This seems to be the topic in my lessons studio lately. Especially as the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, the days and weeks seem to run together and many of us are looking to create some memorable success. With many other aspects of life sidelined, our time in the practice room may be one of our best options for feeling productive, seeing results, and finding meaning.
First off, it’s difficult if not impossible to give a universal practice recommendation. Any routine must address individual ability, struggles, interests and goals, while balancing the requirements of upcoming performance or audition opportunities.
Furthermore, some students need more practice then others. Sometimes this can trace back to issues in the foundational technique. Some students (really, it’s all of us at one point or another) have gaps in their technique that will eventually squash progress. When we hit these blocks, it’s well worth it to find the 2-6 months away from the present trajectory, repertoire, etc. that it usually takes to rework a fundamental element. Practice in these times will look completely different then that of someone preparing for an upcoming performance or audition!
Other students have a learning style that just seems to require more time to digest new information. From the outset, it might appear as though it’s just not sinking in, but I’ve been surprised again and again. Like a baby bird maturing inside an egg, we can’t see the progress from the outside, but then one day the little bird or violin student, emerges with new ability, completely formed. Somehow, the learning we were trying to share percolated down and is now unshakable within them.
Finally, not every student comes for lessons intending to make a career out of their music making. However, isn’t successful practice a large part of what will determines what future options a student has? Just because someone doesn’t expect to make music a career, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be able to make steady, meaningful improvements. The point is to make whatever time we do have to practice as satisfying and worthwhile as possible.
The insightful book "Teaching Genius: Dorothy DeLay and the Making of a Musician" by Barbara Lourie Sand, describes Julliard pedagogue Dorothy DeLay’s five hour practice routine:
Five Hours (all “hours” are 50 minutes with a 10 minute break)
- Technique, such as left hand articulation, shifting, vibrato, and bow strokes
- Repertoire passages, arpeggios and scales
- Etudes and Paganini
- Bach or solo recital repertoire
For those with orchestral commitments she recommended only hours 1, 3 and 4 on rehearsal days.
You wouldn’t be the first one to read this and think “If this is what it takes, maybe I should just quit now?!” While it’s often possible to cut some social media and Netflix time and gain at least an hour or more for daily practice, 2-3 hours daily let alone 5 will not be possible for many students. Regardless, I’ve seen the wisdom of such a practice template proven again and again. We’ll focus on the content instead of the timeframe.
Firstly, I appreciate that DeLay’s first hour is dedicated to isolated technique instead of scales and arpeggios (where most other practice suggestions like to start). Scales and arpeggios, though seemingly fundamental, package all our major technique into a relatively brief string of notes. They are quite demanding when played with consistently good intonation, rhythm, and tone. There’s no place to hide. Needless to say, if the goal of practice is to feel increasingly confident in our playing, rather then to beat ourselves up, I agree that we need time to warm up into scales.
Practice should start with at least a few minutes spent getting in touch with our instrument, bow, and body, focusing on either bigger movements to warm up the muscles and joints, like full bows, or an isolated element of focus - bow hold, instrument hold, keeping the bow straight, shifting, vibrato, a particular bow stroke, exploring left hand fingertip pressure, or sounding points, or dynamics. Something that makes it fairly easy to focus, focus, focus.
DeLay’s routine ramps up through the 2nd and 3rd hours of practice, preparing for hefty Concerto repertoire in hour four. Why take so long? Aren’t our concertos what everyone will hear? Yes, but concertos are complex and take stamina to play. We might think of organizing our practice like creating a quilt. First, we work on individual techniques requiring one train of thought, then juggle more difficult passages, scales and arpeggios which require us to put a few more pieces together, then we move into etudes which further amalgamate more of the elements of our technique, and finally pieces.
After concerto repertoire, Delay’s sequence recommends solo Bach or other solo work. Initially this seems counter-intuitive. These selections can be among our most complex. Why wait until we are potentially physically and mentally exhausted?
As technically difficult as these works can be, compared to a flashy Romantic Era Concerto they usually feature a more narrow shifting range that rarely moves beyond the third position, and use fewer advanced bow strokes. Of course they usually make up for this with plentiful multi-stops and interpretation which is much less obvious. Without the interchange of accompaniment or even a break in the notes in many instances, these types of pieces require an artist to extract the phrasing and imbedded harmony as if she herself was a reduction of an orchestra.
In considering her choice to leave Bach to the end, I also think about the feeling I have after a long hike or workout. I don’t necessarily have the energy to keep running or climbing mountains, but there’s a blissful calm as I’m cooling down. Endorphins maybe? Whatever it is, I could stay there for a while! I wonder if DeLay was hoping to harness this state? Many Bach passages evoke almost religious reverence. I love the mental focus, yet peacefulness that can come at this stage in a practice session. It’s the closest I’ve come to almost being able to will myself into “the zone.”
