Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

Practice what is hard, not what is easy

Everybody knows that if you want to be better at anything, you need to practice. Most people would also agree that while practicing is good, practicing more is better.  It’s also quite obvious that more accomplished musicians practice more than the people who are not accomplished musicians.  However, what many people are not aware of, is that talent plays a very small role in the overall success of any person wanting to master an instrument. Many studies have been conducted and what they show overwhelmingly, is that the amount of hours of practice and HOW you practice, will determine your success.

As a viola teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of instructing many students over the years. When I first started, I assumed (as most people do) that the level of talent that a student had, would probably determine how well they would comprehend my instruction and also determine the level of their charismatic performance abilities.  After a few years of teaching and seeing many students travel through my pedagogical system, it became very obvious to me that the sheer amount of hours that were put into practicing made the biggest impact on success.  If a student put in many hours of practice, pretty much every aspect of the learning process was easier.  In fact, I found that often the more academically capable students were usually the laziest when it came to practicing.  I believe the reason for this, is that they were used to not having to try very hard in the classroom and naturally expected learning an instrument would be just as easy for them.  When they found out that mastering an instrument like the violin was incredibly difficult and cognitively demanding, they lacked the determination and drive needed to overcome tough obstacles during a typical practice session.

You've got to MAKE time

The second thing that I learned a little farther down the road in my teaching career was that the virtuosic level a student achieved, had a lot to do with the material that I had them practice.  More and more I found that if I gave the student very targeted exercises utilizing scales, arpeggios and etudes, they became much more technically proficient at their instrument.  In turn, this greatly assisted them in being able to learn just about any piece and it made the entire learning process easier and more fun.  As I became more experienced, I developed my own step by step systems to enable any student to master advanced techniques through a very controlled process. I directed them to work on specific techniques repeatedly until they could accomplish the exercise with ease. After I developed my own focused exercises for a particular technique, it became increasingly obvious that how much a student practiced was not nearly as important as HOW they practiced. The practice sessions and materials needed to be focused, specific and repeated until perfection was almost an imminent outcome.

Little did I know at the time, but I had stumbled upon a phenomenon known as deliberate practice.  I recently read a book entitled Talent is Overrated (By Geoff Colvin), in which the author goes into great detail about the benefits of practicing a lot and practicing properly.  He sites study after study in which it is proven beyond a doubt that mastering an instrument or anything else in life, is achieved by practicing a lot and practicing deliberately.  He also shows that any natural proclivity that a student may have towards a given task, has little effect on the overall success of the student.  

To be more specific about what deliberate practice is, I will give a few real world examples.  If you set out to learn a concerto, you could play a page at a time and play the page over and over again.  You’d repeat the page until you reached the point at which you felt it’s finally acceptable to perform or that you’ve reached the point at which you can’t improve it anymore.  This practice technique will yield results and you will improve your ability to play that particular page.  However, this is a very inefficient way to practice and while it may eventually make you a better player, it will never enable you to master your instrument.  To truly master the piece as well as your instrument, you’ll want to take a particular measure and practice it until you’ve mastered the particular technique that it is requesting of you.  For example, if you have several measures that have trills, make sure you know exactly what note the trill starts on AND ends with and practice the trill over and over again until it is controlled and consistent.  After you’ve practiced it over and over again, and can play it consistently without fault, play the same measure but in context with the rest of the page.  Play several measures before and after it, to make sure your mind can properly transition from one technique to the other without musical interruption.  Lets say you have a few measures where you have to play a descending scale with off the string spicatto stroke.  Instead of playing the line over and over again that includes the spicatto section, practice your spicatto on a note or two on a string of your choice and practice it until it is clear, controlled and relaxed. Next, practice just the passage with the spicatto technique and play it until it is just as clear, controlled and relaxed as the single note spicatto that you just practiced.  Once you’ve mastered this, add the measures before and after the spicatto passage and you will have mastered the entire section and will not have to be filled with fear when it comes up in your solo performance.

