Honing your practice by Fitz Gary

The following post is by Fitz Gary.

Most of us have been practicing for as long as we can remember. It has always been a part of our lives. We gather methods and tips from our teachers and colleagues, and we spend hours cooped up in a room by ourselves with the determination to bring our playing to a new level. After years of this solitary lifestyle, it would seem that we would be “well-rehearsed” at practicing, but how successful are we in the practice room?

Over the years I have tried to hone my practice, implementing new ideas and techniques from others, and I still find my time is not spent as effectively as it could be. Often, mid-practice, I wonder if what I am doing, some slow practice technique we’ve heard a million times, is actually going to help me nail a passage on stage. I’ve discovered a flaw in stealing what others find helpful – we all learn in completely different ways.

A discussion followed our studio class last Wednesday night about what people find most helpful for effective practice both inside and outside of the practice room. From eating right and foot massages to why etudes are essential, it became evident that we are all searching for our own approaches for successful practice. Being creative, flexible yet disciplined, and having the ability to analyze and critique the practicality of new (and old!) ideas is essential for this process of discovering your own most effective practice method.

An important piece of successful practice, which came up multiple times during our discussion, is organization. Before you even get your instrument out, establishing what you are practicing, and knowing your commitments, will give your practice more direction. Compile your daily schedule, decide what repertoire needs to be ready when, and make a timeline backwards to each date. Make lists and use post-it notes; breaking up your responsibilities into a checklist of small goals will reduce stress and give you achievable things to do each day. Tip: Organizing not only your musical life, but everything else too, will give you the mental space and freedom to have more focused practices. Even something as simple as cleaning your room or your practice space helps cleanse the mind of the clutter we fill it with (this will also help when you are desperately looking for your quartet music before rehearsal!).

A big obstacle, especially for the newer generation of musicians, is the distraction of technology. Checking your phone or Facebook, or reading a viola blog (just kidding!) really eats into practice time. Not engaging in these activities actually takes practice in itself! Practice being away from your electronics, and you’ll find it’s easier than you think, and actually quite liberating! (Personal note: I used to be addicted to iPhone games. At the beginning of this year, I deleted all my games and haven’t missed them at all.)

We all learn things in different ways. Some have to see it written down, others have to hear it. Find out whether you are a more visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner (VAK). Capitalizing on this will influence your practice methods. You might find that one area is more dominant than the others. Focusing and developing the weaker areas will strengthen your practice. Know your VAK! Also, find out when you have the most energy during the day and strive to practice then. Practice takes concentration and a healthy, clear mind. Give yourself the advantage. The more you know about yourself, the better you can maximize the productivity of your work.

There are no universal answers to excellent playing. We must find the answers for ourselves. Each of us will forge different paths to performing well on stage. Uncovering these paths takes an open mind and perseverance. We can take what we are told into the practice room, but ultimately we are responsible for our own playing. “To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them” – Nadia Boulanger.

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