Efficient and organized practicing is a determining factor in a musician’s overall technical and musical progress on the instrument. Although this article mainly focuses on proper practicing techniques for string performers in classical music, any instrumentalist performing in diverse musical genres can also take advantage of this general practicing approach.
Everyone has heard of the famous saying: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.” While there is some level of truth to this saying, it is not the number of practice hours that provide a meaningful improvement on the instrument. Instead, the quality of practice can make one hour worth several hours; in essence, quality over quantity. Therefore, this guide will provide a series of foolproof steps to find a systematic approach to make the most out of your practice time:
Meaningful progress is made in the practice room or at home, and not at the teacher’s studio. Practicing can be very personal to each individual. Some musicians would even assert that practicing can be a meditative, hypnotic, or stress-relieving experience. For this reason, it is essential when practicing to find a comfortable room with minimal to no distractions that could interfere with concentration. The practice space is the musician’s safe haven, were several hours dedicated to personal progress around the instrument are accomplished.
A common element that all masters of their instruments share is the ability to self-reflect and understand that there is always room for improvement. Humility functions as a catalyst tool for technical and musical mastery on the instrument. It is a crucial step that can positively influence the musician’s mental state during daily practice.
One of the 12 virtues by Aristotle is patience. It is one of the most important practicing tools that contribute towards musical and instrumental growth. Likewise, a musician that displays patience while practicing will be able to mature faster and more efficiently. Be patient with yourself. Control the urge for instant gratification, or as the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”
A metronome is not only important, it is necessary. This tool works alongside with humility as many instrumentalists make the mistake of ignoring this crucial element. This is due to either fear of breaking the ego or just pure laziness. The metronome is the musician’s best friend as it has many beneficial qualities. The perks of consistent use during practice can improve many aspects of your playing; internal rhythm, musical dexterity, learning of notes and memorization, self-confidence, as well as promoting instrumental control are perfect examples.
Before diving into your daily practice routine, be prepared to take 15 to 20 minute breaks between each practice step. Breaks are an important component of practice, preventing and lowering the risk of injury. Do not attempt to practice for multiple hours on your first attempt. Be patient, always practice incrementally, and give yourself time to build endurance in order to get used to this system.
Scales are the weightlifting machines of the instrumental world. It is the best musical workout to strengthen the hand muscles around the instrument delivering both dexterity and speed. At the same time, all melodies and harmonies in music originate from a simple scale. Practicing daily scales increases ability to play anything on the music staff. Additionally, scales are a great warm-up tool that will teach you the overall mapping of your instrument.
Begin your practice routine with scales, one hour daily with a metronome set to no more than 60 BPM. It is important to practice incrementally alongside the metronome. For string instrumentalists, this means one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and sixty-four notes per bow, until the entire scale can be played up and down with one bow. Apply this same incremental practice routine to include arpeggios, broken thirds, chromatic scale, double stops, and octaves.
During this one-hour dedicated practice time, do not make the mistake of playing scales just for the sake of playing for one hour. Instead, make sure to concentrate on applying proper technical concepts, intonation, rhythm, and memorization of the overall instrument’s mapping. At the same time, it is important to distribute this hour evenly between each facet of the scale system when learning on the instrument.
2. Études and Technical Studies
Technical Studies are the protein shakes, vitamins, and vegetables of instrumental playing. For most instruments, études are pieces meant to strengthen technique, dexterity, and range. In most cases, these technical pieces are a result of hundreds of years’ worth of discoveries, specialized techniques, and technical concepts passed down through several generations. These pieces originate from performers who have achieved complete and total mastery over their instruments. Études are also great tools that teach you how to properly tackle and learn the core repertoire of your instrument. For this reason, consistently practicing and learning études will be the second most important step in your practice routine.
Dedicate anywhere between thirty minutes to one hour of your daily practice to études, following your scales practice. Begin by learning and internalizing the notes incrementally, one phrase at a time with the aid of a metronome at a very slow speed; the slower the better. Once the note learning process is completed and internalized, begin increasing the metronome’s speed every 5 to 10 clicks.
Do not make the mistake of moving forward to a faster speed until those phrases or pieces are absolutely solid, both rhythmically and musically. Keep practicing incrementally until you can successfully bring the étude to a speed faster than its original tempo. Once the étude, learned successfully and internalized with proficiency, you can now take the metronome out. Practice the piece at the original intended speed; keep things steady and in tune. During this time in your daily practice, think and focus on which technical concepts the étude is trying to teach you. Most of the time, these technical pieces are inspired by larger and more intricate musical works.
3. Solo Pieces, Concerti, Sonatas, and Larger Musical Works
Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, and Connor McGregor would not pursue a match without proper preparation. A key contributing factor to each of these athlete’s successes are the mental and physical preparation each of them underwent behind the scenes. None of these athletes would tackle a fighting match unprepared, and neither should you.
Now that you have practiced your daily scales and études, you are ready to begin practicing your instrument’s core repertoire. For this step, use the same practicing techniques, and knowledge learned from scales and études, and apply it to the learning process of your core instrumental pieces. Do not make the mistake of attempting to learn a piece by simply playing from beginning to end. Instead, practice consciously, incrementally, purposefully, and systematically.
When an instrumentalist can achieve intentional and organized practice, one should notice better progress and faster learning. At the same time, a person could be repeating the same mistakes for hours and not be able to achieve any kind of meaningful progress. For this reason, the number of practice hours dedicated to larger musical works will depend on several factors. These include the number of pieces currently being learned, the learning pace of the musician, and other daily activities that will take time away from the instrument.
This is the very last step in every professional’s daily practice routine. After completing the learning process of steps two and three, you can use this time to polish intonation, rhythm, difficult passages, musical intent, and interpretation. Most classical musicians benefit from this final step by implementing repetition to fortify the three kinds of memories; muscular, aural, and visual. In other words, this is the time where you can finally put the metronome away. Sit back, relax, and drive your neighbors crazy by playing those juicy musical works for as many times as you want, all while enjoying that feeling of having total control over the instrument.
Sloppy practicing will guarantee a sloppy performance and a major knock out in the concert hall. The art of practicing like a pro, with intent and systematically, will guarantee you to become a champion of your instrument and any musical work.