Regarding spicatto specifically, I have about 9 exercises that I give students when it is time for them to learn spicatto.  The exercises are always done with a metronome.  They start off with a very simple exercise.  First they play a 2 octave scale and bounce every note 4 times.  Their goal is to reach a certain speed of stroke, clarity and relaxation during play.  Once they’ve mastered this, they go on to a 3 octave scale.  The next exercise will be a little harder.  They will slur two notes and play the next two up bow and go up and down the 3 octave scale. There are many exercises after this.  Each exercise practices a very specific bowing technique that they will assuredly come across in their solo and orchestral repertoire and when they see it, they will be ready for it.

Determination and Focus will WIN the day!

The point of all of this is, you want to practice A LOT. You can’t get anywhere without it.  Studies have shown that the average best players at most conservatories practice 25-28 hours per week and there are NO exceptions. If you want to master your instrument, this is what you’ll have to do.  However, making sure that your practice focuses on very specific techniques, will ensure that you are practicing deliberately.  Remember, an ameteur practices a passage until they get it right.  A professional practices a passage until they can’t get it wrong…

Happy practicing!



Ensembles Large and Small: Try Them All!

I am a huge fan of ensembles.  The elementary school that I went to offered a strings class to 5th and 6th graders.  I was excited to play the violin and then the cello.  My favorite part of the entire class, though, was getting to work towards a common goal with my classmates.  I love being around people.  I’m an extrovert.

As I progressed in my musical studies, a lot of the repertoire that I was learning included Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites.  This was not as much fun for me.  Yes, I know that I learned valuable techniques and skills, however, it was lonely.  No one to play off of or interact with because I was by myself.  Hours in a practice room, by myself.  Sitting on a stage during recitals…BY MYSELF!   Still, I made it through the suites with my sanity in tact (my college roommates might debate this).  The one thing I think that aided my study of Bach, was my involvement in musical ensembles large and small.

Like myself, being involved in a musical ensemble is “built-in” for many beginners.  Many still start in a classroom setting through a school music program or teacher’s studio.  It’s a great way to start.  Not only does it fill any need for human connection and camaraderie, but it builds listening skills and intonation, as well as rhythm and playing together.  For some, they are able to continue in a group setting in a middle or high school orchestra.  Yet, how can a student be involved in an ensemble if there are no school programs?

Here are some options:

Duets and Trios (2 and 3 players)-There is a lot of music out there written for two or three, so practically any skill level, beginner to advanced, can participate.  Playing a duet is a simple as asking a friend or family member to play together.  Your young musician can even ask their teachers if they can play with another student in their studio.  Often times, teachers are pleased to play with students too. *Free Participation*

Quartet (4 players)-The traditional string quartet consists of 2 violins, 1 viola, and 1 cello.  Like Duets and Trios, there is a lot of music available but, this exact combination of musicians can be trickier to find.  It can take some time to get everyone together.  You may have to start playing as a duet or trio and add people as you meet them. *Free Participation*

Church/Synagogue Groups-These groups usually perform once a week and are usually open to any musician.  Playing in this setting can yield combinations of instruments that you won’t find anywhere else and the live performances keep your “chops up.”  If you aren’t “religious,” don’t worry, many groups don’t require that, they just want you to play.  *Free Participation*

Community Orchestra-Community Orchestras are much larger that any of the other groups I’ve mentioned.  They are often a full orchestra of strings, wind, brass, and percussion.  They are great because they can provide the chance for a young musician to play with other musicians that are much more experienced.  Plus, they have a will get play more challenging music in the modern orchestra repertoire.  While most members will be adults, many community groups are open to proficient students although an audition may be required.  Also, a lot of community groups hold “Young Artists” competitions for talented young musicians to perform a solo with a full orchestra. *Free Participation*

Youth Orchestras-Dot Rust posted a blog about this in February.  It’s worth the read.  She describes how they began in the U.S. and how your student can be involved.  The only thing that is different from the previous groups is that there is tuition involved.  Many groups offer tuition breaks or scholarships for any needy student. *Cost to Participate*

Jazz Band/Combo-We all know Bass players are in jazz bands, but violins, violas, and cellos?  Say it with me: Yes we can!  See Stephane Grapelli, Lucio Amanti, and Judith Insell for some great examples.  Your student may want to learn jazz scales and basic improvisation techniques before jumping in, but it’s so worth it.  Even if they don’t become the Dizzy Gillespie on the viola, playing jazz opens up a whole new world of tonality that will be helpful if they ever dive into some Bernstein or Ives. *Maybe Cost*

