronome until it feels natural to play with it, so that it’s no longer a surprise that the second beat comes so soon in that nasty measure. Once you can sit down and nail your piece at your desired tempo with the metronome, you’re in good shape. 

 

Repetition

Teachers frequently advocate being able to do a passage multiple times in a row. For example, can you play the last phrase perfectly five times in a row? If so, can you still play it tomorrow five times perfectly in a row? Maybe ten times in a row the day after that? If you want to be super consistent, if you don’t want to panic when it comes to a performance, if you want to know your piece like clockwork, this is the way to do it. It takes a lot of time. It’s amazing how often you might play a bit three times in a row perfectly and then mess up something dumb the fourth time. Even if it’s a mistake you’ve never made before, or one that “doesn’t count,” go back to zero and start the process all over again. If you’re nowhere close to making it to five times in a row, try a smaller section or a slower tempo. If you get good at this, you can be amazingly consistent.

Common Traps
 

Many pitfalls lie in wait for the unsuspecting student. Note that these are called common because students all over the place fall into them. You are not alone, nor are you a bad musician, for being lured into these traps.

Not Having a Plan

When it’s time to practice, do you have a plan, or do you just sit down and start playing? Guess which one is better? You want to have an overall plan before you even play a note. For example, you might say to yourself, “Today I will practice x, y, and z scales, work on my old solo, and if there’s time, look at that new orchestra piece.” You also want to have a plan for each piece. What are you looking to accomplish with your solo? You want things to change for the better by the time you’re finished working on it each day. Just playing through aimlessly and assuming that this will make some sort of improvement doesn’t cut it. Instead, you want to say to yourself, “Today I am going to fix the chromatic passage in the middle,” and then do it. It’s ok if your goals are small. Moving forward at a steady pace is the key, not hoping to have one good day where you zoom ahead by leaps and bounds.

Even it Out

One of the most common traps to fall into is not fixing problems soon enough. After working on a piece for a while, maybe you can play it reasonably well, but it’s a bit uneven. Tricky spots are messy. The tempo fluctuates. Dynamics are nonexistent. It’s not necessarily that you’re unaware of these issues; it’s just that you’re putting off fixing them until an undefined “later.” This is completely harebrained and illogical.

We generally perform a piece the way we’ve played it the most. If you’ve spent weeks muddling through the hard spots and only got around to cleaning them up two weeks ago, odds are that when the pressure is on, you’ll revert to the messy way you did it for all of those earlier weeks. When someone  is really  focused on learning a piece well, they  ruthlessly zoom in

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Aiming for excellence

(Photo credit - Colette Pollauf)

on any issues right from the start. They’re working to make everything even immediately. Is page two difficult to play quickly? Then get down to business and make it match page one, NOW. Do you keep flubbing up your end? See if you can play it ten times in a row perfectly, NOW. If your piece is evened out as soon as possible, then you can work with it as a whole, adjusting the tempo, being more expressive in your phrasing, and generally having an excellent piece. People who don’t even it out as soon as they can, end up with a shoddy piece.

Excellent vs. Good Enough

For many things in life, we’re looking to be good enough. Most of us want our room to be fairly clean, but there’s no need to get carried away and scrub the entire room, from ceiling fan to baseboards, every morning at 5:30 a.m. 

 

This does not hold true in playing an instrument. Being excellent involves working on everything that can be worked on. You don’t stop when it’s pretty good, or you can mostly do it. You keep going until it’s top-notch. Would your piece improve if you took the time to isolate and drill the fast section? Would your piece improve if you tried the ending with several different dynamics and then picked the best one? When someone sounds amazing, it’s because they’ve taken the time for all of these little tiny, seemingly insignificant details.

Are You There Yet?

 

How do you know when you’ve arrived? How can you say with certainty that yes, everything sounds good and you’re ready to play your new piece for people?

 

Can You Do it Every Time?

Performing is really about having one shot. You play for an audience or your dog or your grandparents, and you’ve got one chance to share your piece of music with them. You don’t get to restart or skip the tricky part. You play the piece once, from beginning to end, and however it comes out that time is it. You’re giving them a single event.

 

Here’s a way to check and see if it’s ready for this: When you sit down to practice and play your piece for the first time on any given day, how does it sound? This version, the first version, is the most accurate representation for how well you know the piece. We tend to think of our best version, rather than our first version, when we imagine how we’ll perform. Try practicing your piece scattered throughout the day. Keep coming back to it over and over, and seeing how each first time is. You have to be able to do it here, now, and the very first time.

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This could be you instead of me -

 performing in Carnegie Hall!

Conclusion

 

One of my favorite quotes is from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Much of what I’ve been trying to say in this article is said there, only more elegantly and in fewer words. Practicing is about being excellent, about working with a phrase or a couple of notes until they’re excellent and then building upon that.

 

Also, though, Aristotle says that it’s what we repeatedly do. You have to keep practicing for it to add up to something. And it’s hard to keep practicing day after day.

 

Whenever I set out to do something that requires a sustained daily effort, which is exactly what practicing is, I find myself feeling impatient. I want it to happen in movie time, not real time. If my life were a movie, you would see me sitting down with a challenge, maybe a brand-new piece that no one’s ever played before and with the performance date rapidly approaching, feeling

overwhelmed. First it might show me looking at the calendar in panic, and then slowly beginning to work through the music, marking some things in with pencil, carefully playing bits here and there. Then an awesome montage would flash by, with glimpses of me struggling a bit and--voila!--it would jump to the finish line, with me performing the piece beautifully, attired in an elegant gown and an appreciative audience smiling in delight.

However, as I have discovered again and again, this skips the most important and by far the hardest part. That is the part where you get up each day and try again, and you’re nowhere close to being finished. You realize all over again that the middle stretch is a long, slow, and seemingly endless trek. The finish line is where we all want to be, but getting there requires tiny victories that are much harder to come by than the triumphant end.

 

Keep going. One day when you’ve stopped worrying about it, you’ll realize how much you’ve accomplished. It’s hard to see progress when you’re in the thick of it, but it’s happening. Keep practicing. 

© 2015 Jacqueline Pollauf. All rights reserved.