Thursday, September 6, 2012

Practicing Violin Effectively

In a previous post, I discussed how to inspire violin practice (or other instrument practice, for that matter). Once a young musician has enough inspiration, it is time to learn how to practice effectively.

I can remember becoming very frustrated with my practicing--it felt like I was improving so slowly.  On really bad days in graduate school I would weep with frustration over a difficult passage that seemed so overwhelming.  I wish I had known then what I now know--it would have made my life and my practicing far more enjoyable. So here are my recommendations for making your practicing as efficient and effective as possible.

First, use all the tools that you have available.  These include a metronome, a tuner, and hopefully some kind of recording device, even if it's only the voice recorder feature on an iphone. Nothing can help your intonation like practicing very slowly with a tuner. Once I started doing that regularly, my intonation improved dramatically. And by slowly, I mean Slowly. Once you become used to constantly playing in tune, you can immediately hear and correct any problems that might come up.  As for a metronome, it's amazing the difference it can make with struggling students. When I first started teaching, I was often frustrated by how often students rushed ahead, or missed rhythms. Finally, I insisted on them using a metronome. For the most stubborn rushers, I used a trick I learned from a Master Class with a world famous violist, Roberto Diaz--walk or step in time with the music before you play. Most people feel the beat of music in their body (think about dancing).  If a student can't stay in tempo or keep a steady beat, it's likely that they can't feel the beat in their body--walking or stepping to the beat with the metronome helps them to feel it. 
A recording device helps students listen to the their playing.  One of the keys to learning is feedback--in fact, giving frequent feedback is a vital part of effective teaching.  A recording is completely objective feedback on a musician's sound quality, intonation, and other aspects of a musical performance.  Students should regularly record themselves playing, then listen for what they'd like to improve about their own performance.  Incidentally, my Celtic music band, Dal Riata, often records our songs like this when we practice--it's really helpful for all the members of the band to hear how the song is sounding overall.

After you have started using all the right tools, you need to start involving all of the right senses. As we all know from health class, humans have five senses--sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.  While we don't use taste or smell in music, we do use sight, hearing, and touch.

All people are different kinds of learners. Generally, we break the different kinds of learning into three types--visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. In other words, some students learn best from seeing, some from listening, and others from doing or touching. However, in music all of these aspects are important--students have to read music visually, play the instrument physically, and listen carefully with their ears. In this way, music encourages global learning using multiple learning styles, which is likely why it's so strongly associated with high IQ and other markers of academic success.
So how do we use different senses or learning styles when practicing? When I teach students, I often ask them to focus their awareness on different senses while they are practicing. For example, intonation and a beautiful vibrato depend on having a good left hand position.  If a student is struggling with their left hand, I first ask them to put down their bow (which is a distraction) and play pizzicato. Then, I remind them to feel the strings with their fingers, and stay aware of the tiny muscles in their hands.  By focusing entirely on the movement of their hand, I can engage their kinesthetic sense.  I might next ask them listen to a CD of their music, or else sing the music.  That helps them focus on the auditory learning style.  Finally, I tell all my students to practice in front of a mirror.  Before they play, they can check their hand positions in the mirror, and while they are playing they can make sure they have good posture and good bow position by looking in front of the mirror.

By engaging multiple senses and learning styles, students can learn music more thoroughly and develop a more complete understanding of their instrument.  Often, when a musician becomes frustrated with their practicing, it's because they are only focusing on one sense or learning style, and not engaging their other senses.  A passage that I might struggle with if I'm only staring avidly at the notes on the page can become much better if I instead think about how my hand feels so I learn when it's becoming tense.

The last aspect of practicing effectively is one of the most neglected, in my experience.  Professional musicians often think of practicing as something we do alone.  It's true that much of our practice is most effective when we're alone, but I think that practicing with friends can be an extremely useful tool.  For one thing, it reminds you that many other people are struggling and working on the same issues you are.  Friends can also give you encouragement and positive feedback, which can be invaluable.  They can also be a good resource for practicing tips and ideas. Finally, many more social people enjoy practicing more when they can do it with friends, and enjoyment and camaraderie makes a huge difference. 

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:


Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Inspiring, Helpful Books for Violin and Viola Teachers

Suzuki Method for Adult Students


For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students


Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

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