Bluegrass Band-Your young musician may want to trade their violin in for a fiddle. Side Note: violin=fiddle.  Bluegrass bands are welcoming to all ages and levels and there are competitions in every region that can offer cash prizes to winners.  Bluegrass bands often play by ear and by rote instead of reading of sheet music, so this is a great chance for your student to practice memorization. *Buy lots of Rosin*

Marching Band-Alright, I’ll admit.  I don’t know of any marching string orchestras.  I’m just putting up here hoping someone out there might actually do it.  The technology exists now to make it happen (carbon fiber instruments + wireless pick-ups hooked up to a stadium sound system!)…but it would be expensive.  Okay, for this one, your student would have the be the relative of an eccentric millionaire that is about to die. *Cost: Priceless*

Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to having your young musician participate in an ensemble.  There are numerous possibilities and numerous benefits.  Plus, many options are free of charge.  Helpful hint: if you need to provide sheet music for the group your student is playing in, check out the International Music Library Score Project.  They provide copies of free sheet music for ensembles of many sizes.

Review Contest WINNER Announced!!!

Hi There,

Wow, what a response we had to our most recent contest!  We had the most participants in a contest to date, but there can be only one…winner that is.  All the reviews posted between 9/15/11 and 10/15/11 were eligible and the people that posted them were entered in the drawing for a $300 gift certificate.  This morning a winner was randomly selected…and that winner is…Joy Schmoll!  Congratulations Joy!  You can read her review here.

If you didn’t win, don’t fret.  We will be sending all participants a Thank-You gift.  If you didn’t have a chance to enter, we are starting another contest in a few weeks.  Our blog will have all the latest information, so check back for updates!

Until Next Time!

How to Find Gigs: Musical Networking


As with any other career, a musician’s key to successfully finding gigs often lies in simple networking. (Image by Sean MacEntee)

It takes a long time to establish your reputation as a musician and performer in a new town. After living in Utah for six years, I felt so well connected to a great number of musical organizations, schools, teachers, orchestras, recording studios, and the like. I enjoyed playing regular gigs, teaching a steady number of bass students, and growing strong relationships with musicians and performing groups throughout the state . . .

. . . and then I moved.

My husband’s work brought us to Oregon, which meant starting from scratch as a stranger hoping to freelance a new music community. So the first thing I did in the months leading up to and following my move to the Portland area was contact absolutely every musical organization I could find. I made phone calls, sent e-mails with my performance resume attached, and inquired about upcoming auditions. During the summer before the move, I took extra lessons, practiced 20 hours a week, and performed a recital in preparation for auditions I hoped to take once arriving in Oregon.

The day after we pulled our moving truck into town I abandoned our unpacking efforts to attend a masterclass sponsored by the Portland Youth Philharmonic featuring Erik Harris, principal bassist of the St. Louis Symphony. Sure, I was a college grad, so what was I doing hanging out with the youth symphony members? I was also looking for connections.  As with most professions, the fastest way to find work is through effective networking and personal referrals. So my goal? Get connected!

Let me tell you, it doesn’t take much but confidence. You know you’re a good player, so put yourself out there! And if you don’t feel like a good enough player to get those gigs, try The Art of Effective Practicing. It takes a lot of work to be a marketable performer, but you can do it!


Here are a few ways to get connected with your local music community:

