It happens more than it should: I walk into a lesson and the student is jaw-droppingly unprepared and the excuse offered is, “I didn’t have enough to practice.”

It was a frequent occurrence in my own early lessons. I would pour hours into my practice with only marginal progress, eventually decreasing my practice time to the bare minimum my parents would allow, feeling utterly defeated. I was able to skate along for a little while, but things got unpleasant when the repertoire on the stand outpaced my natural ability. 
It’s not that I didn’t have enough to practice. It’s that I had no idea what to practice. How to practice. What I find is that how and what are actually interchangeable. Here’s what I mean. 
Let’s say you’re working on a piece. First off, you know you need to break it up into sections. Most adults instinctively do this, but just in case there are any younger/newer students reading this, I’ll restate that. I liken it to combing knots out of long hair. When there’s a snarl in the middle of the strand, you don’t continue running the brush the entire length of the hair: you do a thousand small strokes at the site of the tangle until it’s gone. Then you gradually take longer and longer strokes until you really can get the brush through the entire length of the hair. Same thing here. You play until there’s a problem, and then work the problem. Then you back up a few measures and see if you’ve really untangled it. 
So you’re working in sections. You notice two nasty sounding elements: a quick run of notes that leaves your fingers dizzy, and string crossings that are uneven or maybe a little percussive (aka crunchy, scratchy, noisy). 
If you don’t notice anything particularly wrong, it means you’re not listening with the right ears. Record yourself and compare that recording to a professional one. Then do the math: what are the differences? Don’t go to the negative place (I’m horrible, this is impossible), instead go to the grittier, tougher place. Every pro used to have gnarly shifts and ugly string crossings. Then they were honest with themselves about how to fix it, and set about doing those things. If you do the same, that will be yet another aspect of your approach you have in common with the big dogs. And that’s what we all want. 
Oh, and if you don’t have the ability to record yourself, read your teacher’s notes and assume they’re accurate. There should be phrases in there like:
“keep the bow in X part of the string”
“rotate your hand X”
“work on X” 
And if there aren’t, I have two pieces of advice. 
1. Ask for technical advice like that in your next lesson. 
2. Just assume that every element of your technique needs work, pick one, and get cracking. 
Ok, so back to the tricky run and the bockety bow. My whole point is that how to practice and what to practice are the same things. 
So for the run, you need to extract what’s tough about it. Usually the answer is something like:
1. It’s a little too fast.
2. The notes don’t fit well in my hand.
3. It contains new technique (extensions, thumb position, &c.).
4. My bow and my left hand are out of sync (see #1).
So how to practice? Well, saying, “I want this to be better and faster” is like saying, “I want to have an enchanted tree that grows money!” Sure. But nobody ever got rich from a magic tree, and nobody ever became an expert at the cello by wishing for the end result. What you have to do is train your sights on the fix. If something feels too fast, slow it down. More than you want to. WIth a metronome. And then repeat it more than you think you should. You’ll know you’re in the productive zone when you think “Surely I have it down now!” and then repeat it 20 more times at the same speed. The what is the how. I said this a lot on my last teaching tour, I say it in most of my lessons, and I’ll bang on it until it’s dead here: in practice, have a physical goal. Examples of physical goals during this passage might be:
1. I will take short, steady bows.
2. I will prepare my left hand for the next note.
3. I will focus on keeping my thumb “tripod”-ed behind my fingers. 
4. I will concentrate on my breathing until I can breathe and play at the same time. 
So now, it’s your turn. You have in front of you something tricky for the bow. Let’s say you’re looking at our Darling: Prélude, Suite 1. No matter how you bow it, it’s easy to get pushed out of shape and away from a musical place. But just for the sake of uniformity, I’ll say you’re going to try to play it 8 notes to a bow for the first few measures. 
In the comments section, tell me what the difficulties might be, and then offer some physical goals designed to confront and fix those things. Just like it helps to hear a phrase in your head before playing it, having an idea of what good practice looks like is useful when you get stuck. 
Returning to the implicitly accusatory, “I didn’t have enough to practice”, for a moment, there have been times when I have responded silently. I take the current étude book, open it to any page at all, point to a line, and motion to the student that they should play it. 
Afterward, I crack the smallest smile and say, “There is always more to practice.” 
What they don’t see is how this little vignette inspires my own ethic. 9 times out of 10, I return home, open Popper or Bukinik to a random page, and get to work. There is, after all, always more to practice.