Besides career minded Classical students, students who only have a short time to practice, as well as fiddle students or students exploring Jazz or other genres, can easily modify such a template to fit their needs. For instance:
15 min early beginner routine:
4 min setting up and practicing bow and instrument holds, left and right hand warmups, open strings, long and short bows, tone
2 min isolate known trouble spots in the repertoire pieces - a tricky finger spacing, a string crossing, an accidental
2 min tuning the finger patterns required for the piece you’re learning
4 min current piece or tune
3 min review pieces, or review the techniques and warmups from #1
30 min beginner workout or quick maintenance for a more experienced player:
6 min warmup focusing on tone/bowing and organizing the left hand. For example - open strings and simple passages focusing on the bow hold, bow speed, pressure, tilt, and sounding point, violin hold and left hand comfort, the frame of the hand and intonation, tapping, trills, double stops, various finger patterns played as tetrachords, etc. This time should focus on individual weaknesses and technical goals.
6 min isolate known trouble spots in the repertoire pieces
5 min scales, arpeggios, and/or an etude
8 min current solo repertoire
5 min review pieces, fiddle tunes, improvising, etc. Enjoy!
One hour practice for a student juggling personal and group repertoire:
10 min warmup/technique as described above.
10 min isolate known trouble spots in the repertoire pieces
10 min scales, arpeggios, and/or an etude
15 min current solo repertoire
15 min orchestra music
One hour practice for a fiddle student who’s interested in also learning how to also improvise:
10 min warmup/technique as described above.
10 min isolate known trouble spots in your tunes - a tricky string crossing, some double stops, a couple shifts
10 min scales, arpeggios, and/or an etude - yes, even fiddle players can benefit!
15 min fiddle tunes
15 min improvising - along with a chord progression track, within a key signature, around a set fiddle tune, in a particular genre, etc.
Two hour practice for a more serious student preparing for an audition:
15 min warmup/technique as described above.
15 min isolated known trouble spots in the repertoire pieces
30 min scales, arpeggios, and/or an etude
30 min audition solo repertoire
30 min audition excerpt music
Two hour practice for a music teacher juggling student repertoire and solo performances or symphony dates:
15 min warmup/technique as described above.
15 min isolate known trouble spots in the repertoire pieces
15 min scales, arpeggios, and/or an etude
45 min solo repertoire/symphony music
30 min difficult student repertoire
We see how easily this template can be modified to suit different needs and timeframes.
However long or whatever you decide to practice, my top three suggestions are:
- Playing consistency aside, never practice a passage the exact same way twice
- Enjoy yourself
Let me explain...
Round-robin was a term I started using back in the early 2000s for a practice technique I found extremely helpful when preparing to video record my “Improve your Bowing Technique” series for Strings Magazine. From forming the bow hold to advanced strokes, I’d be recording all the demos as well as my instruction in one long day, hopefully on the first or second take. I didn’t want to be caught wasting anyone’s time so I started practicing all my parts in a round and fell into this mode of practice by accident. I’d practice each part just long enough to get the gist, then move to the new stroke or selection, then the next, and finally back around to the first, repeating the cycle (though not typically in the same order) at least three times before calling it a day. Each time I’d return I found myself easily able to pick up where I left off previously, seemingly making more progress than usual in a single session. Sometimes I’d come back and do a few quick rounds several times throughout the day. Even more intriguing was how it seemed as though the learning would stick better day to day.
More recently I’ve come to learn that this technique actually has a technical name - interleaved practice, and is being studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. A number of studies have now shown how mixing things up in this way can help boost learning and retention. See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-interleaving-effect-mixing-it-up-boosts-learning for more insight into this fascinating technique.
Considering this, does it actually make sense to practice in the order Delay recommended or any of my suggestions above? Maybe not, or at least not all the time.
Which brings me to tip #2. Besides the order in which you practice, frequently mix up the rhythms, dynamics, tempos, fingerings/positions, and articulations. Scales, etudes, and arpeggios are blank canvasses. Play them a new way every day. A new fingering, in a different key, a different tempo, or rhythm, or use a different bow stroke or combination of strokes. Mix and match. The options are endless and the creativity keeps practice fresh.
Repertoire doesn’t lend itself quite as well to dramatic modifications, but there’s still room to explore. Trying slightly different tempos are an easy way to keep practice engaging. Playing with dynamics other than the ones intended in the part can sometimes give us information about our tone production. Playing difficult passages with different rhythms, articulations, or bow strokes can also help us drive deeper into the learning. Practicing solo and with various recorded accompaniments opens our awareness of harmony and phrasing.
And finally, we must make sure we make it enjoyable, but how?
- Separate the idea of practice and performance. You’re not practicing to prove to yourself or anyone else that you can play perfectly, you’re here to discover and improve. That said, it’s also important to practice performing - it’s very bad news when the first time you run through the entire piece is in the dress rehearsal! But again, performing with the need to be perfect only leads to stress and injury. Practice needs to balance the need to work out the details and break down passages, with the need to play them through with fluency, feel, and enjoyment.
