Proper practice requires focused attention on our weak spots. You need to view yourself with a keen critical eye (and ear!) and observe these weak spots, narrow them down, and start asking questions.
“Where is the place I am weakest?” Most human beings are more interested in getting through the entire tune, beginning to end, without stopping than they are in addressing their mistakes, or weak spots. They hurry through, ignoring the bumps, slow downs, poor technique, bad intonation, or sloppy execution. Playing through a tune from start to finish is an important part of practice, but you need to OBSERVE your performance and take note of the spots that need special attention. Then, when you are finished with your run-through, you go back to those spots and narrow them down. And ask more questions.
“Why is this place weaker than the rest?” Is it a problem with rhythm? If so, do you understand the rhythm pattern here? If the weakness is intonation, ask yourself if you are using the best fingering. You could be holding the violin incorrectly, grabbing the neck with your hand, or even failing to support the violin properly with chin and shoulder. Is it a situation of sloppy execution? If so, ask yourself “why?” I have found that simply asking this question will sometimes alleviate the problem with little or nor further action required.
“What can I do to strengthen this weak spot?” This question is where you create a plan of action. Perhaps it is only a matter of slowing things down and “drilling” the spot repeatedly, and then gradually increasing the tempo. I think of this type of remedy as taking a small bite and chewing it up well before swallowing. Be sure that you’ve narrowed the weak spot down to it’s essentials. You wouldn’t try to eat a 16oz steak in one bite, would you? After you have applied your remedy, you are ready to ask the next question.
“Is this spot as strong as the rest of the tune?” This is when you insert your previously weak spot back into the tune and OBSERVE whether or not you still are having difficulties. If you are, then more attention to that spot is required. If the weak spot is now strong, then you move to the next weak spot and begin the process again.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH TYPICAL PRACTICE BEHAVIORS:
The first problem has to deal with the idea that we have to WORK HARD on a problem in order to solve it. That is never the case. You need to be SMART, look for the EASIEST WAY to solve the problem. The harder you WORK at a problem, the more large muscle groups you engage. That, in turn, gets in the way of you playing effortlessly and easily, and causes all sorts of problems in addition to the one you are ostensibly trying to solve. If you feel like you are WORKING HARD, you are doing it wrong. Let go, take a deep breath, and start asking questions. Be the teacher and the student.
The second problem is that most fixes require repetition, or “drilling“. While we are engaged in such activity, it is easy for our attention to wander. We can slip into a mental state that is akin to filling our heads with wool. Drilling requires constant attention to details, making sure that you are actually playing the section correctly more often than not. After a while, you will be able to play the section without thinking. One technique that will help you avoid woolen headedness is to take frequent breaks. Another is to play the section so slowly that it gives you time to think about it as you are drilling.
Another problem is that sometimes we identify the wrong thing as the weak spot. Once you have addressed the weak spot and reinserted it back into the tune, you still are having difficulties. This is very frustrating, and often we are tempted just to go back and drill the hell out of it until it gives up (see WORKING HARD above). Resist this impulse long enough to ask some more questions. You will most likely find that you missed something in your original observation.
The final problem I wish to address is this: When all else fails, ASK AN EXPERT. I tell all my students that their lesson money buys them more than just 60 minutes once a week. It buys them access to me and my knowledge and skills 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The problem is that most of my students never take advantage of this. They see it as an imposition, even though I’ve given them permission. They feel like they must wait until the next lesson to address their concerns. As a result, problems continue and are even reinforced through the days (daze?) of confusion between NOW and the NEXT LESSON. In this day and age of “Googling” the internet for information, I find this very frustrating. You wouldn’t wait a week to Google the traffic conditions before deciding the best route to take from work to home, so why would you wait to ask the expert you have hired to help you with your fiddle questions? If you have a question at 3:00am, you can always send me an e-mail. If you call me and I am not able to answer immediately, leave a voice message and I will get back to you at my earliest convenient opportunity. Don’t waste any time out of a misplaced respect for my time. You have a question you can’t answer on your own? ASK AN EXPERT to help you get immediate relief.
I am sure that you can see some parallels between PROPER PRACTICE with a musical instrument and your everyday life. Just approach everything as if you are both the TEACHER and the STUDENT. Remember to OBSERVE, NARROW DOWN, ASK QUESTIONS, EXECUTE YOUR PLAN, and REPEAT AS NECESSARY. And when all else fails, ASK AN EXPERT.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog on PROPER PRACTICE TECHNIQUE. Be sure to read my other related blogs at fiddleosophy on my Trad Tune Learning website. And please, be generous with your comments. I find them very helpful, and they provide even more insight to the topics I am blogging about.