This is your moon shot

The image for this card was drawn in the summer of 2019, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. This miraculous accomplishment involved thousands of men and women, including my father, working during the decades after World War II to put the first man on the moon in 1969. Practice is the critical part of your moon shot as a musician. 

When I was starting out in my career as a classical violinist, there were people around me who talked about being “hungry.” Violinists who were in the finals of national orchestral auditions all seemed to have this level of ambition and dedication to their violin playing in common. It was a given that tremendous practicing had already taken place and was ongoing.

Parents and students
Practice is an ingredient that can’t be skipped over. From time to time, we all struggle with it. I often say to my students that the first five minutes of practicing is the hardest part. It can be so hard to motivate oneself to get started. When I first meet with a prospective Suzuki parent, I talk to them about their role as home teacher. I tell them that it will be their responsibility to make practicing happen. 

I can offer a lot of suggestions to parents regarding strategies for making practice easy and positive. One suggestion is to make practicing a routine. It should take place at the same time of the day and in the same room, away from potential distractions such as younger siblings and ringing telephones. Like brushing teeth, the more practicing is a natural part of one’s daily schedule, the more likely it is to happen on a consistent basis.

With my public school students I talk about practicing at pretty much every lesson. Over my 20 years teaching in public school, I have noticed that students have less and less open time in their schedules outside of school for practicing. With my private students, I tend to talk about practicing when I detect that there has been a change. For younger students, the parent should be part of this conversation.

How to organize practice
When talking about practicing with both my private and public school students, topics frequently include how to organize practicing and what they should be practicing. The rule of thumb is that daily practice should be at least as long as the length of the lesson. Lessons are traditionally divided into three equal parts consisting of scale exercises, etudes, and repertoire. I encourage my students to organize their home practicing the same way.

Getting started
The scale category is the “warm up” phase which I have written about in previous posts. It is an essential part of practicing for long term comfort and for healthy playing. This part of a practice session can be tailored to whatever one needs in order to experience a smooth mental and physical entry into the session. It can be an athletic warm up, meditation, or combination of the two. It is a transition from civilian life to one’s life as a musician, from ordinary life to artistry.

Etude and method books
The etude part of practicing can be focused on developing music literacy skills, studying notation and music theory, and developing instrumental technique. This part of practicing is an investment for the future. The teacher will know what needs to be addressed but how to present it in an exciting way is the challenge. This may be the part of a student’s program that requires the most creativity from the teacher.

There are several method books appropriate for beginning students that can help keep them engaged. I have used the Essential Elements books with both private and public school students for many years. Students learn new concepts about every two pages. There are well known orchestral excerpts and folk melodies peppered with less well known music from around the world. There are interesting history and theory blurbs, some pictures, and a few musical puzzles. Students can work through book 1 with a degree of independence even as beginners.

More advanced students can be enticed by fast tempo etudes that go up high on the instrument. Etude books such as Etudes Spéciales by J.F. Mazas even play like show pieces. With dry, very repetitive etudes, it is important for students to know what skill or skills are being worked on. Especially for perpetual motion type etudes with little or no rhythmic variety, students need to know that a particular finger pattern is being “trained” while maintaining a consistent bow stroke.

I have a tendency to put etude work towards the end of a lesson. Teenagers in particular need to get into repertoire as soon as possible during a lesson. Etudes work great later in a lesson because the student is fully warmed up. They know that the lesson is almost over so the etude won’t last forever and they have had the chance to show off the work that has been done on their primary repertoire.

Practicing as a professional
As a professional violinist, I have enjoyed going back over etude books such as Kreutzer and Mazas as well as playing more challenging etudes by Gavinies, Dont, and Paganini. It is also fun to discover etude books I haven’t tried before by violin pedagogues such as Sevcik, Dounis and Vieuxtemps. Books authored by Simon Fischer have been very helpful. They are well researched and nicely printed and bound.

Having structure in one’s practice sessions can make it a lot easier to experience success even when working on challenging repertoire. Start by warming up, with and without the instrument. Practice sessions should have some variety as well as some free, improvisatory time. Short breaks should also be part of the structure.

What motivates you or your students to practice? What challenges have you faced and overcome? What is your moon shot?

The Inspiration for Violinists card deck
This “moon shot” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality.

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