The Art of Effective Practicing

Photo by How I See Life

When I was a university music student, my daily practice requirements were three hours per day, five or six days a week. My personal goal was fifteen hours a week, or 2-4 hours on weekdays—more than I ever worked in a part-time job up to that point in my life. And in preparation for a recital, I upped it to four hours per day to meet my performance deadline.

For me, as one who had never practiced more than an hour a day before college, this seemed like a daunting task. Up until then, I was fortunate enough that whatever basic talent I had was enough to get me by with minimal practice.

 

But the problem is, no matter how talented you may be, talent only goes so far. Practice—and effective practice—is what will take you from good to better to even (if you work really hard) the best.

 

So what’s your approach? When you sit down (or stand) to practice, what’s your plan? When your mom tells you to practice, do you simply go in a room and make noise for the appointed amount of time and resurface to say you’ve finished without accomplishing much? When you practice, do you set goals?

When I had that 3-hour minimum expectation, it was SO tempting to go to the practice room, set a timer, and simply “make noise” until I could check practicing of my to-do list and get on with my other homework. Yay. (Not!) But as I showed up to lessons making the same old fumbles and mistakes, it became clear to me that how much I practiced wasn’t as important as how I practiced.

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Here are a few tips  to make the most of your time in the practice room. I mean, if you’re going to dedicate so much time to your musicianship, you might as well make the most of it, right?

  • Have a plan. And not just a plan for the day, but a plan for each hour, day, week, and even the months leading upto a performance or recital. How often do you sit down—either as a performer or a parent motivating your child to practice—and come up with a plan to not just practice, but practice well?
  • Break it down. What works well for me is to break my practice time into thirds. Try this recipe out for a delicious result:

•  1/3 C warmup and technique (scales, etudes, exercises)
•  1/3 C orchestral works (audition exerpts, current concert repertoire)
•  1/3 C solo repertoire (for recitals, juries, lessons, etc.)

Photo by tvol
  • Don’t practice what’s easy, practice what’s hard. Step out of your comfort zone! Don’t just play your favorite piece or what you’re good at over and over to fill the time. Especially when preparing for a recital, you have to make sure you’re not spending too much time on your favorite pieces, but that each piece is prepared to the same golden (or platinum!) standard.
  • Don’t always start pieces from the beginning. I’ve seen this over and over with my students: the first line on the page sounds great, and sometimes the last four bars, but everything in between? What a mess! I can tell when students only start practice a piece from the beginning when they pull it out to work on. They perfect that impressive introduction, but never take the time to work through all the tricky material that follows—especially if they only spend a few minutes on the piece before moving on. Don’t be afraid to even photocopy a piece of music and CUT IT UP into chunks to practice individual phrases with equal attention.
  • Zone in on tricky groups (or even pairs) of notes, not just on tricky phrases. Do you always fudge that big shift up two octaves? Well, don’t just practice what’s around it, take five minutes and practice JUST THAT SHIFT. You’ll be surprised what five minutes of repeating just two notes will do. It’s much more effective than playing twenty notes for twenty minutes, I promise you that.
  • Don’t skip scales and technique. Until you can play every single note of the scale with each note perfectly in pitch not wavering a cent with perfect bow technique and absolutely perfect articulation (you see where I’m going?), you haven’t practiced your scales enough. There’s no such thing as perfect technique, so take the time to hone in on it before moving on to the “fun” stuff. If you have weak technique, it will show in everything else you play.
  • Use your time wisely. I remember practicing six hours straight one day just to say that I got my hours in that week, but it wasn’t necessarily productive. If you go back to step one and practice with a plan, be sure to stick to that plan. It’s depressing to leave the practice room at the end of the day feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything. The remedy? Accomplish something by practicing smart.

Practice makes perfect. Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Check it out. Basically, in order to find success, you’ve got to put in your time. And making the most of that time will take you even farther. Developing the talent to efficiently practice requires just as much skill and effort as it takes to become a great performer. No brainer, right? If you’re good at practicing, you’ll be good at performing.

