By Nick Revel | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
When I was a young viola student, I didn’t have a real sense of the learning process, and I had to rely on my teachers’ guidance. I’m sure they showed me how to practice what they assigned, but I don’t remember the process feeling very creative. The idea of getting better was like leveling up in a video game—grinding out scales, arpeggios, and études so I could beat the final boss, the actual music performed in recital. Even in high school, when I’d like to think I was getting smarter, I drilled passages until my fingers became tingly. That’s probably bad… and not very smart. Two Grammy nominations with PUBLIQuartet, multiple composition awards, and several albums later, I’ve learned that experimenting and tinkering with audio play-alongs, games, and improvisation keeps me grounded, present, and focused in the practice room. I like to try out what I’ve learned on my students—my precious guinea pigs.
But Mr. Nick, my fingers get tingly too! How do I practice smarter? In my experience, efficient practice is creative, self-informing, and interactive. The process can be broken down into making clear goals, trying out specific methods to achieve them, and then immediately observing if the methods were helpful.
Learning is messy, so it’s best to have extra options.
When my students make overly general goals—like to “play better”—we spend a solid chunk of the lesson talking about how “better” is an ambiguous, depressing void. Without clear goals, we drift in space. For me, “better” falls into four general categories of work: body, time, pitch, and expression. In reality, the practice process is a magical maze of interconnected concepts, but it’s always helped me and my students to break it down. So, for example, in terms of time, a clear goal, like “don’t rush,” is better, but the best goals are positively oriented ones, like “play in a steadier tempo.”
A method is an action that accomplishes your goal and can be as simple as “play with a metronome.” But learning is messy, so it’s best to have extra options, like “speak the rhythm with a metronome,” “sway to the pulse while playing,” and maybe “record and listen back.” Careful with that last one though. Observing the method’s effectiveness is a crucial part of the process as it informs next steps. Verbalize or write down what worked in terms of accomplishing your goal.
But Mr. Nick, what if I can’t find the methods? What if I’m wasting my time? What is the meaning of life? Whoa… let’s stay grounded. Observing a “nope, fixed nothing” is not bad because it reveals that your method was ineffective at conquering the current goal. It could be an absolute banger for a different goal, so keep it in your pocket. The “right” way is to follow this self-informing cycle into the rabbit hole, allowing your GPS to reroute your process as you burrow deeper. Progress might feel glacial because it can lead to more questions than answers, but you are not alone, and people love giving advice, so bring your questions to a teacher or a trusted friend.
One of my students, whom I started working with on Zoom in 2020, had difficulty maintaining a steady pulse in the Suzuki Book 4 concerto movements. He would rush on repeated eighth notes and cut rests short, so that by the time the armies of sixteenths reared their oppressive double-beamed noteheads, he was sunk like burnt toast in a raging river. We experimented over several weeks with many methods, but none fully solved the issue. Feeling stuck during practice is frustratingly inevitable, so I decided to seek help from an online piano accompaniment audio play-along. I end up devising games, exercises, and play-along tools when I run out of ideas. It’s pure curiosity, like “what does this button do?” Really, it’s tinkering. And I love it.
External audio sources are fantastic practice tools because they can be applied to achieving a variety of goals. This backing track gave him so much more information than just a metronome and a tuner. It allowed him to hear the interaction between the viola solo and the piano reduction as he played, not only completely solving the rushing (over time), but also helping to improve his intonation and knowledge of the harmonic structure. Anything and everything that provides an external reference point for pitch, rhythm, and harmony creates an inviting musical workspace. He later crushed the final boss (Zoom recital), alongside the audio play-along, and was crowned hero to thunderous emojis in the chat.
My most ambitious tinker project came from a desire to practice intonation and rhythm more efficiently as a daily warm-up. Enter DragonScales—a 3-octave scales and arpeggios audio play-along system in all keys, in slow to fast rhythms, for violin, viola, and cello. Unlike most scale books, DragonScales are fully notated through cycles of rhythms to which the audio play-alongs, accessed via YouTube QR code links, follow in perfect unison, effectively combining drone tones and a metronome. And wow is it obvious when you play out of tune or time! The feedback is immediate and constant, and therefore useful. I play with DragonScales at every practice, often exploring intervals, different rhythms, and improvising alongside the audio.
Any time my tinkering creates a useful tool, I immediately try it out on my students. I figure if these tools help me, they will probably help others too! My hope is that by showing learners of any age how I use them for myself, they will eventually have their own creative tinker sessions that give direction to their own processes. I recently learned that my student who slayed rushing regularly holds jam sessions with his pianist friend after school two or three days a week, just for fun. I was so happy and proud of him knowing that they share time, tinkering with music and learning about themselves.
When Nick Revel is not touring as founding violist of the multi-Grammy nominated PUBLIQuartet, he is composing, producing, and performing original solo pieces, audio engineering, and creating practice tools like DragonScales. His recent award-winning compositions appear on his latest album, Dream Collider (Sapphire Records, 2022). He has served as artistic and executive director of the Norwalk Youth Chamber Ensembles, is co-creator of the New York String Studio, and serves on the board of the Seabury Academy of Music and the Arts in Norwalk, Connecticut.