Clinician's Corner - "Practice makes Perfect, but What Makes Practice?"|
by TSgt Joshua Kowalsky
USAF Band Concert Band
8/18/2008 - Bolling AFB, Washington, DC -- Practicing is something that every musician struggles with at some point during their career. We all want to play beautiful, great music, but what about all the work it takes to prepare it? Practicing can be mindless, boring, and repetitive and sometimes it is more interesting watching varnish dry. Here are some tips on avoiding tedious repetition and injecting some creativity into your practice session.
Have a set of priorities for learning a new piece. For example, if you have to play something without a lot of preparation, you need to get the rhythm, notes and intonation before anything else. Once this is accomplished, there are many things to practice. Hand balance, rhythms, bowings, shifting, speed, articulation, vibrato and tone--all while creating a personal interpretation. Focus on one of these priorities at a time to maximize efficiency of practice.
Use your time wisely. None of us has endless hours to peruse a piece. Utilize a digital recorder for instant playback of a phrase. Listen critically to your playing and decide what is effective and what needs changing. After several repetitions, decide if progress is being made. Don't move on until you have performed it correctly several times. If you are losing concentration, take a break. We all have limits, and it is up to you to find yours.
Mark your music. Don't rely on your memory for fingerings and bowings. You can save time by marking these in your music as soon as you decide them. Use brackets or an X to signify a section which needs additional work.
Use a metronome. The fastest way to learn a piece is to play it slowly. I find it extremely helpful to use a metronome not only for working on fast technical passages, but also for musically phrasing a lyrical line. Use the metronome creatively and not just on every quarter note. Many metronomes can alternate beats or click extremely slow or incredibly fast. Use this to your advantage by clicking off-beats, every 16th note, or even only whole notes. With Bach, for example, I put the metronome on the big beats (every downbeat or on beats 1 and 3) which helps tremendously by keeping a sense of pulse while still allowing time to play the individual phrases.
Listen to recordings. If I am learning a new piece, it solidifies my own interpretation by listening to that of someone else. To study a recording, I follow along with the score or my own part and critically listen to the performer's phrasing, vibrato, dynamics and especially their bowings. The use of bowings can make a huge difference in the phrasing. If you are having trouble with a passage, or just need to come to a personal interpretation, you can assimilate a lot from other people and still create your own personal version.
These are only a few ideas to help organize and maintain good quality, focused practice. Of course, there is no quick fix to practicing. Perfection is rarely achieved, but it is the great musicians who never stop striving for it.