At Kennedy Violins, we not only want to provide you with the quality instrument of your musical dreams, we want to see you succeed.

So what works for you? We want to know! And in the mean time, happy practicing!

Spotify At Last!

I love Spotify. I have since I heard about it a couple years ago when it became available in the UK, where a friend hipped me to it and gave me a bit of a taste. It’s a new (in the US) music streaming service that’s easier to use than anything I’ve seen.

There are three membership levels, which will fit anyone’s budget: There is a free version, a cheap version and a premium version.

The free version gives you access to millions of tracks, streaming is limited and you have to put up with ads (kind of like the free version of Pandora).

The cheap version is $4.99 a month and gives you access to the  same millions of tracks, streaming is unlimited, and there are no ads.

The premium version is $9.99 a month. How cool is that? Unlimited streaming, no ads, social sharing, playlists you can share or enjoy offline, and a mobile version so you can take your tunes with you.

One of the things I kinda dig is that you can make your playlists public so your friends can see the stuff you like. I love seeing what my friends are listening to, as well. It makes sharing easy (and legal).

In fact, one of the main reasons it took so long to open up in the U.S. is because the major record labels were being very careful to cover their interests. Now, on the face of it, I’m sure the majors are thinking it looks like they’re taking care of their artists, which I wholeheartedly support. But the reality is that they’re mostly making sure they make money from this revenue channel. I’m not sure the artists were even considered, but I hope they were.Now, I’m not a huge devotee of streaming services. I’m pretty much an iTunes/Amazon/Pandora – type consumer. You’d think I was all up on all the services since I’ve spent a couple decades in the music industry, but frankly, since I left my last gig, I’ve just been trying to catch up on all the promo cds I’ve piled up over the years.

At any rate, Spotify is here in the US at last and I find it utterly amazing. Working at my computer, I can call up just about any tune or artist or composer and there will be plenty of choices for me to listen to, study, whatever.

It’s a great tool to use for research into the repertoire I’ll be playing this season in a few orchestras, as well. I use it for comparing performances of different groups or artists. You can create playlists of all your upcoming concerts, and study your parts as you listen to the playlists.

For example, one orchestra I play with will be performing the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5, so, as I’m not familiar with that piece, I went to Spotify and found  several versions, including a Jascha Heifetz version. I dragged it to a new playlist along with a Sarah Chang version and now I’ve got a nice playlist for studying my part.

Another piece I was working on over the summer was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. I was playing the first horn part and wanted to get the experience of playing that treacherous, thankless part with an orchestra. I used Spotify, created a playlist and voilá! My own personal accompaniment.

Now I have playlists of all the pieces I’ll be playing this fall. Spotify has become another tool in learning parts, learning repertoire and making my practice time much more productive.

Using the tools at your disposal is a critical part of learning your art. Tools like Spotify, YouTube, are great, but don’t forget the other tools you need: metronomes, tuners, new strings, a rehaired bow, proper bridge or soundpost adjustment, etc. Kennedy Violins can help you upgrade those tools and get your instrument in shape for the upcoming season/school year.

Meantime, have a blast checking out Spotify!

Shopping list — Rulers, pencils, and… violin strings!

Back to School. As a mom, it means I “get” to take my kids shopping for new clothes and school supplies. But, for music students, it also means getting ready for a new season/year of rehearsals and performances. Now is the best time to make sure your instrument is ready for hours of play. You can always take your instrument to your local music store to have it completely inspected and set up for the year, but that usually comes with a premium price tag. However, there are so many things that every string player should take the time to learn about their instrument.

For younger students, it is always good to make sure that they are starting the year with the correct size instrument. The tried and true method of sizing a student to a violin is putting the violin into position under the chin with a fully extended (straightened) left arm under the instrument. If your child can wrap their fingers all around the scroll practically reaching into the peg box, he/she is ready for a larger violin.

