Work Hard, Play (Less) Hard

by Bailey Firszt

When you’re injured, or recovering from an injury, it can be difficult to practice all the music you have to prepare because you simply cannot play the number of hours necessary to learn all of it. During my junior year at Rice, I was still not completely recovered from my playing injury, and I had to come up with ways to learn my music away from the viola to preserve my precious playing time. Using these strategies allowed me to pull off a recital and play in orchestra without re-injuring myself.

Orchestra Music

The best way I’ve found to prepare for orchestra rehearsal is to listen to a recording while I follow along with my part. (Shocking, right?) I make sure that I can count everything correctly, and I write in lots of cues since I lose count half the time anyway. As I listen, I mark the spots that I need to practice—usually soli sections and really high stuff—and that way I don’t have to practice the whole piece. I also like to mark in fingerings; that way, when I do practice my part, I’ve done a lot of the preliminary work away from the viola. Even though I usually end up changing those fingerings, they give me a preliminary guide, even if they ultimately show me what does not work.

Orchestral Excerpts

I put excerpts in a category of their own because they do require a lot of physical playing time. My friend Yvonne wrote an excellent blog post about learning excerpts, which you should read as she is much more experienced with excerpts than I am! I will only add that I have found it difficult to get an excerpt up to tempo when my arms are really hurting and I’m cramming for an audition (which I usually am). Norman Fischer, one of the cello professors here, said something that has guided my practice when I’m trying to increase the tempo of an excerpt: “If you can’t do it in your head, you won’t be able to do it on your instrument.” So when I’m working on getting something up to tempo, I turn on the metronome and just go through the excerpt in my head. It seems silly, but sometimes I find that I can’t even think the excerpt at that speed, let alone play it. Once I can go through an excerpt in my head at a certain tempo, my chances of playing it are much greater. This method doesn’t replace physically playing the excerpt, but it does cut down the time I spend playing through it.

Pieces with Piano Accompaniment

When I’m learning a new piece, I completely fall apart when I rehearse with the pianist if I don’t know the piano score front to back. (It’s a special trait of mine.) So I make sure to spend a lot of time with the score and a recording before my rehearsals, marking in lots of cues. When I’m rehearsing with a pianist, my first priority is ensemble; if I play poorly in the rehearsal, I can fix that on my own. (My apologies to the pianists who have had to hear me hack through our music.)And you can get twice as much out of your rehearsal if you record it rather than relying on your memory of the rehearsal. Plus, you can count the time you spend listening as practice time!

Listening to professional recordings gives me inspiration for what I want to do musically—as well as ideas of what I don’t want to do. Even if I really dislike someone’s interpretation of the sonata I’m playing, listening to his or her recording helps me understand my own musical voice better. It’s helpful for me to make deliberate musical decisions away from the viola and then try them out when I’m practicing. Just like putting in fingerings before I practice orchestra music, making these decisions gives me a starting point that I can either continue with or change when I’m practicing.

Solo Bach

Dear old Bach has a category all to himself when it comes to practicing. The way I practice Bach reminds me of driving to school: the route is so familiar that sometimes I arrive at school and have no recollection of how I got there. If I’m not absolutely focused when I play Bach I just go on autopilot! The best way I’ve found to practice it effectively is to sing instead of to play. When I sing, it’s easy to hear the shaping of a phrase, which I can then translate into my playing. If I can discover my musical intent while I’m singing, then the time I spend physically playing will be much more productive.

I also developed a strategy for memorizing Bach when I played the First Suite on my recital last year, which involves, you guessed it, singing. I would sing through a movement from memory while someone else followed along with the music, prompting me when I forgot a section. Eventually I could sing through the whole suite with repeats, which was, as you can imagine, very pleasant for my roommates. Memorizing it this way forced me to use more than just muscle memory, and I spared my very tired arms from having to play as much. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I memorized the entire suite in this way the night before my recital preview; the first time I actually played it on the viola from memory was on the preview! (It turned out alright, but I wouldn’t recommend that level of procrastination.)

Even though I’m back to full-time playing now, I still use these methods to make my practicing more productive, with less mindless playing. In fact, I practice much more effectively than I did before I was injured, so I’m thankful that my injury forced me to get creative. My hope is that these strategies help you as much as they’ve helped me—and that your singing voice is better than mine!

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