Cool photo from iLeadScaffolding. 

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17 thoughts on “The how and what of good practice.”

  1. I'm printing this out, framing it, and having in my cello space at all times.

    Because of this, my blogcrush on you continues. Don't make me love you – I'm happily married!

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  2. *boggle* I consider myself Emperor of Metaphors, and that tangled hair thing is BRILLIANT.

    I was that person as a child who didn't know how to practice. I thought it meant doing something over and over and over and over and over and over … and at random, some of those times would be correct and some wrong. This made me terrified of performance since I felt that whether it came out right or wrong was out of my control, and I would just have to hope at, randomly and as a result of blind luck, it would go right on the stage. Of course, it never did.

    I felt like whether it went right or wrong was not in my control, and that made me scared out of my gourd because to this day, I hate trusting to blind luck for ANYTHING.

    I am not sure whether no adult — including my teacher — ever told me what the hell practicing actually WAS (I don't recall them saying it, though), or whether they told me and, being a kid, I didn't process it. I do think that I got the message from the adults around me that if I jsut did it mindlessly six million times, it would "get better" by magic or something. *sigh*

    More teachers need to realize that saying "practice XYZ this week" is a worthless directive unless the student knows what the hell it means to practice.

    As an adult, I've figured it out fairly well, which means that I am making progress leaps and bounds faster than I did as a child … something that Neurology Says Ain't Possible Cuz The Cool Sidebar I Read In Time Magazine Said So, even though I was one of those irksome kids who could do damn near anything well.

    And all it took was a spreadsheet with three columns: measure number, problem, and solution. I list them out, then start crushing those emeffers out one at a time like cockroaches. My teacher comes in handy when I'm not sure WHY something is notated the way it is, WHY something is a problem, or can't propose a solution and need his parallax. He loves it. It means he doesn't have to do 90% of his job.

    I so badly wish that that simple advice would have been given to me as a child. It would have meant the world to me to realize that success was in my control, and that I could see improvement right there in front of me in a systematic way.

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  3. Also, the whole "prepare scroll hand for next note" thing can be rendered more complicated. 🙂 Caveat: I'm a rank n00b, but I'm happy to share my lessons as I learn them.

    If I'm having trouble with a given note or interval, the majority of the time, the solution lies in finding out how far back I can go to start preparing for that note. Having trouble hitting that D on the A string? Well, where was your third finger last time you used it?

    I'm finding that thinking in terms of what each finger will have to do next is very, very useful for me. A lot of bowing problems are also solved by looking ahead.

    It's weird. With an instrument this touchy (I'm on a viola, BTW), you have to simultaneously be irised in to the present moment and also irised OUT and looking as far ahead as you can. I'm a much better pianist — and for far longer than I've studied viola — and I know that these things are similar to what works on a piano, but they are very, very, very much more crucial on an instrument where you have about a half millimeter separating music from a screeching howler monkey. Seriously. Bowed instruments are INSANE.

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  4. This is helpful. I find your comment (in a previous post) about hearing your next note in your head and then play it is helping me lots.

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  5. Woo hoo! Though….nobody has done the assignment yet. Do I enter 'W' for my class?

    And B7&9: Although not a unique thought, I think of Yo-Yo Ma when I mention that. There was some Q and A…maybe at Tanglewood? Anyway, someone asked him about how he was so hyper-accurate in his shifting, and he said, "Well, of course I practice, but I really feel like the trick is hearing the note before I play it."

