My final instalment is entitled "Informing the practice format - Essential elements in actually living with our practice - Keeping 'practice time' attractive and rewarding"
D. Specialisation – Generalisation practice strategies: How can we keep practice attractive
It is essential that the balance between spending practice time on detailed, technical development, or specific technical/musical challenges in our performance repertoire be offset with time spent on making the necessary expressive performance connections for the overall picture.
It is easy to either spend too much time just playing through our repertoire, or to become too bogged down by inordinate time spent on specific technical details. “We can’t see the forest for the trees”, or “we can’t see the individual trees because our focus is on the forest”.
Either scenario keeps us from experiencing healthy, rewarding progress to rewarding musical outcomes. It is important therefore that we search for opportunities allowing for us to consolidate our progress through either informal or formal performance opportunities. (friends, family, informal occasions, etc.)
Some practical considerations towards transforming the act of practice from 'duty' to relative 'pleasure':
- As peak concentration generally occurs during the first ten to twenty minutes of practice, be sure to utilise your warm-up and technical A & B studies to support your solo and ensemble repertoire studies for today’s focus.
- Make time to listen to a variety of professionally recorded performances of your repertoire, following the score as you listen. This is particularly helpful before you begin to attempt to play the music yourself.
- When starting work on your etudes, and, or solo/ensemble repertoire, it is not necessary to begin every practice session from the beginning of the work under study. Instead, your study can begin on the more challenging sections before attempting a general read through: save that for later.
- It is best to begin by identifying and addressing the fundamental technical challenges first. The most sensitive musical interpretation will ultimately fail if we cannot play with precise articulations, accurate rhythm vocabulary, in time, in tune, and with a beautiful, expressive tone. For approaching difficult and fast passages, be sure to play slowly at first, gradually increasing tempo. The metronome will be your best practice partner: be sure to use the ‘sub-dividing’ strategy for complex syncopation and long, sustained passages. Remember: You must learn the work before you can begin to practice it. It is just possible that not enough work/study has been allocated to general technical development on the challenge under question...
- Try inventing “mini exercises/studies” derived from the repertoire passages under study to assist you in overcoming the technical or expressive problems you encounter and consider employing the “three times rule”: After learning a challenging passage, play it at least three times in a row without errors. But once again, remember that you must first learn the passage before you can begin to perfect it. The more times you can play through the passage without errors, the more likely you are to have locked it into your subconscious muscle memory. You may have to repeat this process over a period of days. No matter; keep at it, for persistence is the key to attaining lasting, successful outcomes. Just remember to approach difficult passages no faster than you can play them correctly. And finally, we often choose not to play a passage slow enough for a long enough time to achieve perfection: Be patient!
- Next, decide how you want the piece of music to sound and how you can make it uniquely your own interpretation. Try experimenting with alternate fingerings/alternate slide positions, various tone colours, nuance, inflection and breathing considerations and phrase structures. These can greatly assist you in accomplishing your expressive performance goals.
- Missing two or three practice days in a row, with the idea that you can “make up the time” with marathon sessions over the next few days is a fallacy. Effective practicing needs to employ a consistent, daily, systematic and sequential process to achieve confidence and mastery. And by the way, one of the best times of the week to practice is shortly after your lesson! On that day your teacher’s suggestions will be fresh in your mind.
In conclusion: Don’t be overly discouraged when you experience difficult practice days, days of progress drought, or even a disappointing practice week! After all, it is a normal occurrence and frustrations can often lead to thinking in new ways and using the challenges to grow our skills. Consistent investment in a well-planned practice regimen will, over time, reward you with steady progression.
It is also important to understand that the effective learning habits being formed, developed and reinforced through the process of systematic practice should be considered ‘transferable’ to many learning applications and will remain with you for the rest of your life.
It is my hope that these past three instalments investigating the nature and process of successful and rewarding individual practice will lead to fresh inspiration for both music teachers and students alike. Thank you for taking time to read my musings and suggestions on the The Art of Practice “Perfect Practice makes Perfect…maybe”
Warm regards, and best wishes for your musical journey