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March 2004

My Favorite Practice Techniques

by Julie Tebbs

Before I begin with this most interesting topic, I need to say that most of these techniques listed below are geared toward beginning and intermediate students. However they have worked for me in my own personal practice sessions and with my students at their various levels as well. I think teachers need to not only teach the student how to play, but more importantly, teach them how to practice! So my students practice these methods in lessons so they understand how to work on their pieces when they get home.

1. Practice in small pieces:

I repeatedly tell my students, "Practice in small pieces!" I think this is a good reminder for the advanced students and a necessary learning block for the beginners. It is very fun to start at the beginning of the song and play to the end, and this is of course the end goal. But there are always those few sections that students fumble over every time the piece gets played.

I try to teach my students to play only one measure at a time, repeating it over and over until it is clear. Then they can extend to one phrase at a time, etc. Pieces such as Etude in the Suzuki Book I, lend themselves well to this technique. I have students play any difficult group of four 8th notes separately over and over before putting them all together into a complete piece.

2. Practice the parts that need the most work first:

I remember struggling on the Bach Double concerto as a young person trying to learn it for the first time. Of course I had heard many play it and knew exactly how it should sound and how fast it should be played. I tried the usual method of playing one hard passage over and over. It didn't get better. So I started cutting out the parts I could play. I was left with a very small group of 16th notes that were the most difficult. I played them slowly, forwards, backwards, and with different fingerings and rhythms. Before I knew it I had fixed the passage, not by playing it over and over, but by focusing on the part that was truly difficult.

3. Change all but the order of the notes:

This is a fun practice technique, and works best for 16th note passages that are difficult. Pick a small section of a couple of measures and take out all the slurs. Now slow it down and change the rhythm. Here is an example from Handel's Messiah, first violin part, No. 53, Worthy is the Lamb. This is the original measure before adding this technique:

Here is the passage using the same notes, but a different rhythm. In this passage, play the 16th note as fast as you can, and take your time on the dotted 8th notes.

When you can play that much consistently, reverse the rhythm this way:

Then vary the rhythm any way you wish. You can also add accents or different bowings to spice it up. By they time you've completed these methods and go back to playing it "straight" you will be amazed at how it easy is.

4. Use a metronome:

A metronome is very helpful for getting something up to tempo and for finding exactly where those hard spots are. Choose a small section of your piece that needs work, maybe a line or a phrase. Set the metronome to the speed where you can comfortably do the whole section without mistakes right now. This is probably a very slow speed, and sometimes I will set the metronome to beat 8th notes instead of quarter notes if I am going at a slow tempo. Play the section a couple of times at this speed (if you can't play it perfectly, set the tempo slower). When you can play it perfect, up the speed by a couple of notches. Play again and again until perfect, the up the speed again. It will quickly get better. You will find, however, that the next day you may have to start all over again. We tend to expect that if we have worked the tempo up to 112 on the metronome, that we should be able to start there tomorrow, but it doesn't work that way. You will have to start slower again the next day, but it will get better faster. And after several days you will see definite progress.

5. Practice daily:

How is this a practice technique? Here I would like to mention the difference between practicing daily and practicing in one big marathon session right before the lesson or performance. I have tried both methods and you probably have too. There is no comparison. The marathon session just doesn't work. Daily practice sessions have lasting benefits, while the marathon session has short term benefits (and the benefits will likely be gone before the lesson the next day!). So even on very busy days, if you can do a short and focused practice session, it will benefit you more than trying to catch up at the end of the week.

6. Other suggestions:

Memorize your piece. Memorizing has many benefits, and I recommend it highly. For our purposes here, I find that my brain sometimes can't read the notes fast enough. If I memorize then I'm only limited by how fast my fingers can go (which is a big enough limitation!).

Play with others: Sometimes this can be helpful to get the extra push you need to get something up to tempo or make sure you've go all the accidentals.

Practice with your brain in gear! Comment from another teacher: I would rather have my student practice a concentrated 15 minutes a day than a blah 30 minutes just 'doing time.'

Set reasonable goals: What would you like to accomplish this practice session? What would you like to accomplish before the next lesson? What would you like to have ready for the next recital? What do you want to play by the time it's time for college auditions?

Set a specific time to practice, practice the same time every day.

Leave your violin out. I've had several students and parents report that if the violin is left out it gets played more often. Just make sure the violin is still safe -- watch out for cats and small children, and make sure it is not in direct sun or somewhere it could easily fall.

Have fun! Sometimes we need to remember that playing the violin is FUN! So if it is getting to be drudgery, take a day off from the hard work and play your favorite pieces and remember why you love the violin.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking. Now it is your turn. Please send us your favorite practice techniques (for any playing level). Email and tell me what has worked for you or your students!

Reader input:

From Dave, a chromatic button accordion player from Barbados, West Indies:
VISUALIZATION is an important part of 'practice.' Imagine yourself playing before a group of friends or family; on stage before a large and appreciative audience, see yourself thrilling them, hear the applause, etc.

From Orchid in Ohio:
I practice w/ CD's of professionals playing the piece I am trying to learn. It makes practicing more fun because I like to play with other instruments as a group. Right now I like playing with the up beat CD's of the group Bond who play classical music with a modern flair. It is a lot of fun then to practice. This can be done for Classical Music as well as Celtic fiddling etc.

Using CD's is also good for practicing improvising music - making up music right as you are playing. I do this often with Contemporary Christian Music. Kind of like David Davidson does in Michael W Smith's Worship and Worship again. I do this in the groups I play with because I am the only violinist and I improvise while I am playing. So to practice with CD's will help a person memorize the sound of each note so they can improvise while they play.