  • Keep your chops up by performing regularly. Put on a house concert. Keep practicing. Find an open-mic night at a local venue to sing, fiddle, or do whatever you do. Play at your church or synagogue. Busk at the local farmers markets. There are endless opportunities to perform, and you can create those opportunities yourself.  Don’t wait for someone else to do what you can do on your own. You’d be surprised by how many restaurants, café’s, bookstores, and boutiques there are that would be so happy to have your live music in their space.
  • Don’t demand paying gigs right away or all the time. Be generous in sharing your talents with others! You can do this while still maintaining your stance as a professional. Playing for free allows you to enjoy the opportunity to meet other musicians without stressing about money and union talk. You’ll be surprised how many connections you’ll make that can lead to future gigs. And come on, we all know the economy is tight, and if all musicians refused to play without pay our artistic community and musical culture would suffer tremendously.
  • Participate in your local community orchestras! You don’t have to wait to win an audition with a semi-professional or professional orchestra to play the great orchestral works. Community orchestras are excellent for meeting teachers, performers, and conductors who can hook you up for future work—and they’re just plain fun. You can relax and play great music with a smile on your face. Sometimes when money is in the mix, musicians can become surly, bitter, or demanding individuals, losing sight of why they chose music as a career in the first place. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t let the joy of playing be belittled by your pride or hunger for pay.
  • Connect with local schools. I decided to call and e-mail local orchestra teachers offering to conduct a free masterclass for their bass sections. It turned into a very fruitful experience. Give it a try! And who knows, maybe they’ll even ask you to come back. Regardless, reaching out to the youth in school and community music programs is a great way to make a name for yourself as a teacher. Be sure to get your name on the list of private teachers the orchestra directors provide for their students, and remember you can receive 10% off with your teacher discount through Kennedy Violins!
Photo by Belen Martini.
  • Don’t just teach lessons—take lessons. Even the most experienced professional musicians can benefit from taking lessons into their old age. Musicians can always benefit from the perspective of another performer with fresh ideas, techniques, and style.

It might be challenging to find the gig of your dreams. But don’t wait miserably for a Golden Ticket while throwing away the chance to enjoy that delicious Wonka Bar right in front of you. There is music to be played, players to meet, and stages on which to perform. So have at it! Make a connection! And keep us posted along the way.

Founder of MYS steps down

Lajos Balogh

[NOTE: this was originally posted in the Oregon Music News September 29, 2011]

Lajos Balogh, founder of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, will step down as Music Director and  this June, 38 years after founding the orchestra.

Balogh is a long-time fixture in the Portland music scene, having spent many years as Principal Second Violin of the Oregon Symphony, was a member of the Portland Opera and the North Coast Chamber Orchestra. He is founder and conductor of the Portland Festival Symphony, which gives free summer concerts in the parks, and he conducts the Marylhust Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Hungary, Balogh studied at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, as well as in Munich and Hamburg. One of his many teachers was Zoltán Kodály, who was a composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, linguist, and philosopher. Kodály was especially interested in the problems of music education, and he wrote a large amount of material on music education methods as well as composing a large amount of music for children.

Kodály’s influence is obvious in Balogh’s own passion for music education. He started MYS in 1974 with just  a handful of students and has grown that program into a wide-reaching musical education institution in Portland. The program boasts about 500 students, nine conductors and 11 groups. And we’re not talking about just orchestras, but concert bands, chamber groups, strings orchestras and jazz bands, as well.

This past summer was a banner year for MYS with a tour to Europe.

MYS in PragueMYS Europe 2011MYS in Warsaw








Here is a little footage from one of their concerts in Warsaw:

YouTube Preview Image


This program is unique in that it is not just a place for very advanced students to play. Kids who have  played for only one year have a place to play here, which is quite remarkable. They are able to start out very young and progress all the way through their high school graduation in the same system, whatever their musical interests may be. Throughout the 38 year history of this remarkable organization, countless string players got their start and cultivated their love of music in this program.

It truly is an organization which emphasizes good citizenship, education and family. It is imperative for the families of the students to support the effort. Rehearsals are on Saturdays, which eats into the weekends for every family involved. That takes commitment not only from the students, but also from their families. And it influences other family members as well, prompting younger family members to follow in their older siblings’ footsteps. Executive Director Diane Scoggins confirms that there are 38 siblings in the program at this time.

Although he is leaving the podium, Balogh will become Conductor Emeritus and will continue as a board member, as well as stay involved in advocacy for music education and MYS as conductor of the MYSfits chamber orchestra, which does outreach to underserved communities. He will continue to help grow and strengthen the program, shepherding it along for future generations to learn and enjoy, which is a huge legacy for the Portland area.

The search for the new MYS  Music Director and Symphony Orchestra Conductor will begin shortly, with the goal of filling the post by next spring.