Tips & Tricks: Quality vs Quantity

Quality vs Quantity“Practice smarter, not longer.” This is statement that I have run into throughout my years of taking lessons and learning. Often we think that the longer we work, the better we will get. There is some truth to that, but it all has to be quality practice time.

Often I see my students making the same mistake. That mistake is simply working on a piece of music from beginning to end, and starting over when they make a mistake. This brings us to the “how to practice” conversation. By always playing a piece the whole way though, you are getting better at the parts that you can already play, and reinforcing the mistakes you are making in the problem spots. This goes back to the muscle memory… every time you repeat something and play it incorrectly, your muscles are remembering what you have done.

So how can you make better use of your time? Don’t work on the parts that you can already play as much, and focus on the problem spots. If I am working on a concerto, I will put square brackets around the problem spot, put a dash at the end of the line where that spot is, and put an x at the top of the page. This all helps me to find the spot quickly so I can work on it. If you are working on a fiddle tune or another short piece, you can just put the brackets around the area. Actually marking it is very helpful as it reminds you as soon as you get out your music that you need to pay special attention to that area.

The next step is to work on those bracketed parts first. Just like we discussed in the post “Does Practice Make Perfect?” it is best to work on the hard parts early in your session when you are more alert and can focus better. Work on the hard parts until you can play them easily. It will help if you slow the hard section down and then gradually speed it up to the same speed as everything else. Once you have mastered the tricky spot, try playing the whole line of music. Once you can play the whole line seamlessly, then try the whole section of the piece, and then finally go back to playing the whole piece.

So don’t forget, it’s not about the amount of time that you spend working on a piece, but the quality and use of that time. Happy practicing!


It’s a Small World!

It's a Small WorldOne of the great things in life is that you never know who you are going to meet! On June 9th, my band Different Folk performed at an anniversary party in Lake George, NB. I had received an e-mail earlier this year from a woman who lives in San Antonio, Texas, who was looking for an Irish band to play for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I had met the woman from San Antonio several years ago when her daughter attended a fiddle camp that I was running at the time.

The anniversary party was great. We played for two hours and were asked to stay for one more so we could play while the guests were eating. Once we finished playing we talked to some of the guests as we were packing up all of our gear. One woman I was talking to mentioned that she and her husband had gotten their passports to come up to Canada and were planning on doing some more travelling now that they had their passports. Here is how our conversation went:

Woman’: “We had to get our passports to come up to this celebration. We live in Southern Maine.”

Me: “Where in Southern Maine do you live? I have family there.”

At this point the woman made that sound that people who live in small communities make when they are trying to decide what to tell you about where they come from. They figure there is no chance you will have heard of their small town, so what bigger town should they use as a reference.

Me: “I have family in Springvale, Maine.”

Springvale is also a small community in Southern Maine. I usually tell people that my family lives about an hour South-West of Portland.

Woman: “We live about 10 minutes from there. What is your family name?”

Me: “My maiden name is Riding.”

Woman: “Bob Riding?”

Me: “He’s my uncle.”

Woman: “Susie and Alex?”

Me: “My aunt and cousin.”

Woman: “My husband taught with your uncle for years!”

At this point, the woman calls over her husband and we talk about my family and our camp as well. The woman took a picture of me with her husband so they could show my uncle who they had met during their trip to Canada.

It’s a small world!

Tips & Tricks: Does Practice Make Perfect?

BullseyeDo you want to know a secret? I don’t always want to practice the things that I should be working on… Yes, I am a professional, and yes, I love playing music, but there are some pieces that I dread and would rather put off until tomorrow.

I know that my students have this same issue. I don’t know how many times a student will tell me “Oh, I did not really work on that this week because it was hard.” Well, what is the trick? I always practice the things that I don’t want to work on first. There are two really good reasons for doing this:

  1. You are more alert and can focus better at the beginning of a practice session. This means that you should work on anything that will involve more thought and concentration right at the beginning. You will accomplish more at this time. By the end of the practice session if you try to work on hard material, you may just be going through the motions without accomplishing anything, or even worse, you may be introducing and practicing mistakes.
  2. Human nature is such that we all procrastinate… You tend to work on material that you can already play because it is fun, and leave the hard stuff for the end. Then, towards the end of the practice session, as you are running out of time, you think “Oh, I’ll work on that hard piece tomorrow.” Well, tomorrow comes, and you do the same thing over again. All of a sudden it is the day before your lesson, or even worse, the day before your show, and you still can’t play the hard material. I know! I am guilty of having done this myself.

So, think of that the time next time you have something hard to work on… Leave the fun material for the end, and get your work done first!

Life is a picnic!

Life is a picnic!

Travelling with me is always an adventure! On May 26th, Kim, my mom and I headed out to Sussex, NB, so that Different Folk could do a gig. The gig went really well, and we headed back home. The drive takes about three hours, and two hours into it we heard a strange noise. It turned out that one of my rear tires had blown. This was on the side of the Hanwell Road on the way out of Fredericton. We were able to get back to a gas station that we had just passed so that we would have a little bit of light.

