Rule No. 2: Making it harder, really makes it easier
Now, I’m intrinsically a lazy person. So much so, that I have devised a way of getting the most done in the shortest amount of time. Obviously the end-all of this technical work is to be able to express yourself musically—it shouldn’t have to ruin your quality of life or your ability to learn about heaps of other things, enjoy yourself and be a well-rounded individual. (Sometimes I get “stage parents,” who come up to me and boast that their kid practices eight hours a day. I resist the temptation to tell them . . . well, many things.)
Two ways to improve consistency are to focus on passagework, and shifts and leaps.
The best way to do passagework is intelligent repetition—never turn to mindless repetition! Leave that for those eight-hour-a-day folks. If it is passagework you’re doing, devise ways to make it harder for yourself in the practice room so that it’s easier onstage. For rhythms, be sure to listen to the longer note for intonation, and always play with good sound. When using different bowings as an exercise, look out for string crossings and coordination. Here is an example of a passage that, to this day, I do at least a few of before anything else in this concerto (Ex. 3).
Once you can play your passage up to tempo in all these different ways, you’ll have no problem with the original version. Why? Because the original is simpler and easier than what you have just done. This idea can be applied to any passagework. Quadruplet passages are even more fun, because you have more combinations. And “fun” is not exactly a misnomer here—doing rhythms and different bowings methodically in a tough passage, and then hearing the result, well, I think that’s fun. Also, it really doesn’t take very long, if you do it right!
Shifts & Leaps
Did you know that consistency can be measured in fractions (for instance, if you miss something five out of ten times in the practice room, you have only about a 43 percent chance of doing it right onstage). When it comes to a shift or a leap, isolate that leap—and do it ten times. If you can do it the way you want ten times in a row, your consistency is 98 percent! (That incremental remaining percentage is a concert margin of error.) For anything under eight (76 percent), slow down, take a look, see if you are getting tense, try to determine if you’re consistently high or low. Certainly don’t accept less than seven (65 percent) because that’s really taking a chance onstage.
Once you can play the shift or leap consistent, give it context—being able to perform an isolated shift is not, obviously, what your audience comes to hear. Widen the context to the phrase before and after, and eventually, the whole section. You have to get used to doing that within the musical structure. The same goes for all the passagework you do.
And that brings us to confidence.
For the next step in becoming a better string player, read Pt. III of Lara St. John’s article, “Confidence.”