    It also makes you less nervous because it takes so much concentration that you can't really think about the audience or "what if"s. 🙂

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  6. I kept thinking I was going to make a video out of this assignment, but the more I played, the more simple it seems. These are the preparatory exercises I would do for the bowing of the first 4 measures. ALL bowing prep exercises are done on open strings.

    First, the parameters:
    1. 8 slurred notes/bow, down bow for the first half measure, up bow for the second half measure.

    Brief description of the problem:
    1. Each measure is a new chord (it will be much easier to learn the fingering once one understands this).
    2. Each half measure begins with an arpeggio, which can be thought of as a strummed chord. The first half of the measure is a down-bow strum, and the second half of the measure is an up-bow strum.
    3. Each measure ends with an even string-crossing pattern on A and D, from high to low string. (i.e. A D A D)
    4. Each half measure "hangs" on the A string to play a little ornament with the left hand. The string pattern is G D A-A-A D A D in each measure – i.e. the bowing pattern is the same for all 4 measures.

    The preparatory exercises I would do are:
    1. Build the string crossings with a metronome, 1/8 = 100 +/- 20 Pay attention to where the elbow is and where the tip of the bow is heading. They should be the same for the double stop and for the string crossings.
    * 4 beat half note D (whole bow)
    * 4 beat half note A (whole bow)
    * 4 beat double stop A-D (whole bow)
    * quarter notes slurred down A D up A D (half-bow per note)
    * eighth notes slurred down A D A D up A D A D (quarter-bow per note)
    * sixteenth notes slurred down A D A D A D A D up A D A D A D A D

    2. For the chord strums, do them 2 ways, always starting on G, play G D A then A D G
    * at the frog, starting down bow (elbow goes in and out)
    * at the tip, starting up bow (arm goes up and down at the shoulder)
    Play without the metronome until the motion is free, then add the metronome and do it in time.

    3. Add the two patterns together, down G D A D A D A D up G D A D A D A D. Make sure it feels like strum followed by string crossings. The first half of the measure will start by bringing the elbow down and in, the second half by dropping the arm and elbow down. Make sure the bow arm is in the best place to start the G cleanly.

    4. Finally, do the actual pattern, down G D A-A-A D A D up G D A-A-A D A D. The feeling should be bow strum, hang, string crossing. You may find it helpful to say the pattern out loud, in tempo, over and over.

    The next exercise should be learning the chords.

    Do I need to make a video?

    Reply
  7. All right GGP! I would say that you have a handle on the issues, for sure. I would caution you though: the more words you use to describe a problem or solution, the more verbal the brain gets. I would take a more caveman approach to the remedies. Remember, it's a physical goal I'm trying to squeeze out of you. So let's build on one of your mini-études, and distill it down to the physical, simple fix.

    Right now, #3 is at the top of my screen, so let's do that. Your directions are perfect, as far as I can see. So I might offer two physical tasks:

    1. preserve the 'L' shape of the arm as long as possible. (you know what this means, but for those who don't, it's the angle from the biceps to the forearm)

    2. use the large muscle groups to move the bow.

    maybe even a third:

    3. start and stop your bow cleanly, without hesitation or accent.

    These three things are actually describing the same phenomenon, as was your expanded description. Your étude is designed perfectly to elicit jackassery, which is what we want. If you can get through it with solid technique, then the piece won't be as much work .

    Brava, Madame. Brava.

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  8. It was an intersting exercise, as I am more kinesthetically oriented. First I DID the thing, then I tried to describe it. I completely agree that a verbal description is NOT the best way to transmit this information to another. That's probably we why we have cello lessons, instead of cello study sections!

    OTOH, it's nice to have it written out to jog the memory somewhere down the line, and as a method of determining whether you really understand something.

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  9. Returning to the cello after 30+ years. Brought the cello home from the shop after reconditioning and began practicing today. Starting with scales from the "baby" books (Werner, Klengel) I had saved all these years with half-century old notes from the dead hand of my teacher. I'm surprised that I remember anything at all (perhaps it's like riding a bicycle). The Prelude of Bach Suite I is still embedded in muscle memory but I am forcing myself to work my way through the basic stuff before I try it.

