Take a moment and think about your last practice session. Did you take time to imagine how you wanted the music to sound before you started playing? How attentively were you listening to yourself? Did you stay mentally alert? What did you do when you encountered a musical or technical hurdle?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing through a difficult passage slowly until you “get it right.” This is often counterproductive because it relies completely on luck. Without first identifying the problem and finding a solution, you may find yourself ingraining the bad habits you’re trying to eliminate. Remember, whatever we repeat becomes a habit, good or bad.
Productive practicing requires problem solving. It requires your mind as much as your fingers. It’s about visualization, audiation and evaluation. To avoid aimless practicing remember the motto “Stop…Think…Play.”
Whether you’re an older student practicing on your own, or a Suzuki parent guiding your child through a practice session, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Identify the Problem
Listen carefully. Are you matching the sound that you have in your mind? If you’re a violinist the challenge could be anything from a string crossing to intonation (correct shape of the left hand and finger placement) to a difficult shift. Maybe there are a number of challenges that need to be isolated, as in the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1. Take one problem at a time and work patiently.
Unit practice involves isolating a small group of notes and repeating them. Use your time effectively by practicing only the problem spot. For shifts start from the preceding note, memorizing the distance visually and physically. Focusing on small units helps your brain absorb new skills quickly. Start by repeating small units and then begin adding and combining other units. If you’re confronted with a run of notes (as in La Folia in Suzuki Book 6) it’s helpful to isolate all the notes on each string, stopping for each string crossing. In Witches Dance the triplets can be isolated into rhythmic units.
Isolate the bow and the left hand
Reduce a passage to open strings to practice string crossings and bowing. For co-ordination between the left and right hands, stop the bow in between each note to set each finger carefully. Long slurs can also be practiced with stopped bows.
Practice slower and faster than the tempo you intend to take. Feel the inside beats to maintain a sense of pulse. Use the metronome to gradually build up speed for fast music.
Make up rhythms
For straight eighth or sixteenth note passages, practice with a variety of rhythms to increase finger co-ordination and improve evenness, quickness and strength.
These are just a few strategies that might help you overcome technical challenges. For more thoughts on practicing read The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin and Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn! Next time you take out the violin try to listen with your teacher’s critical ear. Challenge yourself to become your own teacher and remember that good practicing requires problem solving.