Tag Archives: practice tips

When NOT to Practice Your Instrument

Hate to “break” it to ya, but you may need to lay off practicing for a while. (Photo by James Lee)

We’re always telling you to

PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE (Why don’t you read Kennedy Violins‘ article “The Art of Effective Practicing” while you’re at it) PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE—

—but, like your mom’s nagging, all this talk of what you should be doing all the time can make you feel seriously guilty anytime you decide to take a little break. And yet, sometimes,

 IT’S OKAY NOT TO PRACTICE.

Serious musicians who take a break (whether it be a day, week, month, or year) from practicing for whatever reason often feel guilty or even depressed as a result. For regular practicers, not practicing may feel like

  • not brushing your teeth
  • wearing the same underwear all week
  • letting dishes pile up in the sink
  • not checking Facebook

 

WHEN NOT TO PRACTICE

Cut yourself some slack. Here are a few instances when you probably shouldn’t (or literally can’t) practice:

  1. Right before a performance. WARM UP, but don’t wear yourself out with a real practice session. Tune, play a few scales, and review a few tricky passages, but don’t wear out your fingers the morning of your big performance.
  2. During rehearsal.  We know you’re just itching to work on (or show off) that tricky lick in the concerto you’re working on, but spare your conductor and your stand partner. Rehearsal time is never practice time—it’s unprofessional and distracting.
  3. When you’re really, really tired. There is apparently no difference between driving sleepy and driving drunk. Practice when you’re that tired and you’ll likely not even remember what you practiced. You might even fall over and impale yourself with your bow. Don’t kill yourself—get some sleep and practice in the morning when you’re fresh and alert.
  4. When you’re injured. This totally sucks, but if you have tendonitis, a broken arm, or some other injury that requires rest and recovery, you’ll just have to take a break, perhaps missing an upcoming performance or even a whole orchestra semester or season. Take your mind off your inability to play by focusing on another hobby or skill you can practice or develop during your “off-season.”
  5. After you’ve played a recital. If you don’t take at least a day off after a huge performance, you’re probably obsessed. And that’s okay.
  6. When you really deserve a break. Maybe you’re just shy of your goal to practice 5 or 10 hours a week. If you just can’t squeeze in those last couple hours, think back on what you have accomplished and start fresh next week. It’s more about the quality of your practice—not the quantity—anyway.
  7. When someone asks you on a date. Seriously, music nerd! Put down your instrument and put on your dancing shoes! Bach isn’t your boyfriend—but this guy might be if you give him a chance.
  8. When someone dies. If you’re really hard-core, you may consider death to be a lame excuse. But when big life events happen—births, deaths, marriages, etc.—it’s time to focus on what’s really important in life, which is more than music or your personal agenda. Take time out to develop relationships, be there for others, and take care of your family and friends. That’s the real stuff of life.
  9. When you have a fever over 104°. Put your violin down and go see a doctor.
  10. When you’ve practiced so much that you hate your instrument, your teacher, and music all together. You may be at a point where your instrument is like a really annoying two-year-old constantly screaming bloody  murder in your ear, demanding all of your energy, and keeping you up all night. It’s time to get a babysitter (i.e. your violin case) and step away for a breather. People tend to appreciate things (kids, instruments, food) when they haven’t seen them for a time. Take a moment to step away and 1) ask yourself why you play your instrument and 2) think of all the things you love about music and how it enriches your life.

WHEN YOU COME BACK

When you do come back to your instrument after a short (or long, if necessary), reprieve, you’ll likely appreciate it much more than you did before your separation, breakup, or last “big fight.” Hopefully you’ll be able to kiss, makeup, and get back to making beautiful music together.

But in the meantime, enjoy the break. You deserve it!

 

Back to School Tips for Parents: Practice vs. Homework?

It’s that time of year again!  I’m seeing photos pop up on Facebook and Instagram of my friends’ children ready for their first day of school — backpacks on, fresh new outfits, big smiles. And while these courageous kids may be a little nervous to tackle a new year, it’s often the parents who feel more overwhelmed when school starts up again.

We’re getting a glimpse of that at Kennedy Violins as parents call us in preparation for orchestra season. There is so much to worry about — filling out registration forms, buying new school clothes, sizing up that endless list of school supplies, getting everyone fed and dressed in the morning, meeting with the PTA, getting to know your child’s teacher, hoping your child has good friends and stays out of trouble . . . it’s enough to make you want to just sit still at a desk for a few hours while someone lectures you about the Civil War.

