Some Ideas on Practice
Version 1.02 - June 1998

In English ( British ) Practice ( the noun ) I must spell it with a C
whereas To Practise ( the verb ) with an S

Leopold Auer would say to his pupils :
" Practise three hours a day if you are any good, four if you are a little stupid. If you need more than that - stop. You should try another profession "

Make a chart, or table, with a fixed time for every day of the week along the top, and the week of the year along the left. Tick off each cell, as you complete your days practice. This chart should be inspected regularly by family and teacher. Putting it on the wall is also a good idea.
Try to find times that you can stick to each day of the week. For example, each Tuesday you may have from 5:00 to 5:30 available for practice. If you have filled this time in on your chart, then your practice room is where everyone knows you should be at that time. Turn practicing into a regular event / habit.
Once you are alone with your instrument, you will have to start organizing your time and efforts. Only good practice is useful. Practicing something in the wrong way for half an hour does more harm than good. Just playing through pieces from beginning to end is not much use.
Divide your allocated practice time into sections ( 3 is a good number ). An 1 hour session should consist of 20 minutes scales, 20 minutes etudes ( studies ) and 20 minutes repertoire. It is good to work on different aspects of technique during the session, because otherwise you might find concentrating only on one aspect leading to a dead end, especially if you run into problems. Variety allows different skills to develop and eventually to help each other.
Isolate difficult passages and concentrate your attention on them. Repeat a 2 bar passage, pausing each time in between attempts to evaluate your progress. Each playing of the chosen passage should improve on the last attempt. Try playing the passage slowly, or quietly, then up to speed and with full sound.
Always maintain the same bowings and fingerings for your passage. This will help you memorize the movements, as you repeat them. Changing the bowing just adds to confusion and produces a totally opposite movement that cancels out your perception of the proper bowing.
Break down all the movements and techniques in a passage into RH ( Right hand ) and LH ( Left hand ) actions. One time you will want to concentrate on the RH another time you may want to improve LH accuracy.
Practise slowly, then practise more slowly and finally extremely slowly. Saint Saens spoke this ( or similar ) phrase. Slow speed gives us time to coordinate our hands and actions. It also to ensure an even tone is produced with well distributed bowing.
When your hand or arm muscles ache, stop. Rest frequently if you are working on 4th finger extensions. Flexibility, agility and lightness are the key sensations for good Left Hand technique. Brute force, endurance and heavy articulation are LH killers.
Do not practice at maximum volume all the time. In fact, 60% volume will allow more suppleness and will be less taxing for your muscles. You are then in a position to reprogram them, and they will be readier to accept new orders. Full tension in bow holds is usually best applied when the muscles are able to work directing and using tension in an effective and positive way.
Learn passages by heart. To master passages correctly and with fine style, it important to get way past the "knowing the notes" stage. Learning the notes by heart is an essential component to master before being able to give further attention to finer points on style and musicality.
Practise in time. Sometimes, though not all the time, it is beneficial to use a metronome. However, in no cases should a musical phrase come to a halt in order to "find" the correct placing of a finger ( for example playing a chord ). Such liberties quickly become a habit. Timing and steady tempos are essential. If RH and LH actions are executed to an irregular tempo, the result is havoc and chaos.
Intonation is best studied playing piano or softly ( a philosophy of the cellist Pablo Casals ). The ear is saturated and confused with too much sound. Scales played too slowly are also difficult to tune, because too much time passes between one note and the next, and the ear loses its memory of the tonic note in the key. Intonation is best understood in context with other notes or players.
Proper instrument care and maintenance goes without saying. Bows are to be tightened and completely loosened. Strings are best rubbed lightly with alcohol to clear the string of corrosive perspiration. This can be done at the end of the day.
A notebook can help you and your teacher keep track of your studies and objectives. It is therefore important to have a continuity, starting off the next lesson at the same point reached at the end of the last lesson. Each lesson, and likewise each practice session should contain previous material you have been working on, and new material or passages to be tackled and mastered.
Master your passages. Master your piece. Do not move on to the next difficulty or piece until you have overcome all the difficulties and can play your current piece to at least 90% perfection. The only exception is if your teacher thinks you have reached the maximum benefit obtainable from studying the piece ( perhaps only to 75% perfection ). This is an exception, however. Never change piece or play a new piece every lesson or practice session. You must work on a piece thoroughly before moving on. If you cannot master the piece after much work, then it is too hard. In this case it is much more valuable to learn an easier piece which you can master more readily.
Take note of the techniques and methods used in your lessons. Your teacher is teaching you how to practise ! You must emulate these procedures and steps in your practice sessions. If your teacher tells you to memorize 4 bars at a time, then you must carry out this work during the week. Practicing must be a continuation of what goes on during your lessons.
Hearing is best in the mornings. Give precedence to the morning hours for your timetable on the weekend days when this is possible. Muscles are softer and looser in the evenings, in contrast.
Is tension a threat ? Yes & no. It is not possible to obtain a concentrated or solid sound without tension. However, tension should be used in a healthy and positive way in order to contribute to the sound. Negative tension and discomfort is a definite hindrance to good sound and technique. Understanding this topic requires a good knowledge of string playing.
Comfort and good style are highly desirable goals. Posture, stance, relaxed shoulders ( not raised ), rounded 4th fingers, natural bow holds, curved left hand fingers, passive thumbs, unlocked wrists and many other factors are best never forgotten. Awkwardness and struggling is not to be tolerated. Change piece to something easier, which can be played with comfort and ease and a degree of musical flair. It's always possible to build up from a lower level.
Tune up ! Don't be lazy, only tuning your string to each other, but check your A string with an accurate source. A tuning fork is good to have handy at all times. The ideal A is 442 - 443 Hz. Most tuning forks give 440. This is just a tiny bit lower. Some electronic metronomes can give you a 443 Hz. Most pianos are 440.
Learn to tune up ! Don't expect your teacher to tune up for you all your life ! You should turn and push your pegs in ( corkscrew action ) so they don't slip. Buy a decent Thomastik tailpiece that works if your pegs are stiff. Apply graphite ( from a pencil ) to the peg if it doesn't turn ) . The best product for pegs is W.E.Hill's peg solution crayon. Use Dominant strings ( NEVER metal strings ). Keep all your equipment in working order.
Do not discard and forget the pieces you have studied. Keep them in your repertoire. Keep playing them. Never forget them. Once I studied the 1st Bach Partita for 5 months reaching 83% perfection. A year later the same Russian teacher decided to go through them for another month ( attaining 93% perfection ).
If you have enough experience to bow and finger parts yourself, try alternative fingering, and pencil everything in. Master that fingering or bowing, and if along the way you discover or invent better solutions, don't hesitate in going with the easier and more effective bowing. Do not make life difficult for yourself ( it already is ! ) and always go with the more simplified and musical bowings. Large hands will prefer stretched 4ths, but small hands will prefer the half position.
Always chose slightly easier pieces than you know you can manage for public performances, exams and competitions. An easier work played well is much more impressive than a harder piece played less well. It is possible to study pieces which are harder, but public performances require thorough preparation. Distraction, nerves, excitement, worries, and many other factors unexpectedly turn up. One is never prepared well enough for these occasions. Do not underestimate these situations.
Practice studies and études.


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Last modified: February 06, 2000