If the violin is the right size, it is probably time for a new set of strings. Strings can stay intact for years, but they can lose their playability and projection, especially if they are synthetic core strings (Dominant, Zyex, etc.). When changing a set of violin strings, always start with the E string, then proceed to change the G, D, and A strings. A few months ago, Joel wrote a blog on slipping violin pegs. He demonstrated how to change strings properly onto the peg. It is important to wind the strings onto the peg correctly to avoid slipping pegs. And, while you are changing your strings, it is always a good idea to take the time to clean the rosin build up with some violin polish. Never use any other type of cleaner or polish on a stringed instrument. The oil rubbed finish of most instruments have unique properties that can be critically compromised with household cleaners or polish.

When changing strings or polishing an instrument, always be careful with the bridge. Avoid bumping the bridge when cleaning, and watch the angle of the bridge during and after changing strings. New strings will need a day or two to stretch out. During that time, the angle of the bridge can be pulled by the strings. For the most part, the bridge should be angled perpendicular to the body of the violin. If a bridge is left tilted at the wrong angle for too long, it can eventually warp and even break.

One thing that is worth taking your instrument to the luthier for is to get a bow rehaired. Like violin strings, bow hair can visually appear to be in pretty good condition. Eventually, though, rosin can build up and the surface of the bow hair can become dull and almost slick. When bows get to this point of wear, it is difficult to pull sound from the strings, no matter how much rosin you use.

While you have everything out of the case, it is a good idea to grab a vacuum with a hose attachment and clean every nook and cranny. Open each compartment and get every trace of rosin out of the case. Eliminating the build up of dust and rosin inside the case will help keep your violin and bow in great playing condition for a long time to come.


For a newly sized violin or new strings, check out our selection at Kennedy Violins. If you aren’t sure which is the right one for you, please feel free to contact any of us. We have recently added a few new musicians to our sales, customer service, and luthier staff, so we are all ready to help you gear up for the new school year.

Fiddle Contests

Fiddle contests provide a fun environment for players of all ages to perform and compete. If you are a classical musician, fiddle music can be a great compliment  to your musical repertoire. More relaxed and free, the style and atmosphere of fiddling is totally different from the classical world, and acts as a contrast to keep your musical endeavors interesting and exciting. Fiddlers of all ages and ability levels enjoy competing in fiddle contests, and there are always opportunities for jamming with the other musicians between playing on stage. Prizes for winning a fiddle contest usually include trophies, ribbons, and money.

Marisa competing in the adult division of the Willamette Valley Fiddle Contest

You can find local fiddle contests by talking to fiddlers and teachers in your area. There are usually several local contests per year, as well as larger, national contests. People travel from all over the country to participate in the large contests. Often these contests span several days or longer, providing a chance for some camping. Once you’ve found a fiddle contest in which you’d like to play, begin by finding out how many rounds there will be in your age group. In most smaller contests there are two rounds. You will need three tunes for each round: a hoedown, waltz, and tune of choice. The tune of choice can be any tune that is not a hoedown or waltz; fiddlers often choose a rag, polka, or something similar. Once you have learned and memorized your fiddle tunes, you can prepare for the contest by playing for friends and family.

A girl competing in the junior-junior division

 

When you are comfortable with performing your fiddle tunes, sign up for the contest! During your time on stage, remember to relax and have fun. It’s helpful to keep in mind that while the competition is exciting, the main purpose of the contest is to have fun and put on a show for the audience. It also helps immensely to have a quality instrument. Kennedy Violins offers a complete line of instruments, providing a high quality violin for any budget. Visit www.kennedyviolins.com and view our extensive product line today. Feel free to contact our friendly staff if you have any questions!

Children receiving prizes for their fiddling

 

 

 

“Back to School” Photo Contest on Facebook!!!

