Let’s Get to Work

For all the good advice about musicianship and technique available today, one of the most powerful lessons a student can learn is how to train his or her own mind – in other words, how to practice.

There is little mystery in the process of developing a solid violin technique.  Famous pedagogue Ivan Galamian referred to the training of a young violinist as being a “scientific” process, meaning the fundamental skills could be analyzed and broken down into teachable elements.  My own teacher, Michael Frischenschlager, noted in his treatise that the countless young virtuosi at today’s international violin competitions stand as evidence that an astonishing technique can be deliberately and systematically trained by anyone willing to undergo such deliberate and systematic training!

It is a teacher’s job to share correct techniques of playing – a map and path up the mountain – but it is the student’s job to summon the mental will and vigor to complete the training.

It is not necessarily in our nature to work as hard as this requires!  We are all tempted to let our minds wander, to take a few days off when things get busy, and to coast through the motions of practicing without giving maximum effort.  Every aspiring violinist must wage a daily battle towards greater self-discipline and willpower!

There are many things in life much easier than learning to play a serious instrument such as the violin, and we are generally used to being able to achieve goals without giving maximum effort.  A student may be shocked to find that a new assignment is not mastered after several hours of work, and that even spending several hours a day for multiple weeks is just the beginning!  It is essential, especially for young students, to understand the value of tackling something that is truly challenging – and for them to understand that “truly challenging” does not simply mean giving a burst of effort, but rather following through with that effort over a sustained and long period of time.

Quick access to virtually limitless information online and the ability to juggle many projects and relationships simultaneously with modern communications technology bring us many benefits.  We must maintain respect for the hours spent on a single task, however, going deeply into one subject.  A student must learn the value of deep, sustained learning.

As teachers, parents and a whole society, we must teach the patience and discipline that this deep work requires, and we must expect it from our students.  This is the type of work that allows a person to accomplish great things – to fundamentally expand abilities, and to develop solid and honest self-esteem.  This is the type of work that allows someone to learn a skill as challenging as playing the violin, and it is also the type of work that any truly ambitious project will require – therefore, we owe it to all students, regardless of their future ambitions as a violinist, to teach this type of work.

As a very minimum, students need to understand the difference between true, deep work and a more superficial variety of practicing.  Here is some practical advice to students who wish to practice effectively and seriously:

Have a clear and ambitions goal

  • Specific goals are best – not just wanting to make something vaguely “better”
  • Understand exactly what you you are trying to improve – intonation, physical technique, expression, etc. (a teacher can help with this part)
  • At any point in a practice session, you should be able to answer the question, “What are you working on right now?”  A good answer would be something specific, such as, “Anticipating the motion of my arm for this shift, and coordinating it with my bow.”  Something general and unfocused like, “I’m working on my concerto,” would not be a helpful answer.

Attentively listen, and compare your actual playing to the goal

  • This gives you information to work with
  • Don’t feel bad or guilty about not living up to the goal right away – it is noble to be honest with yourself and to try to improve!
  • Hear and feel every detail – making an audio or video recording is a great way to check if you are fully paying attention

Use creative and effective practice techniques to improve

  • The most important practice technique is to simplify the material so that you are able to match your real playing to the goal – this usually means playing slowly and/or isolating a small section
  • We get better at doing what we do, so it’s essential to find a way to play the material correctly from the beginning, even if it’s in a very simplified version
  • If something is still not working after one or two attempts, you must immediately simplify it further to avoid repeating it multiple times incorrectly
  • A teacher should share a large variety of practice techniques for different challenges encountered in the repertoire

Practice with mental vigor and a strong will to improve

  • Give your full effort!
  • If the mind wanders towards what’s for dinner or the day’s to-do list, it may be time for a break – a violinist needs to be completely fresh and in peak mental form to do good practice
  • You should be mentally exhausted after a couple hours of good practice!

Stick with a challenge until there are real results

  • It is not enough to cover something once or twice – you have to stick with it until you have made real progress
  • A good test is to ask yourself, “Am I likely to remember this tomorrow?”
  • We should be very patient with ourselves in terms of setting small, attainable goals – but we should stick with a passage until those goals are actually achieved

Follow through with this work for a sustained, long period of time

  • Fundamental progress is measured in months and years, not hours and days
  • Be patient – it will take a while until a big goal is reached, and you need to feel comfortable continuing to work on something that isn’t immediately mastered
  • The long time frame reflects the size of the challenge – it does not reflect poorly on your ability, but rather positively on your ambition and follow-through

Practice consistently, every day

  • Even a few days off is enough to forget a lot of material – then you will be starting from scratch, in a perpetual cycle of review – it takes cumulative work, over many days in a row, for skills to start building up
  • Think of a snowball rolling down a mountain – it’s momentum builds to something tremendous, but it has to keep moving consistently
  • Five days of practice a week is not enough – this is actually mostly because of how much material is forgotten in two days off, rather than the limit of only working for five days
  • Things will always come up – a busy day, a tired day, a less-inspired day – be the kind of person who overcomes these frequent challenges and finds the strength to practice anyways

Students who understand and adopt this type of work will be heavily rewarded, both with excellent progress on the violin, as well as the deep feelings of accomplishment and self-respect that come from going beyond oneself and mastering something of tremendous challenge and value that was previously impossible.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this post!  If you found it interesting, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the top-right.  You’ll stay up to date about future concerts, and continue to receive posts such as this one from the “Into the Practice Room” series.

Happy practicing!

-Joshua