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Archive for the ‘Practice’ Category

Organization Helps by Daniel Wang

As far as I can remember, I have always been a very disorganized person, and I know that there are a lot of people like me out there. Growing up, I drove my parents absolutely crazy by losing or misplacing things all the time. I remember being scolded by my teachers and parents countless times for forgetting homework assignments either at school or at home. Even now, I still have trouble with simple things like finding where I park my car every day. I somehow always managed to get by, so I figured why should I change?

The truth is, organization is very important to us musicians. For me, it took failure after failure (after failure) to realize that my lack of organization was killing me. For any musician who is struggling to be more organized, here are a three pieces of advice that have helped me greatly in the past few years.

1) Keep track of important times and dates. Nobody wants to work with or hire anyone that is unreliable. For me, it helps to keep a schedule/calendar and multiple back-up schedules of upcoming events, such as rehearsals, lessons, recitals, and auditions. For me, I have a schedule in my phone, post-it notes all around my desk reminding me of things I need to do, and a calendar on my wall with important dates circled. Good friends who will remind you of other important events is also a plus.

2) Plan ahead; have goals. If you have a performance, audition, or recital coming up, it helps to have some sort of game plan on how to prepare for it. For me, I like to create spreadsheets on excel where I can keep track of tempo markings, repertoire, and dates in an organized fashion to check my progress.

3) Be organized in your practice. It helps me practice more efficiently when I  think about the music and my technique when I wake up (brushing my teeth, showering, eating, driving), at random times of the day, and reflecting on what I accomplished before I go to sleep at night. Another thing that helps me to be more organized in my practice is to try and understand the music by listening and analyzing it, knowing precisely how I want to sound, knowing what fingerings and bowings I want to do, and being honest with myself in what aspects of my playing that I need to fix.


Healthy Practice Habits by Rachel Li

Have small goals to achieve during a practice session.

It’s really good to have intentional guidance from the start; it motivates you to focus on achieving that goal instead of wasting time doing mindless play-throughs of the piece.

Use the metronome.

Of course a metronome is not needed at all times, but a metronome helps keep you accountable with your tendencies to rush or slow down, as well as aiding in maintaining a consistent tempo when necessary. Overall, using the metronome creates a grounded foundation from which the piece can grow.

Take the time to work on technique, not just the pieces you are working on.

Working on technique exercises on the side will keep you on your A game, and therefore, help you play your pieces better. It also keeps you accountable with consistently strengthening your general weaknesses.

Slow practice, especially for technically challenging areas.

Slowing difficult passages down helps you pinpoint what is making the passage so hard.  When you slow down, you also become more grounded and feel more secure.

Record yourself.

As painful as it is to hit that play button and listen to your own playing, this is a good habit to maintain. It teaches you to be your own teacher and reveals to your ears so many things that you are not noticing in your playing. It also keeps you accountable with your progress on the piece.

Find the difficult sections and make sure those sections are practiced daily.

It’s easy for us to play the easy sections over and over again, because it feels good to play well.  However, it saves a lot of time if we, from the start, pinpoint those gnarly sections and focus on them first, and then work on them daily.  This helps prevent the buildup of overwhelming frustration when you get stuck in a passage.

Look at the score.

When you are collaborating, it is so helpful to see your part in context with the other parts. It guides you toward knowing what it is that you need to focus on when you are learning the piece.

Take breaks.

You’ll actually realize that you focus better if you take small breaks. This is also good for preventing injuries.


Being Your Own Worst Critic

by Megan Wright

Like all things in life, self-criticism is all about balance.

Criticism can be a great tool, when it’s constructive.

Mr. Dunham showed me a quote from the prose poem “Desiderata” in one of my lessons.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

The problem with being overly critical of oneself is the tendency to get stuck in a rut and miss the big picture of a piece. Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to detail is vital in performance preparation, but issues arise when one becomes fixated and devastated over the smallest errors. Progress in preparing a piece crawls. The overarching theme, the point of the piece, can easily be forgotten as focus shifts.