And then there’s homework. Before you know it, the dining table is buried in notebooks and papers and textbooks and (these days) a laptop or iPad or two. And somewhere, underneath a pile of backpacks and sports equipment you might find your child’s violin.

For children in school music ensembles, there’s yet another somewhat-intangible task that needs to be accomplished between all that homework: PRACTICE. Because not all music teachers require their students to keep a practice log that will be graded, the expectations to practice are vague for most studens who don’t know how much, how often, or simply when to practice during the school week.

As a parent, you want your child to succeed in both academics and extracurriculars, but finding a balance can be a real challenge. (See “Back to School: Music, Extracurriculars & Life Balance.”) So when your child is stressing out about a book report due on Friday, is it possible to step away from Bronte to spend some time with Brahms? Does practice interrupt study time, or does study time interrupt practice?

Hopefully neither. When it comes to encouraging your child to practice AND do well with their studies, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Homework, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
Homework, homework, homework. (Photo by John Morgan)
  1. Homework and practice are both important. Neither are superior to the other; rather, they complement each other. If you want your child to take music seriously, emphasize how important practice is to becoming a great musician. Likewise, your child’s love for music shouldn’t keep them playing Rock Band for hours on end when there’s a huge exam coming up. Balance is key (see below).
  2. There IS time to practice during the week. Hard to believe? Yes. Impossible? No. Scheduling and setting aside time for both homework and practice is key. For elementary students, even ten minutes of focused practice every day is a huge accomplishment! Older high school students serious about their musicianship might commit to practicing an hour+ per day. Maybe practicing every other day works better for your child. But no matter what the goal is as far as how much time to spend practicing, the key is consistency and regularity. Practicing doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Just carve out a slot of time in the morning, while dinner is cooking, right after school, or whatever works for you and your child.
  3. Establish a place to study and a place to practice. Most students have a study space at home, whether at a desk in their room or at a table or in an office. Similarly, designate a place to practice. It could be a room or simply a corner somewhere where there is already a music stand set out, a metronome at hand, a shelf for music, a storage spot for the instrument, and decent lighting. So when you say, “Hey, Johnny, it’s time to practice!” he knows exactly where to go to make it happen.
  4. Being well-rounded is a good thing. Academics, arts and music, and sports/physical fitness are all wonderful and each require discipline. Encourage your child to embrace both academics and practice as exercises for different parts of the brain. Music sharpens the mind and will likely help your child do better academically as a direct result of learning an instrument.
  5. Practice can be seen as a nice break from time at the desk. When you notice your child’s eyes glazed over and drool trickling down onto George Washington’s face in the history textbook, try for a change of pace. Doing something physical like standing up to play an instrument is so invigorating after reading or writing for too long. Practice can be actually be really relaxing and rejuvinating when the brain is otherwise fried.
  6. Homework can be a nice break from time at the music stand. After practicing a really difficult exercise or piece, encourage your child to take a break–like flopping down on the couch to read an assigned chapter before returning to the music stand to finish up.

    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
    Need a change of pace? Try practicing outdoors with a friend! (Photo by John Benson)
  7. Practice can be fun. Mix things up. Keep the act of both practice and study far from grueling. Keep a positive attitude about practice by talking about practice as if it is (and because it totally can be) an enjoyable activity and something fun to do. Talk about the instrument as something special and worth respect. Avoid treating practice as a form of punishment or your child will begin to view practicing and eating slimy green vegetables as similar forms of torture.
  8. Practice is a form of homework. If practice is seen as an optional activity, it may never happen. Treat practice like an assignment, as something that must be accomplished.
  9. Family time is essential. Doing homework and practicing don’t have to draw away from positive family relationships and time together. Try practicing with your child. Ask them (in a positive, inviting way) to play what they’re learning for you or to perform for the family. And when it’s time to hit the books, try sitting down to study with your child by helping them with their assignments or simply sitting next to them while you do your own reading, study, or work. Being present is a simple way to be supportive.
  10. Don’t take anything too seriously. Keep calm. Don’t panic. Everything is going to be just fine.

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We wish you the best with the new school year, whether you are a parent or student. As always, feel free to contact us with all your musical questions–we always happy to help. Visit us at kennedyviolins.com or on Facebook and keep in touch. It’s an exciting time, so we hope you enjoy the ride!

Feature image by Phil Roeder.

How to Use a Metronome

Photo by Mrs Logic
Photo by Mrs Logic

Instrument, bow, stand, music, pencil–that’s all you need when you sit down (or stand) to practice, right? Wrong. One of the most essential and useful tools for the wise, efficient practicer is this marvelous, magical machine: the metronome. The timekeeper. That thing that clicks.

