By Megan Westberg
Even professional violinists have to practice. It’s a consistent, integral thread in their lives that ties them firmly to their instrument, their music, and the greater string-playing community. Just as you scramble to find an hour in your day to focus on the violin, soloist Hilary Hahn is probably on the road, doing the exact same thing: “You only have a short window, but you always want to keep improving things,” she says. Sound familiar?
Hahn finished a project in mid-August that was all about practice—100 days of practice in a row, in fact. The idea came from a global Instagram project (designated by the #100days hashtag) that had been mainly, until that point, undertaken by visual artists. “The concept of the project was to show your process,” Hahn says. “You don’t have to worry about the result; it doesn’t have to be in great shape. You can show working on the same piece of art—you do a little bit of coloring one day, you spend 100 days on the same thing, or you could do sketches every day.” She wondered if there was something she could do for 100 days that would reveal something about her own artistic process. “So it just occurred to me: What do I do every day anyway? I practice.”
And just like that, she had committed to practicing (and posting practice videos to Instagram via her handle @violincase) for 100 days in a row.
Though she’s always evaluating her technique, Hahn focuses her practice sessions on fine-tuning the repertoire she’s currently performing and working on upcoming performance repertoire. “I was often listening for tonal and phrasing details,” she says, and used her practice videos as tools to better understand not only what she sounded like, but what her practicing looked like. “I would set [my phone] up and just do my practice session until it felt like there was something I was curious to see played back—something I was particularly working on that I wanted to see. Maybe I did it three different ways and I wanted to hear it.” She would then select a one-minute portion of her practice video that she felt best represented the spirit of the session, edit it down, and post it to Instagram. Hahn spent about a half hour on every one-minute video she posted.
Hahn’s practice challenges often are a direct result of the job she does: “Sometimes I’m jetlagged or I had a concert the day before, and it felt like x, y, and z happened in concert—how am I going to address that for the concert that’s happening tonight?” Hahn travels a lot and has a different schedule every day, so daily practice doesn’t always go as well as she’d like—but she tries to work through practice and performance hurdles with patience. “Sometimes I really don’t feel like it’s flowing with the piece that I’m supposed to be performing,” she says, “so if it doesn’t feel quite right, I might take a break, work on something else, maybe just focus on a certain aspect of playing that piece that resets my mental situation.”
“It didn’t occur to me that [the project] would help people feel empowered about their own practice situations.”
One hundred days is a long time. “I don’t think I really thought it through,” says Hahn, sounding amused. “I don’t think I thought about 100 days being almost a third of a year!” But she goes on to clarify that despite the challenges, some of which involved acrobatic attempts to capture a high-enough quality video to post, she is very glad she completed the project—and that she misses it and the regularity it imposed in her day now that it’s over. She’s been practicing, more or less every day, for much of her life, but she says that committing to 100 days in a row revealed a lot about her process, and her practice habits. “I think it made me a little more disciplined in my own practice,” she says.
Watching videos of her practice sessions over and over, both for her own purposes and as she edited them, helped her set better daily goals, and she also realized that her usual daily practice hadn’t always been, exactly, daily. Late arrivals, jet lag, and inevitable travel delays are all obstacles that sometimes take their toll. “I kind of forgot that sometimes on travel days it’s not actually very productive or convenient to try to practice,” she says. This project revealed how life sometimes interferes with even the best intentions.
But Hahn learned more from this project than just about her own practice. Her Instagram audience (about 62,000 followers in October) reacted to her 100-day commitment in a way she didn’t expect. For Hahn, to share her practice videos was just part of the project—it was nothing earth-shattering to her, because practicing is an everyday part of her life. “It didn’t occur to me that [the project] would help people feel empowered about their own practice situations,” she shares. Her followers reacted strongly, and positively, to the opportunity to watch a professional practice.
In retrospect, their enthusiasm makes sense. “It’s really hard to practice by yourself in a room every day on the same piece and know if you’re making progress or know if the process is working,” Hahn says. “Doing the project kind of created the bond for me where I realized that everyone is thinking about the same things and working toward these things and people do feel isolated at times.” Their feedback gave Hahn the sense that her project was about more than just practice and her artistic progress and growth: It fulfilled her own craving for a sense of artistic community.
For those who want to follow suit and undertake their own 100-day project, Hahn advises starting as early in the day as possible; embracing the attitude that this project is about process, not perfection; and being ready to accept that 100 days won’t work for everyone, and there’s still value in a shorter period of time. “Things get in the way,” she says. “You do your best as an artist regardless of the circumstances and you just keep moving forward.”
Most importantly, players should choose projects that best represent them. Hahn chose to focus on practice because it represented a daily aspect of her artistic identity and process, but there are so many string-related activities that would make valuable 100-day projects. “I hope that people do it,” she says. “I hope they make it their own . . . It could be 100 days of rosining your bow; 100 days of tuning. It’s not even about the performance of it; it’s about where your mind is and where your process is. So I hope people find their own thing.
“There’s a lot of creativity to be found in what represents you and your art for 100 days.”