I called CAA to have them come change my tire. I was told that it would take about an hour for them to come. We had to unload all of our sound gear from the trunk since that is where the spare tire is kept. We went ahead and did that right away.

The owner of the venue where we had just played our gig had really liked our playing, so she had sent us home with an ultimate chocolate cake and a rhubarb custard pie. We decided that waiting for the CAA guy was a perfect time for us to have a little picnic. Nothing like a dessert picnic at 1am on the side of the road! It was a pleasant way to spend the 20 minutes that it took for the CAA guy to arrive, although as we were sitting in the parking lot eating, the lights at the gas station went off. They were on a timer, and I guess it was time!

I am sure that all bands have these kinds of stories, and I wish that mine ended here. On Sunday I drove to town to teach and then borrowed my Mom’s car to go home. All was well. Monday arrived, and I headed back to Fredericton to take my car (a Subaru Outback) to the dealer to get some new rear tires. My whole plan was to take it there so that if there were any other issues (we thought that there might be as my tires had worn out far too fast) that they would have the parts instead of having to order them in as my regular mechanic would need to do.

This is when the fun began… I was assured that my front tires had worn down too far and that I needed four tires, which they would have to order, but which should arrive by 2pm, so they should have my car ready by the end of the day. I wouldn’t be telling this story if that is the way it played out! I also asked them about my tires wearing down so quickly and it was decided to do a four-wheel alignment while they had the car.

At 5:20pm I got a call from the mechanic. “I have information about your car” was the message that he left on my phone. I called back to discover that my tires had arrived late and they were just starting on my car. He assured me that nothing else was wrong. My mom told me to borrow her car again to head home (which is an hour outside of Fredericton) so I told them mechanic I would get my car the next morning.

At 9:30am on Tuesday the mechanic called me again to tell me that he had “information about your car.” This time the information was that they had taken the tires off and were doing the alignment, and apparently my bushings had rusted into my car, so they were going to have to replace them. I gave them the ok to go ahead. My car would be ready later in the day.

Fast forward to 5:30pm. I got another call from the mechanic with “information about your car.” Actually, I did not get the message until 7:30pm as I taught all afternoon and was not able to answer my phone at 5:30pm. “Oh well,” I figured, I would borrow Mom’s car one more day and pick mine up in the morning. I got 10 minutes down the road towards my house when the engine light on my mom’s car came on. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” was the thought running through my head! So, I turned around the go back to Mom’s house to stay the night in town. I live in the middle of nowhere and did not want to get all the way there and then have to call CAA to get me back to town in the morning.

Wednesday, 8am. I knew that the mechanic opened at 8am so I called to get the status on my car. Apparently the work that they estimated would take 1.5 hours had taken 4 hours and they were not done yet “but don’t worry… We’ll only charge you for the 1.5 hours that you agreed to when we told you about the job.” It was going to take another 1.5 hours to finish up.

I went to do my first bit of teaching for the day and returned to my mom’s house at 10:30am. No call from the mechanic yet, so I called him. “I know that you said you would call me as soon as my car was ready, but I couldn’t wait.” “Well, it turns out that we don’t have a tool that we need to finish the job on your car, so it could be the end of the day by the time we get it done.” Good thing I took my car to the dealership right? My mechanic might have had to order parts… These guys had to order a tool!

I had plans for the day, going to visit a friend and some teaching. Mom assured me that I could borrow her car (which we had not yet had checked out), but I figured that the way things were going I would end up stranded in a busy intersection with a dead car, so I took cabs. The first cab I took ended up getting lost on the way to my friend’s house so I had to give the cabbie directions… an auspicious start to my travels that day. I have to say though, the rest of the day went pretty smoothly. My cabs all arrived on time and got me to my destinations in one piece and on time. Always a bonus!

Wednesday, 1pm. The mechanic called me to say that my car was finally ready. I managed to go pick it up on the way to my rehearsal at Leo Hayes High School…

Who knew that getting two tires replaced was going to take 2.5 days and a sleepover in town? Life is always an adventure, and you never know what will happen!

Tips & Tricks: Why you should “Play it again, Sam!”

Play it again Sam!A common issue that I run into with my students is that once they play something correctly, they want to move on. “I just got it right, why do I have to play it again?” This is very tempting to all of us! Once you have successfully played the piece, we tend to want to move on rather than building on our current success!

In my last post I wrote about muscle memory … every time you repeat something and play it incorrectly, your muscles are remembering what you have done. By moving on as soon as you play a piece correctly, your muscles have only actually done it right once. This means that the next time you play the piece your muscles are more likely to remember how to play it wrong than how to play it right!

There is a learning method that many people use that involves having 10 pennies lined up on one side of a table. Each time you play the passage correctly, you slide one of the pennies over to the other side of the table. When you make a mistake, you move all of the pennies back and start over again with the aim of playing it right 10 times in a row. This is an excellent exercise, although it can be time consuming and take a lot of patience!

My high school violin teacher (who also directed a local amateur orchestra) always believed in playing a passage three more times once you got it right. While not as thorough as the other exercise I described, also very effective!

Have fun practicing, and don’t forget to “Play it again, Sam!”