As a string bassist who grew up classically trained, I was used to bending the tempo, slowing with ritardandos, stopping for fermatas and railroad tracks, slightly altering the tempo based on the lyricism of the piece, and sometimes completely throwing the beat out the window to play a cadenza.

When I went to music school in college, I was introduced to jazz, and I realized I was on a completely different playing field, playing a completely different ballgame. As a player used to hashing up melodic solos, playing jazz forced me back to the bassist’s primary role: keeping the beat. I remember my teacher telling me that a bassist who can’t keep time is useless. A musician might have perfect pitch and stellar chops, but without a sense of rhythm . . . well. Good luck.

Another time I was preparing for a blind audition and was given a tip to keep in mind. When you can’t see the adjudicators listening from behind a screen, you won’t see their faces, but you also won’t see their pencil lightly tapping on their knee checking the consistency of your tempo. Hopefully all panel judges aren’t that cruel, but my paranoia of that “one” judge made me reconsider my relationship with my metronome.

We needed to become best friends.

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USING YOUR METRONOME

If you don’t have a metronome, now is the time to keep time. My personal favorites are metronomes with a dial (rather than digital metronomes) such as the Wittner MT60 Quartz. But anything that keeps steady time will do.

Here are a few things your metronome can help you do to become a better musician:

  1. Understand tempo markings. I like metronomes with a dial that show you the numerical ranges for common tempo markings like largo, andante, moderato, presto, etc. The metronome can help you get the feel for the overall tempo of a passage or piece.
  2. Set the tempo. Sometimes composers and conductors mark the music with a specific numerical tempo marking in addition to a general tempo marking (like “largo”). Identify the appropriate tempo for your piece of music. This doesn’t mean you’ll start practicing at that tempo. It’s just what you’re aiming for. (See number 5.)
  3. Warm up. When you pull out your instrument, start with long, slow tones to warm up the rosin on your bow and smooth out your tone. Typically you’ll start with scales. Warming up with a metronome is like getting your musical heartbeat pumping again. Wake up the rhythm in your body! Ole!
  4. Practice scales and arpeggios with different rhythmic patterns. After playing scales with whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, change it up a bit, moving up the scale in triplets (one triplet per bow) or groups of sixteenths. Then practice arpeggios at a slow tempo, gradually turning up the speed.
  5. Perfect difficult passages. For all music, whether you’re playing scales, arpeggios, orchestral excerpts, or solos, START SLOW. Only increase the speed on your metronome once a passage or lick is free of error. You can apply this principle to even a single measure, a group of notes, or even a single shift between two notes. Zone in on exactly what you’re tripping over and then conquer it with your metronome.
  6. Subdivide. Your metronome beat doesn’t have to just be for a quarter note. Set it four times faster to click on the sixteenths, or three times faster for triplets. This will help you decipher tricky rhythmic passages, steady your dotted rhythms, and keep a steady beat overall.
  7. Learn vibrato. A great way to get your hand and fingers comfortable with the physical motion of vibrato is the slowly roll your wrist, forearm, and/or fingers in time with a slow beat. This will develop a vibrato that vibrates consistently rather that shaking uncontrollably. (See “String Instrument Techniques: How to Learn Vibrato.”)
  8. Sight read. After regularly using your metronome, you should get a good feel for basic tempo markings. Remembering that “60” means 1 beat per second, if you can get the feel for the timing of seconds, this can be your baseline reference. When you get a piece of music to sightread, always identify the expected tempo before taking off. (See “15 Tips to Successfully Sightread.”)
  9. Prepare your accompanist. Whether you’re playing with a pianist, a duet partner, a small ensemble, or an orchestra, you can set the tempo specifically to what you’re comfortable with. It’s the worst when your accompanist rushes ahead of you at a pace that makes you stumble over your tricky passages. Even five extra beats per minute could throw you off if it’s faster than you’ve prepared. It’s also torture when you accompanist drags behind you. Give them an exact number so you can play in rhythmic harmony.
  10. Conduct. If you conduct music, all of these principles apply to your ability to lead musicians in time. Just like I was saying how a bass player who can’t keep time is useless, a conductor who can’t keep time is even MORE useless! Conductors have to be the rock when it comes to keeping the beat. If you tend to rush or slow down, spend more time with your metronome.

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 Now, off you go to the practice room. Have a great TIME!