My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pressing practicing questions and some answers

A few weeks ago I had another opportunity to speak about my favorite topic, practicing, to a group of college freshmen music majors.  We decided to solicit questions from them at the beginning to get a sense of where these students were coming from and to find out what their most pressing questions were.  They came up with some thoughtful questions that I want to share here, along with my answers to them.  If any of my colleagues have any thoughts to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section!

How do I keep myself from getting bored?  
Make sure your mind is constantly engaged.  Be what I call a musical investigator, always searching for new patterns in the music to make it easier to take in, process, and reproduce; never make a mistake without figuring out the root of the problem and finding a way to deal with it; come up with different rhythms to use when practicing note-filled passages; while doing repetitions come up with something different to do musically with each repetition; never spend too much time on one thing – if your mind starts to tune out, take a little break, choose a new goal in a different section or piece, and then move on; practice away from your instrument – conduct, sing, look up info about the piece, the composer, the period of music, art that was being created around the same time, figure out rhythms, listen to a good recording.

How do I practice a lot and not end up hating my instrument? 
See the previous answer for some ideas on how to keep practicing interesting. One of my mantras is, “If you aren’t walking away from your practice session feeling good about yourself, your practicing is probably not as efficient and effective as it could be.”  This is not to say that we don’t all have frustrating sessions, we do.  But if that’s happening the majority of the time, it’s time to do some re-vamping.

How much time "should" I practice?
In my opinion this question shouldn't be the question you ask.  It is not duration that is important it is consistency and quality that is most important.  Without consistency it is difficult and slow to move anything new you have learned from short term memory into long term memory.  Without consistency, nothing is truly dependable.   And how do we determine what quality practice is?  For me, quality practice means practice in which my mind and creative side has been constantly engaged.  Mindful practice makes the music more meaningful to us and makes it stick in a way that mindless rote practice can't.  

·      If I only have one hour to practice today, how do I make sure to get the most out of it? Especially if I’m tired and would really love to take a nap instead. 
Goals, goals, do-able goals!  And a plan!  Figure out what needs the most work and spend time only on those passages.  Don’t practice what you’re already good at when you don’t have much time.  If you choose your goals wisely and check them off your list during your hour, you probably won’t feel like you need that nap after all and you may even decide that you can squeeze in a little more practice time later in the day since you were so successful.  But sometimes we could all use a nap.  You need to decide that for yourself.  If you think you’re just avoiding your instrument, I would try practicing.  If you really are exhausted it might be better for you to take that nap. 

·      Attention span, seeking help, frustration, self-motivation, self-criticism.
Attention span – very few people have a long attention span. There’s nothing wrong with that.  Create practice sessions that keep you moving from one goal being conquered to another.  Have shorter practice sessions. 
Seeking help – SEEK HELP from your teachers, your colleagues, your neighborhood practice coach (you can facebook, tweet, e-mail, skype me when you’re having trouble or just need a pep talk.) You are not alone if you don’t know what to do, how to get over a wall, etc…
Self-motivation – Once you see your practicing transform your playing you won’t need as much self-motivation.  But even for the best of us, we sometimes need to drag ourselves to the practice room to get started.  That’s normal!  Practicing is hard work!
Self-criticism – Don’t do it!  Treat yourself in the practice room the way you would treat a friend of yours.  You wouldn’t say to someone, “You are a horrible musician!” so don’t say that to yourself either.  If you do you’ll find yourself saying it to yourself onstage too.

Which is more effective – practicing for a large chunk of time or for smaller portions spread out throughout the day?
It depends on you and on the moment.  It also depends on what is realistic for your schedule on any given day.  If you only have 10 minutes at a time here and there throughout the day that’s a lot better than waiting for that hour that never ends up happening.  Always be sensitive to how your brain and body is functioning.  If you’re making lots of mistakes, spacing out, checking your phone every time you stop, whatever you’re doing at the moment is not effective so either try some mini-goal setting to get you back on track or walk away for a while.  You don’t want to keep making mistakes, whatever you do!

·      Time slots – 30 min., 60 min., etc.  Warm up once a day or every session? Best way to warm up?
Again, this varies from person to person, day to day.  For warm-ups, I think it’s important to get in a good warm-up at the start of your day when you can.  If you have other sessions later in the day, be very careful to not just launch into something technically demanding or take a difficult passage so slow that your body and mind can warm back up without any stress or tension.  Your private teacher will have good warm-ups on your instrument – I would check with him or her to get ideas of specific routines. 
      The practice rooms are so hot that I can’t stand to spend more than 30 minutes at a time practicing.  How can I try to find more short amounts of time during the day when I have classes nonstop from 8am – 4pm?
Dress in layers, and more importantly, drink lots of water, especially while practicing!  Water is really important for proper brain functioning.  If it’s hot, be sure to take more breaks and leave the room for a few minutes to cool down.  On busier days, try to find ways to practice that don’t involve your instrument so that you can do them as you’re walking to class, as you’re on the bus, while you’re getting ready for bed (a good time to study, by the way!  Your brain processes the last thing your mind processed while you sleep!).  Practice rhythms, write the words of your songs on index cards and carry them around with you, have your music on your portable devices so you can listen to it while you’re on the go.  If you practice at home, leave your instrument out in a safe place so that when you walk by it and have a spare moment you might actually pick it up and do a mini-goal. 
      How long should I practice?
You should practice for as long as you can practice effectively and productively.  Generally 2-3 hours a day is good.  Any more than that and it’s debatable how good that practicing is going to be.  You also need to be careful of your body if you practice in the 4-6 hour range on a regular basis.  It’s not time, it’s quality – that’s really, really important!  Make it a game with yourself to see how much you can accomplish in shorter amounts of time. 