- Create a dedicated practice space where everything is ready to go and where you won’t be disturbed, including by cell phone notifications. Welcoming acoustics, a comfortable temperature, a way to easily create and listen to recordings, a metronome and/or tuner, a pencil and eraser, and a mirror to check your posture and positioning are a plus.
- Set achievable goals, ones that can be accomplished in a couple of weeks or months max. “Become a better violinist” is great, but a bit too broad and hard to measure to keep most of us motivated day to day. Consider “create better tone by keeping my bow straight,” or “become more confident with double-stops of a particular interval in first position (or shifting to fourth position, or using fourth fingers, or playing near the frog, or playing in a new key).”
- Create a hierarchy of goals and actions and don’t get ahead of yourself. Honor the process. If you’re a teacher, don’t let your students force you to skip steps and teach them techniques far beyond their level. We might get the idea we need to learn a certain advanced piece, vibrato, a fancy bow stroke etc., but on first listen it’s obvious we need help setting up the bow hold, solidifying intonation, or haven’t learned to shift and play in the positions required in our dream piece. We need to take in the big picture, take stock of the issues, and organize them into a step-by-step list. You could even break this list down into one list for the techniques and functions of the right side, one for the left, one for rhythm issues etc. Then tackle only one or two major technical issues at a time. If a student is working on fixing a bow hold problem, it’s best not to also try to learn a fancy bow stroke that will require a highly functional bow hold! Success with either in that scenario would be a miracle. However, it could make perfect sense to also start fixing issues with this student’s intonation or vibrato. The actions needed are entirely separate from the bow hold and much can be learned about these left hand topics without using the bow at all.
- Keep a practice journal and track your successes. Even if you’re only 2 bpm faster on the metronome today, it’s a success you can measure and by the end of the week you’ll be able to look back and see all the steps you’ve taken to improve your playing.
- Put some feel into it. Especially with violin family instruments we can easily get bogged down in technique. While you might not be able to achieve the masterful interpretation you imagine just yet, hear it vividly and play from that intention. Even if it’s a shifting exercise or open string warmup, put your heart into it. All our technical work is a means to this end.
- Hold yourself accountable, but if you’re not feeling it, let it go for the day. This could apply to practice in general or practicing something in particular. Some days we’re focused and enthused about exercises and scales. Other days we need to play fiddle tunes or review old repertoire we love. One of my yoga teachers recommended her students start with just one downward-facing dog per day and see where that leads. Showing up is often the most difficult part.
- Pay attention to your physical and mental energy levels and schedule practice when you’re most likely to be in the mental, emotional, physical state to enjoy it. After a long day juggling kids, work, and sitting in traffic is probably not ideal. Or maybe it is? You know yourself best, so try to think ahead and schedule practice at a time when you’re least likely to get frustrated about a “bad” practice session or find excuses not to practice. Everyone has to find their own rhythm with it. Rubber practice mutes can be great when our perfect time to practice is when others in the house might be on a conference call or taking a nap. I personally enjoy noontime rehearsals and evening practice sessions. I’m grateful that I’m finally in a living situation now where I can follow these rhythms without worrying that I’m bothering a roommate or partner trying to work from home or the neighbor in the next apartment.
Most of us have limited time to practice, so learning how to be more effective is often as important as what we’re practicing. Of course, even if we find a routine that works for us, there are no magic templates that will abolish the chance of a frustrating session in the future. Those happen from time to time. With any approach, we want to avoid practicing bad habits, repetitive strain, or spending unnecessary time practicing what we’re already good at, yet usually, even mediocre practice is better then no practice. It’s important to appreciate that different practice styles exist and to avoid the paralyzation that can come from the idea that you must practice like someone else to improve. If something works for you, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, try a new approach, and keep trying until you’re hearing results that make you happy.
When I was growing up I usually practiced everything I needed to every day, but in recent years I’ve often found more benefit and less stress in alternating technique days with days devoted to repertoire. Trying to juggle everything on the same day can make my practice feel rushed and superficial.
I might still warm-up with a few scales, exercises, or etudes on repertoire days, or play a few pieces during my technique days. And sometimes I have to detour and devote nearly all of my practice to learning new material I need to learn for a performance, recording session, or I need to prepare some difficult music one of my students is studying. However, an alternating schedule can be a sneaky way to keep more practice material in play, cycling through the most important repertoire, technical elements etc. more frequently, and avoiding the common issue of never feeling sufficiently prepared - our old repertoire is rusty and anything we’re working on presently isn’t ready to share yet! While this practice approach might not make as much sense for a beginner who needs to drill the fundamentals frequently, similar to how fitness experts recommend alternating cardio workouts with strength days, flexibility etc., as a musician advances I think there’s value in considering alternating practice routines day to day.
I hope this has given you some new ideas for creating a healthy practice routine. The best routine is the one that works for you! For more of my posts about practicing, click here or use the search bar or categories tag up above. Feel free to send me your practice success story or share your ideas and questions. Happy practicing!