Lots of string players talk about practicing more often, but few know how to make it productive
By Robert Howard
Practice is a bore.
Try a Fresh Approach
Like any endeavor, there isn’t a right way to go about practicing—find those methods that work for you. I find the emphasis on quantity over quality often leads to frustration, boredom, and resentment—there’s nothing worse than the mindless, rote tedium of feeling forced to play 90 minutes a day. In fact, this common, but zoned-out method of practice often ingrains more problems more than it solves.
1. Identify the Problems
Students often tell me they sound “bad.” This is so unhelpful! Of course, every string player wants to improve. Identifying the problem, or problems, is the first and most difficult step.
2. Break It Down
Many string players don’t know the difference between playing and practicing. Playing is what you should do to diagnose a problem. It’s most useful in the first and final stages of the learning process. Initially, you’ll need to get a lay of the land to assess the potential difficulties—it can be useful to play through bits, even if you’re faking parts of it. After you’ve taken the piece apart and worked out the kinks, play through the piece again to see what stuck. But the vast majority of practice time should not be spent playing through a piece. Rather, it should be spent breaking down the component parts. You may notice, for instance, that playing fast repeated notes is easy on one string, but impossible on multiple strings. In this case, find all the string crossing advice and exercises you can to address the real underlying problem—for example, tackling string crossings, but not simply playing fast.
3. Set Clear Goals
Why spend an hour learning something you can do in 15 minutes? Remember, stringing tasks together can be difficult, but no single thing is so hard. By setting clear, reasonable goals, you’re able to track your progress, identify problems more quickly, and feel a sense of true accomplishment. How do you do this? Divide practice time into specific goals, and spend just five to 30 minutes on any one goal, depending on your tolerance, time, and experience. A typical practice session might include focus on intonation, dexterity, string crossings, and maintaining a single contact point. Ten minutes spent on each goal equals a 40-minute practice session—hopefully not enough to become truly fed up with any one aspect.
4. Be Ready to Switch Gears
Still, frustration can set in quickly. If it does, remember that practicing has diminishing returns. The master cellist and teacher Heidi Litschauer once told me to give something three tries: if, on the third try, I didn’t see a noticeable improvement, I was to change something in my technique or approach—change the bowing, try one hand alone, alter the fingering, experiment with the rhythm . . . something! The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
5. Keep Your Focus
Most problems fit into one of three categories: rhythm, intonation, or sound. Different practice techniques work well for each of these categories. Working on one at a time is helpful. For instance, if rhythm is an issue, only work on rhythm—nothing else, and so on.
Here’s a brief list of suggested techniques:
Rhythm: say the rhythm aloud, tap to the beat, or walk to the beat while clapping the rhythm and deliberately practicing alternate rhythms (for unevenness).
Intonation: play everything as if it were a half note, practice shifts backward and forward (there should be a whole other section on shifts!), check with open strings and/or harmonics, or play with drones (always sing/hear the phrase before you play it).
Sound: play open strings alone; play slow scales, sustaining a 20- to 30-second bow; practice everything in the lower or upper half; or watch your contact point in the mirror.
When in doubt, tape yourself and listen to the playback. Or videotape the session, so you can better evaluate your skills. My friend Cathy Van Hoesen says, “We always worry about what we’re good at.” And be open-minded about your strengths and weaknesses: for instance, I often hear students with the best intonation complain about their intonation, yet they have no idea that it’s their bow changes or their tone that I’m focused on.
Learn to be suspicious, as well as observant.