·      What did you do to help find the patterns (the overall picture) in the music, instead of looking at each individual note?
You can look for patterns at lots of different levels, starting off with really basic observations such as, “These first four notes go up in a step-wise motion” or “this measure is exactly the same as measure 4.”  As you get more accustomed to this and as you learn more theory you can add to your musical vocabulary, transforming the statements I just wrote into something like, “These first four notes are part of an f minor melodic scale.”  Other things you can look for are arpeggios, patterns that are almost identical but have a minor difference in which case you can ask yourself why there is that difference, broken chords, repeated notes, repeated passages, contrapuntal material, canons…The point is to get you being able to narrate verbally what’s happening in the music because then you’re making it meaningful to you.  And that use of your brain is going to make learning a lot easier and faster.  At first this may take a bit of time but as you get accustomed to it you’ll find the process gets to be second-nature.  Seeing music this way will also help with sight-reading!  On my blog, if you look at the table of contents tab, you’ll see a category of posts labeled “Musical Investigations.”  Those are all posts in which I show the patterns I’ve discovered in the pieces I’ve worked on.  That might give you some more ideas.

·      If we split our practice time up throughout the day, how would you advise we use these smaller sessions?
I’ve already touched on this but I want to add that I have different types of practicing I regularly engage in.  I am either a) learning notes from the end of the piece to the beginning, and this includes coming up with good fingerings, bowings,  etc…in addition to carefully learning the notes; b) reviewing what I worked on the previous day; c) drilling and working up spots that I’ve marked as being more challenging technically; d) musical work where I just experiment with musical issues; e) practice performing where I play through a part of a piece or the entire piece at tempo, as if I’m performing, letting go of any worries of wrong notes.  It’s an assessment time for me that helps me figure out where I am with the music.  I take note (in a non-critical way) of what I want to work on next time;  f) memorizing/playing by ear is another good way of practicing to make sure I’m really internalizing and understanding the music.  I do this with small passages even though in my job I’m not required to memorize anything.  It’s also a great ear-training exercise!

·      Mindlessly playing things without realizing you are not actively thinking about it. Playing well in the practice room, and performance does not reflect any of that. What to do?
We can get to a point, with deliberate, good practice, where the “right” neurons are so efficient that it might feel like we don’t have to think about what we’re doing.  This is not such a bad thing!  But if that’s not the reason why you’re being mindless, that’s not so good for reasons discussed above.  If you’re playing well in the practice room but your performance does not reflect that, there are many different reasons why this might be.  Perhaps you haven’t always played it well in the practice room, even if you have recently.  If at the beginning of learning the piece you made a lot of mistakes repeatedly those can easily creep in when you’re on stage.  Or you might be disengaging when you’re on stage and not staying with the music, in which case you can create a cue for yourself to keep you on track.  When I’m losing concentration I tell myself, “Sing…keep singing!” and I make myself sing the music in my head while I’m playing.  If I’m singing in my head, I can’t be easily distracted and it brings me back into the music.  Also make sure that you perform for other people a lot, even if it’s just in the practice room.  Offer to play for people at church, at home, wherever…just keep performing because even performing can use practice!

·      Is it okay if I like to practice where there may be a lot of people listening? Yesterday at Convocation, they said practice should be a sacred time for yourself, but I like practicing outside.
As long as you’re not tempted to perform while you’re practicing I think it’s fine to practice with people around and/or to practice outside.  It can actually be a great way to force you to focus and to block the outside world out – a good skill to have! 

·      How can I inspire myself to use my full voice in the practice room? (Usually use half-voice) What can I do to retain what I practice better? What makes you the happiest to practice?
When we practice we want to physically feel good as much as we can.  Singing in half-voice might feel good in a psychological way but it often doesn’t feel very good physically.  My guess is that it’s not so healthy either.  You could ask your voice teacher about that.  When you’re in the practice room you can try pretending you’re a singer you admire or someone that has more self-confidence than you do.   Don’t try to imitate their actual voice – that can lead to some unhealthy singing too.  Imitate their character.   Also remember that everyone around you in the practice rooms is there for the same reason – to get better.  Very rarely, if ever, are they there to listen critically to you.  And if they are?  Well, forget about them.  They’re wasting their time when they should be practicing.  In regards to your question about retaining what you practice, engaging in thoughtful repetitions (at least 3-5 repetitions of something correctly executed or more if you’ve already had some goes that have had mistakes), and being sure to review at a comfortable tempo what you did the previously day are good ways to help with retention.  And what makes me happiest when I’m practicing?  Checking things off my list!  It makes me feel fantastic and want to practice more.   

·      What is an appropriate scale/etude to rep ratio for practice? For people practicing rep with long whole notes or uneven sections of play, what is a good way to practice timing? I often find that playing with a recording seems to waste playing time.
I’m not sure how to answer the first two parts of the question, unfortunately.  I would say, however, that good ratios and routines can be recommended by your teacher.  In terms of playing with a recording, I don’t advise doing that because it’s often hard to really hear all that you need to hear while you are playing.  Mistakes can be made, especially rhythmically or with the pulse, without you being aware of it.  Instead I’d recommend listening to the recording away from your instrument.  Have the score in hand, conduct, sing your part, count out loud, make sure you understand your entrances and count the right number of rests in between playing…that’s a good way to figure out how your part fits into the larger scheme of things.

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