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  10. Jim: A few things, in response.

    1. Werner and Klengel are not baby books in my estimation. I frequently turn to Klengel 2 when the cello tries to convince me that I don't know where the notes are.

    2. Your careful approach will yield a lot more fruit a lot sooner than if you indulged your muscle memory. Like I say, the long road is the short cut!

    3. From only a few sentences, I can tell that you are a great writer. Please tell me you have a blog, book, or other written outlet that I can read.

    Keep me posted on your progress!

    e.

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  11. JC: I must say that your comments always make me laugh with delight. "Scared out of my gourd"…a good image. Were you in a gourd before? Is that what this place is? I've been wondering about that. 🙂

    For some real punishment on the "account for the finger as far back as you need to" front, I recommend Old Crunchy, Minuet #2 from Suzuki. Not sure which volume the viola gets it in (it's such a standard I can't imagine them depriving you guys of its wonders) but it is really challenging to move only as much as you have to, when you need to.

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  12. Yep, #2 is in Suzuki 1. 🙂 One of those things that should not be half as pretty as it is. It's like the Beverly Hillbillies of Bach — everyone secretly thinks it's great, but won't admit it because it's too lowbrow. 🙂

    Old Crunchy. Hee-hee!

    I'm working on some stuff now by a dude named Bill Fitzpatrick who's really good. It's in Gm, and I'm just getting used to the understated "swing the hand" thing you have to do to get to that Eb on the D string. The split-second the index finger isn't otherwise occupied, you've got to start thinking ahead to that damn Eb.

    It's crazy how the notes seem to wander off when you change key signatures, BTW. I was playing a couple things in D and G, and then suddenly I'm in Gm and it's like GODDAMN IT there was an F# here a week ago!

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  13. I'm coming in late on this. Lemme give this a try, with only a somewhat different emphasis:

    1. 8 notes to the bow. Ugh, that's a lot of notes! Need good bow distribution so I do not run out of bow, and every note gets it's due amount of bow, with consideration that the open A will speak differently than fingered A-string notes.

    2. Some notes are at the frog, some notes at the tip. Need evenness of "weight" so I must be light at the frog, heavier at the tip.

    3. Multiple notes will be ringing at the same time, so intonation problems will be obvious. The evil finger-2-to-finger-3 issue will come up. Gotta get the F# high enough. Must be ready for it.

    4. Landing on that G-G in bar four will expose any previous error in going up the finger board with fingers 1, 2, and 3. Must have been right all along to land on the right spot with finger 4.

    How to work on it.

    1. Play right hand only, VERY SLOWLY, with all notes separated by ample white space, all open strings, noting (1) best point-of-contact, and (2) where in the bow each note must come. Even amount of bow for each note. Even volume for each note.

    2. Long-tone double chords, VERY SLOWLY, one note to the bow – G/D/B, G/E/C, F#/B (using the B to find F#) and G/F#/C, G/G/B. Lots of ring and clarity.

    3. Patiently speed up the open bowing in increments, now with little/no white space, maintaining bow distribution and evenness of volume. Note if change in POC is necessary.

    4. Go back to VERY SLOWLY and merge right hand/left hand, back to white space and listening for ring and evenness of volume, especially on those open As.

    5. Remove white space and patiently increase tempo, ever alert to finger or arm "lock-ups". When something is not right return to the appropriate step above. On second thought, return to those other steps periodically, anyway.

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  14. It's so gratifying to read about people who perform and teach who are this deliberate and conscious of what they are doing when they practice. I sometimes feel like I'm being my legs backward at the knee when I practice and have to go so painfully slow and with such deliberation just go get one stinking half a measure to the point where it doesn't trip me up COMPLETELY. It's reassuring to see that even old hands have to do it, though.

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  15. I’m an adult beginner in my mid-50s. I like the fact that my teacher lets me bring in books and pieces that I’d like to work on. No matter what the tune, or the style, he works with me on the concepts and the fundamentals seamlessly. Thanks for your posts; I look forward to reading more.

    Reply

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