Practice Tips- According to Fellow Musicians
By Catherine Kong
If you’re a musician, you’ve probably wondered, am I practicing right? Or perhaps, what’s the correct way to practice? Not having a direct answer to this question can become incredibly frustrating, especially when you reach a passage that just seems impossible to conquer. As a violinist myself, I too have faced difficulties while practicing. Even today, after 9 grueling years of playing the violin, you’d think I’d have the answer to that all-mysterious question: how should I practice? Alas, no: oftentimes, I gently toss my violin on the couch, throw my hands up in exasperation, and wonder, “why, just why can’t I get this one section down?”
Unfortunately, there is not one correct answer to practicing. As I’m sure you know, while certain techniques and strategies benefit some people, they may not work for others. The “right way to practice,” like many other things in this world, is subjective, and every person must discover what works best for themselves. Now, you’re probably thinking, “wow, how helpful! You’ve just told me what I’ve always known!” But don’t despair- to help guide you on your journey, we’ve provided various tips from fellow musicians on some of the ways they have an effective practice session!
PT No.1: Practice and return to difficult sections
“I recommend narrowing the music down to a measure or two of the most difficult parts at a time so that you can work on those sections slowly. And honestly, it gets tiring to work on the same two measures for a while, so it’s totally okay to take a break, play another part or piece for a bit, and come back to the difficult parts when you’re more focused!” -Katherine (plays violin)
PT No.2: If you’re really stuck, watch a master class on Youtube
If you don’t have a private teacher, it can be especially tricky to navigate difficult sections of a piece. In that case, try to gain a professional’s insight on why they think you might be stuck. While it’s a good option to find local master classes, it’s much cheaper and easier to watch one via YouTube. If you’re struggling on a certain part, chances are that that section could be the focus of the video. -My personal tip (after that horrendous double stop section of Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro”)
PT No.3: Keep specific goals in mind
“Practicing [an instrument] can seem like a pretty boring and frightening task, but having specific goals has helped me stay motivated. For instance, I like to spend the first couple days with a song just perfecting the notes and rhythm and then moving on to other techniques or making it faster. It may seem really basic, but I think keeping smaller goals when learning a new piece and going step by step keeps me from feeling too overwhelmed with the entire song. I also make sure my main goal throughout the whole year is to just improve, not just prepare myself for a specific audition or lesson.” -Anonymous (plays violin)
PT No.4 and No.5: Rhythm practice and double stops (for strings)
I’ve learned these two practice techniques from my private teacher. First, rhythm practice: if you’ve reached a fast section where your fingers and bow aren’t coordinated well, try to change up the rhythm. Instead of doing straight eighth/sixteenth notes, make the rhythm dotted. For instance, if you have two eighth notes, make the first note a dotted eighth and the second note a sixteenth note (and vice versa). Ideally, changing up the pattern for the entire section and trying to perfect it with a more challenging rhythm will help the note changes to be cleaner and better coordinated once you return to the original rhythm.
Second, double stops: if you’re having trouble with intonation in a passage with lots of string crossings, try to check pitch with double stops. The most basic example: if you have an E on the A string and an E on the E string, check the two notes together as an octave to see if you are in tune. If not, adjust. Over time, adjusting and checking will help you to fine tune your hands and ears. -My personal tip, learnt from my private teacher
PT No.6: Incorporate a fun piece
“Try playing a fun piece before or after practicing; that helps motivate me to practice since there’s something I get to look forward to if I practice.” -Anonymous (plays violin)
PT No.7: Play along with professional recordings
When you are able to play your piece through, find a recording on YouTube that you can play along with. Make sure the tempo and style are similar to your own so that you can play along comfortably. -Judy (plays flute)
PT No.8: Start with the basics (for brass)
“As a brass player, proper embouchure and technique is crucial for any piece. However, it can be easy to pick up the instrument and only focus on playing the right notes without attention to proper foundations. I always start by buzzing on the mouthpiece only -- this helps to establish better air flow, air support, and allows you to focus on your embouchure wholly. After that, you can play it on the instrument again. I think you’ll find that you’ll be able to play with more endurance, better tone, and more accuracy than before!" -David (plays French Horn)
PT No.9: Move with the music
Hilary Hahn, a famed violinist, suggests to “move [your] legs with the music. The core and the back are also important for allowing that feeling to go into the arms,” helping with expression.
PT No.10: Store your phone in a separate room
I know that I often get distracted by my phone’s notifications while practicing, resulting in several 15-minute breaks where I check my phone and then become absorbed in it. From my personal experience, I’ve benefited from placing my phone (or any other possible distractions) in an entirely separate room; without my phone, I can stay focused and have a much more efficient and rewarding practice session. -My personal tip
Now that you’ve read some of our helpful practice tips, I hope you can apply these to your practice and see what works for you. I have full confidence that one day you too will discover some strategies of your own, and pass them on to others. For now, best of luck, and you got this!