The key is balance between obsessing with self-criticism and glossing over huge mistakes. The ability to hear flaws in your playing, and to efficiently address them without too much drama, is the key element of improving ability. If you don’t recognize what to fix, how can you ever get better?

Recording yourself is one of the most effective and efficient methods of judging your playing. Recordings don’t lie. By recording, you can pinpoint where specific issues are located and keep a clearer track record of progress. Sometimes, I’ll record a run through of a piece and isolate my listening to a measure or a section. My friend and fellow studio mate Yvonne Smith suggested to me the idea of creating a numerical rating system in various categories for my recording/listening sessions (exs.: intonation, rhythm, musicality, dynamics, etc.). This way, you can find things in your playing that need a bit more attention and also the things that you did well. Over time, after addressing these observances in your practice, the number ratings should steadily increase in your run-throughs and listening sessions.

Don’t beat yourself up. Anyone else can do that for you. Be smart about your musical progress. Balance is key: listen for what can be improved, but also find at least one positive thing you like about what you heard. There will be something. What’s the point of pursuing a performance career if you don’t appreciate anything you produce?


Breaking Out of Isolation

By Joan DerHovsepian

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As musicians, we can suffer from a kind of self-imposed incarceration. We isolate ourselves and get locked into certain ways of trying to master the orchestral excerpts. The old “favorites” we see on every audition require a commitment of weeks, months, and years (even decades!), devoting ourselves entirely to these succinct passages. With the incredibly high technical standard being met nowadays in orchestral auditions, there is the impression (close to a reality?) that we need to be note-perfect, stroke-perfect. We look inward to the smallest details and spend countless hours alone in the practice room trying to achieve flawlessness. For most of us mere mortals, there is no way to bypass this long and winding road to consistency. It’s how we physically train our bodies to perform difficult feats on cue. It also gives us the time needed to develop our opinions and interpretations in a natural way. Yes, the orchestral excerpts are technically difficult. But I remind the rep students weekly that the solo repertoire they play every day contains harder pyrotechnical demands. The chamber music they are performing asks for highly specialized finesse and subtlety. So let’s not get stuck in a practice rut with the excerpts, working on the same issues and challenges, trying to get things “just right” without a feeling of progress or inspiration. We can free ourselves from these musical bars of isolated orchestral excerpts, separated from the context in which they live. It’s time to break out of isolation. Here’s my plan:

When you learn a piece of chamber music, you don’t just learn the important viola passages, you learn the entire piece.

Thorough study of an orchestral audition list is no different. The audition candidate who covers all their bases will stand out to a committee. Check out the orchestral score. Listen to and learn the entire symphony or tone poem. How does your part fit in with the rest of the strings? The winds? Are you doubled by a flute, trombone, or percussion?  Might another instrumentalist playing a similar part be on your committee, listening for specific qualities in your playing? What is the underlying rhythm for the passage, and what instruments generate it? What is your role and function? Now put your function to practical use. Turn on your favorite recording and play along. I love to do this when learning both traditional chamber music and orchestral works. Step into the excitement of the middle of the orchestra. This could also give you insight into any tendencies or pitfalls that might be lurking within a passage.

Finding parallels between your orchestral excerpts and other pieces by the same composers can help draw conclusions.

For example, finding a natural rhythmic feel to the dotted figures of Brahms’s Haydn Variation VII can be a challenge. One day, while working with a student on this movement, we compared the opening of Variation VII with the opening of the 3rd movement of Brahms’s Quartet, Op. 67 in B-flat major, written just two years after the Haydn Variations. Although the quartet is written in 3/4 time and the Variation in 6/8 with a different character indication, the essence of the two rhythmic figures is the same, falling somewhere between a strictly written rhythm and a double dotted one. Finding an alternate setting for this same rhythmic theme in the viola part can give us another context for its natural rhythmic flow, leading to a more organic understanding when played as an excerpt.

Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56

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Brahms String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67, mvt. 3

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Now, go one step further:

Imagine what role and personality a particular viola excerpt would take on if it were within the environment of a string quartet, perhaps not even played by the viola.

Could our Mozart #35 excerpt from the 1st movement serve as the cello part of a Mozart quartet?  What type of sound and articulation would the cellist from your favorite string quartet use while playing that? How about the high lyrical passage from the 1st mvt. of Shostakovich #5? Would we find more freedom of creativity if we thought of it as the 1st violin part of a Shostakovich string quartet? Can you imagine how their vibrato would be fully incorporated into the musical line as they played in their upper register? Could our excerpt at no. 77 in Ein Heldenleben be the solo horn part of another Strauss horn concerto?!

Imagine you are performing with others and they are counting on you to give clear physical cues.

How would one move, lead, and cue when playing and performing these passages as a principal violist or as the violist of a string quartet? For me, working out a natural way to physically show the important musical features can further shape and define my own interpretation, even when I’m playing alone.

In a string quartet we are the sole violist, entirely responsible for creating character of sound in our part.

When playing within an orchestra section, we have help creating character, and there is the necessity to blend. However, standing behind the audition screen it’s just us. We are alone and fully responsible for conveying the character of not only the viola part, but the entire orchestra—and in only a few short bars!  A common pitfall when performing tutti excerpts is trying too hard to have a blended section sound.  We are not responsible for making more than one violist’s share of the volume. We do need to assume full authority for the character. Showing quality, maturity, and an individual voice is our goal.

We first take care to honor everything we see on the page: the viola part AND the score. Next, we turn our awareness to tradition: knowing what has been done in the past is an integral part of making good decisions. Do a lot of listening. Remember what you first thought and loved about the piece (before you stripped it down to the nuts and bolts). After that, break out into the world of creative ideas. This will help sustain your attention and fuel your sense of discovery through countless practice hours. The excitement of presenting a well thought out interpretation and focusing on new musical goals in “old rep.” is the best way I have found to move on and up from plateaus. A committee may be impressed with a nearly note- and rhythm-perfect excerpt; certainly no easy feat. But that’s not going to excite and move them. And how will that set you apart from the rest of the note-perfect multitude? Show a quality and depth that comes from truly searching in a greater context, from the wide set of experiences you already know. That depth is clearly heard, even behind the isolating audition screen; it is the reason they will fall in love with your playing. So break out of your excerpt isolation! Who’s with me?!


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!


Inspiring Yourself

by Daniel Wang

When studying the viola in school, it is easy to get overwhelmed and burnt out. How do you juggle trying to learn music for multiple summer festivals, rep class, recitals, orchestra, chamber music, and multiple professional auditions all at the same time? There’s so much that each individual wants to accomplish and learn while they are in school, but expectations will usually fall short because there is too much to learn and too little time. Compounded with additional stress that inevitably comes from classes or social situations, and it is easy to fall into despair!

When life gets you down, that means that it is time to pick yourself up and inspire yourself! Being inspired has many benefits to the violist. It can remind you why you love music. It can increase your efficiency in the practice room. It can make you more convincing on stage. It can help you play with more understanding, creativity, focus, and passion. It will help you deal with the stress of being in school. Being inspired makes you a better violist.

There are so many ways to inspire yourself, but it can be a challenge to do when you are busy at school all day long. Here are some super easy ways to inspire yourself while you are busy at school:

1) YouTube—easily accessible from any smart-phone or computer, if you try, you can find something on YouTube that will inspire you. For a start, look at videos of your favorite artists and orchestras;

2) Listening to your favorite music and all types of music;

3) Looking out a window or taking a walk. Breathing fresh air. Enjoying nature’

4) Reading books’

5) Social activities—chilling with friends over lunch, coffee, bubble tea, or beer and having conversations with them can be inspiring. What you learn in classes, lessons, coachings, and orchestra can inspire you.

Good luck!