 

It’s that time of year again! Drag the kids (or yourselves) out of bed and savor the flavor of P,B and J! To us, “Back to School” means new beginnings and fond memories and that is exactly what we are looking for in this photo contest. To enter, simply post a picture on the our wall by Labor Day, September 5, 2011. The winner will receive an accessories bundle that any string player can use! It will include a Folding Music Stand, Music Doctor Chromatic Tuner, and Kaplan Premium Rosin! That all retails for over $100!!!

Here are the rules!

1. We want to see pictures of you or your kids as they were first starting out on their instruments (violin, viola, cello, or bass).
2. The pictures can be while they were practicing, in class or a lesson, performing, etc.
3. The pictures don’t have to be “serious”. What were are we want to see are photos that embody the “Back to School” spirit and the adventure of learning something new.
4. Sadly, we have to say this: anything lewd or offensive in anyway, will automatically be disqualified. Keep those pictures of the nudist KKK rally you played at to yourself!
5. Lastly, all facebook rules for posting photos apply. You have to “Like” us to be able to post, but you like us anyway! 🙂

If you have any questions, feel free to message us or you can call us at 1.800.779.0242.

Good Luck!!!

Curing Unsteady Tempo Syndrome

From an article by Clayton Haslop

A few days ago a gentleman wrote in to say he has a
problem keeping the tempo steady when not actively
counting. Of course he’d like to know what to do about
it. And we’ll get to that.

Yet first let me tell you something, he’s not alone.

Matter of fact, establishing and holding a beat is why
there’s a drummer behind every ‘band’, and a conductor in
front of every orchestra – the Orpheus Ensemble
notwithstanding. A good drummer, like a good conductor
compels us to FEEL the beat.

With a good conductor even the slightest glance up tells
you exactly when, and how, to play.

Now, I’m convinced that ‘time facility,’ the ability to
appreciate and manipulate time creatively, is akin to
pitch facility.

In so far as one is able to match pitches one can refine
the ear to hear all manner of subtlety and nuance within
music.

Our time sense is even more organic. We beat time
whenever taking more than a step in one direction.

The difficulty comes when distractions enter the picture.

In music this takes the form of notes played ‘off the
beat’, string-crossings, sudden changes of dynamic and,
let’s not forget, nerves.

A few days ago I was on a recording session for a film.
The music was not technically difficult, and yet, as it
was ultra exposed, there were a few players playing
ever-so-slightly ahead of the beat on every take.

These are highly trained musicians I’m talking about,
though you’d be forgiven for suspecting otherwise.

Ask these folks to subdivide each beat in their head
while playing and the problem would evaporate in a
heartbeat.

What happens is, in stressful situations we tend to fall
back on our most practiced behaviors. If we don’t
practice subdividing at home we will not tend to do it
when put under stress.

And this is easy to see, by the way. When those unused
to subdividing are invited to do it you will invariably
see heads and violin scrolls moving up and down.

A skilled sub-divider will show no such outward movement.
The real goods will be inside, just certain parts of the
brain lit up like a Christmas tree.

Perhaps those of you with my courses will now object, ‘so
why do you want us to physically VERBALIZE the beat, if
it’s all inside your head?’

Here’s the thing. Calling the speech center into the
picture is consciously creating a distraction, a BIG
distraction.

And it’s good to train against distractions as you hone
your skills!

Master this one and you’ll be able to hold a steady beat
in a category V hurricane; never mind when it’s simply
the annoyance of a time-challenged conductor flailing his
or her arms chaotically in your general direction.

All the Best,

Clayton Haslop

Clayton Haslop made his professional solo debut at age 20
under Sir Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra touring six major cities of the western United
States. These critically acclaimed performances not only
lead to numerous engagements with orchestras, they also
resulted in his being appointed founding violinist of the
Los Angeles Piano Quartet at Marriner’s recommendation.

Haslop is active in the motion picture industry as solo
violinist and concertmaster on such films as Avatar, Up,
The Matrix films, Titanic, Ratatouille,
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Star
Trek, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and
The Perfect Storm.

As a student Clayton Haslop was coached
extensively by the legendary Nathan Milstein.