Practice tips for musicians

So often students and even professional musicians don’t know how to get started practicing. I know I have experienced this paralysis myself on occasion. The hardest part of practicing is the first five minutes. I must say that the warm up video by Heather Mogielnicki referenced in my “Warming up: An epiphany” blog post (February 1, 2021), has turned out to be an excellent way to get over that initial hump of practicing. From that point moving forward, it depends somewhat on your level of playing (for example student vs. professional) and what your are trying to accomplish.

When I created the image on the left side of this card, I was thinking of the big books of violin technique I own by Carl Flesch, Demetrius Constantine Dounis, and Simon Fischer. These books are wonderful but some of us need a book or system to explain what to do when we are standing in front of our violin case or watching TV trying to get motivated to practice. For a long time with my own practicing, this task was left to various violin teachers, peers/colleagues, and my own guilt about not practicing enough.

The first question at the lower part of the card is “How do I get started?” An easy answer to this question would be something like the warm up video I mentioned above. It might be worth your while to consult a medical practitioner, lightworker, or bodyworker who specializes in working with musicians. Try to find someone who understands that musicians are really athletes. I have met Feldenkrais and Alexander technique practitioners as well as physical and occupational therapists who can help you develop your own warm up routine. Your routine should include breath work, some cardio and whole body exercises as well as fine motor exercises related to your instrument.

The second question is “What should I practice?” The answer to this question will depend on what you are trying to accomplish with your practicing. Are you trying to get back in shape after a hiatus? Are you practicing for a particular performance? Are you trying to develop a particular technique or study a particular style of music? Or are you practicing a variety of scales, etudes and repertoire for a violin teacher who has given you specific assignments? If you are trying to get back into shape or maintain your technique while on break from performing or school, I have found working through Dounis’s Daily Dozen exercises to be a great way to challenge left hand, bowing, intonation and rhythm. It’s like going to the gym for your violin playing. You may want to add Carl Flesch scales and maybe even Kreutzer etudes. You don’t really have to go too crazy with your etudes unless you’re really bored. If you are stuck on a particular piece, try working on a piece of a similar genre or another piece from the same composer. It might help you to emotionally detach from what is keeping you stumped on the piece you are primarily practicing.

The third question is “How long should I practice?” The jury is out on this one. I tend to find 90-120 minute practices to be a good flow for me. I can do this once, twice or three times per day depending on what is happening in my professional life. Now I’m hearing Heather M.’s voice is ringing in my ears. She’s saying: “TAKE FREQUENT BREAKS!” – especially important for long and intense practice sessions. I have also had people tell me to do what shrinks do – 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off. I highly recommend Effortless Mastery by jazz pianist Kenny Werner. This book takes a mindfulness approach to playing music and includes meditations which I also highly recommend. The gist of it is that a five minute mindful practice is worth more than hours of fear-based practicing. Keep this book handy!

The fourth question is “When should I practice?” My advice to parents of my beginning students is to establish a routine. Experiment with the time of day and even the room you practice in. Practices can even be split. If your teacher has recommended a certain length of practice time which doesn’t work with your schedule, try multiple practice sessions during the day. We all have our own natural energy flow. I have suggested to students to try early morning practice sessions. I have found that playing the violin is something I can do pretty effectively even when I’m not fully awake yet. It feels like my ears are wide open and my mind hasn’t yet been populated with all of the things I want to get done. I also like practicing late at night because it is really quiet and there are fewer distractions.

Try the “Law and Order” practice. I think many of us do this but probably don’t want to admit it. Choose a show you enjoy that is in syndication. You know what’s going to happen so you won’t get completely engaged in the story. Make sure it will run for a few hours so that you won’t get lured into watching a new show. The predictable pace of the show with its commercial breaks will subliminally help you keep track of how much time has gone by. It may help you feel not so cut off from the rest of the world. It can also remind you to take regular breaks for water, bathroom, and snacks. Remember to walk around and relax neck and shoulders. It makes its own kind of sense. When I have done this, I have found that I frequently end up turning off the TV and having an enriching time with my violin. It sounds like the antithesis of creating art but it really does work.

Getting organized for practicing is another tip I can offer. Have some etude books and favorite repertoire (unaccompanied Bach, Paganini Caprices, some concertos) visually obvious in your practice room. Set up your room like a conservatory practice room. One of my private students proudly shared with me a photo of her “studio” she recently set up. My studio room is small, sparsely decorated and the sound is fairly dead. I have a high quality keyboard, music stands, lots of pencils, erasers, a clock, metronomes, tuners, a full length mirror, a small window, and a large comfortable surface for changing strings, etc. I also use a version of the check list on the right side of this card. Sometimes I actually put a check list on my music stand. If you feel you are lacking in a certain area of your violin playing, put it on your check list. Some of us classical violinists could do more improvising and playing by ear. Put it on the list!

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