Tips & Tricks: When to practice

When to practiceWith the school year just about to start again, my mind has turned to practicing. I know fitting this in is always a struggle for busy people! When should you practice? As we’ve seen in other posts, it is best if you practice every day, but when in the day should you fit it in? The answer to this will vary from person to person…

The best thing to do is to find a time of day and stick to it. If you practice in the morning one day, in the evening another day, and just kind of whenever it fits in, it won’t be a routine, and you are more likely to skip… Something we know for sure that you don’t want to do! It becomes so easy once you skip your first day to then skip a second, maybe a third… and then the whole week has passed with no practice!

Personally, I like to practice in the morning. I have two big reasons for that:

  1. I am a morning person. I focus better in the morning and do my best work then.
  2. I am less likely to skip practicing. If my day gets busy and I run out of time, usually it means that my dishes aren’t done, but my practicing cannot be compromised.

I actually started practicing in the morning when I was in high school. In high school I was in four orchestras and three bands, took private lessons on oboe and violin and was a peer tutor. My after school and evening times were taken up with rehearsals and homework, so morning was the one time that I knew I could have uninterrupted time to practice.

So, my suggestion to you is not necessarily that you practice in the morning, but rather that you find a time of day when you can focus, when you are not too tired, when you can practice uninterrupted, and that can become routine. Once you build this time into your routine it will not feel as much like work as when you are having to try to fit it in among all of the other things you have to do in your busy day.

Happy practicing!

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Tips & Tricks: Why you shouldn’t try too hard!

Trying Too HardThis past week I was playing a gig and had two adults approach me at the end. One was a former student, and the other a man looking to sell his violin because he had decided he would never learn how to fiddle. The three of us got talking, and the two of them had one thing in common. This is something common to many adult learners… They had been trying too hard!

I think most adults who try to learn the fiddle run into this problem at some time where they are trying so hard that they seem to be getting worse instead of better… I had one student whose bow would bounce for the first 10 minutes of her lesson, and then more she tried to stop it from bouncing, the more it would bounce!

So, why is trying too hard a bad thing? It is good to put effort into learning, right? The problem is that adults understand so much more than they are capable of doing right away. Kids don’t worry about why they are doing something, they just try it. Often with my younger students I have trouble getting the whole explanation in before they are playing, whereas with some of my adult students they want all the theory before they play their first note! Adults are constantly analyzing what is going on, and usually trying to figure out what is going wrong instead of just trying it again, which sometimes is all that you need to do! The other problem is that adults are used to succeeding. You have a job that you do well, you have other skills, so why can’t you master this one right away?

The big issue with trying too hard is that it creates tension in your body, and the more tension there is, the more your bow is going to bounce, the more your violin is going to squeak, the more out of tune you will play… I think you can see where this is leading… Instead of getting better, you are going to sound worse!

Everything we do takes time to learn. You need to not put pressure on yourself to get to the end point (which in music really doesn’t exist as you can always improve) and enjoy the journey along the way. Here are a couple of pointers for how you can continue to improve without trying too hard:

  1. Adjust your goals. Maybe for this practice session instead of saying that you are going to learn a certain fiddle tune, just plan on working on it for 10 minutes.
  2. Accept the fact that you are not going to improve every day! This is kind of like trying to lose weight… You need to look at your playing over the long term to see the improvements. If you expect to get better every day, or even every week, you will get frustrated, tense, and will start trying really hard to improve!
  3. Make sure that you are breathing. It sounds silly, but a lot of us stop breathing when we are doing something hard. I still do this when I get to performing a piece I am not totally secure with… I make sure that I am breathing a slow, long breath out, and it helps to calm my nerves.
  4. Know that sometimes your violin is going to squeak. Just try it again. If the squeaking persists, then you definitely need to figure out what is going wrong, but try not to over-analyze right away. My violin squeaks every now and then in shows, but I just move on!
  5. Try not to practice when you are already tense. If you have had a long hard day, try to decompress a bit before picking up your violin!
  6. If you enjoy a glass of wine, have a glass of wine before you practice, or maybe while you practice. Be warned though, one glass will help to relax you and make you sound better, too much and you will only think you sound better!

So how about my student whose bow bounced for the first 10 minutes of lesson? We tried to fix it, and only made it worse. In the end, she and I agreed that we would ignore it. I wouldn’t mention it, she wouldn’t worry about it, and after 10 minutes, it would go away. The lessons we tried to fix it, her bow would bounce for the entire lesson. She was not doing anything wrong, she just wanted to play really well, so was trying really hard!

Have fun, enjoy the ride, and don’t try too hard!

Tips & Tricks: The one-minute bow

The one-minute bowWhen playing the fiddle, most of us tend to think about our left hand far more than our right hand. At first glance it would seem that the left has a lot more to do since it is in charge of playing all the different notes. My university violin teacher mentioned to me that the typical split is about 80% thinking about your left hand and only the 20% that is left over for you right hand. His point was that your right had creates the sound, and even if your left hand works perfectly, if your sound is awful, it will not be pleasing to listen to, or for you to play! You need to think at least 50/50, or maybe even more about your right hand!

So, here is a simple exercise that you can do to help your bowing in only minutes a day! You will need a clock with a second hand for this exercise.

Each day, play long bows, making sure that your bow is not bouncing and that your sound is even and not stopping and starting. Play a long bow on the first day, and take note of how long you were able to maintain a clear sound. Let’s say that you took 5 seconds to get from the frog to the tip of the bow. The next day, try to take a longer time to play your bow stroke, say 6 seconds, or maybe even longer. If you find that the sound is starting and stopping as you play, go back to each bow taking a shorter amount of time. Your aim is to work up to taking a full minute to play one bow stroke with even tone. Try not to tense up as you do this exercise as it will cause your bow to bounce!

It will take some time to work up to a whole minute, but the work will be worth it! You will notice a definite improvement in your bow technique!

Tips & Tricks: Why the metronome should be your best friend.

MetronomeIt is human nature to speed up and slow down while you are playing music. Often you will play faster when you feel confident and are playing parts you find easier, and will slow down when you get to harder parts. Sometimes, just to make your life that much harder, you will actually try to play faster when you get to hard parts… It is not always consistent. The goal in the end is to play everything at the same speed.

Enter the metronome…

For those of you who don’t know, a metronome is a little machine that clicks or ticks at a consistent speed. It will take you time to get used to working with a metronome and they can be very frustrating at first! Many, many a time I could have sworn that the metronome was speeding up or slowing down, but sadly, it was all me!

The first problem practicing with a metronome is to be able to start with it. It is a little bit like doing double-dutch when you’re skipping rope. I find the best way to start is to actually count “one-two-three-four” with my metronome before starting to play.

My metronome is my best friend for learning music that I find hard. Remember the bracketing that I mentioned in “Quality vs Quantity”? Well, once I find a part that is hard, I take out my trusty metronome and play it very slowly. I then slowly speed up my metronome until I reach a point where I start making mistakes. For example, I might start with my metronome set to 60. That means that it will click 60 times per minute. Let’s say that I get up to 90 before I start making mistakes. I then slow my metronome down again and go through the process of speeding up gradually, but this time start at 70. These numbers are just meant to be an example. You will need to find how slowly you have to go to be able to play the part correctly. By doing this over and over (whether on the same day, or on sequential days), you will be able to play the passage faster in the end.

Happy practicing!

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!

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!

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!”