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Thoughts on Practicing by Molly Carr

This post by Molly Carr is the first of our Technique Tuesday series of posts, which will cover a broad range of technique related topics.

INTRODUCTION 

PURPOSE of PRACTICING 

In my mind, the purpose of a “practice session” is much the same as that of a training session for a serious athlete. Time spent in the practice room should be used in teaching your body and mind how to produce exactly what you hear as your inner “Heifetz/Perlman/Horowitz.”  In other words, practicing is essentially finding the most efficient way from Point A (the music you hear in your inner ear or imagination which is yet uninhibited by your body or the instrument) to Point B (presenting your dream performance – a consistent flow from your imagination through the instrument into your audience’s ear).
If you practice well, you should be able to pick up your instrument at ANY time of day or night, amidst rain or shine, while feeling lousy or fantastic physically or emotionally, and still be able to produce at least a basic skeleton of your “inner Heifetz.”  In short, if you practice well, you can give yourself the confidence of being able to rely on a certain level of consistency during any performance.

ACHIEVING YOUR DREAM PERFORMANCE

I find that I can accomplish things most efficiently when I practice with the mentality of preparing to perform.  There is a huge difference between merely “putting in the time” on a piece or passage of music and actually realizing your own needs for each particular piece of music and subsequently planning out what is needed in order to methodically bring the music up to the desired level of performance.  The difference comes down to playing for yourself in a practice room or preparing to present what you are working on to an audience.  For example:

  • Be aware that some sections which feel fine in the practice room will not survive when placed under the pressure of performing.  If you are thinking forward toward the actual act of performing, perhaps not quite so much time will be spent on the sections you really know well – which actually do not need to be played again and again.  More time will be spent breaking down and solidifying those areas that could be a bit more “iffy” if taken out of the practice room.
  • Be considerate of what is necessary physically to project and communicate your musical ideas on a larger scale (i.e., think of playing in a hall rather than a practice room).
  • Give yourself specific thoughts to recall during performing specific sections of music such as, “Drop your shoulders here for optimal sound and facility,” or “Breathe out here in order to release the bow arm,” or “Sing and Ring!” and so on.  Preparing in such a way during your practice sessions and with such a mentality of finding whatever it will take during the upcoming performance to most clearly present each musical idea will guarantee a higher standard of performing.  Creating “mental markers” as simple as the ones I have written out above will allow your body and mind to recall during the performance all that you prepared so well in the practice room. These mental commands change often for me as my body, instrument, and frame of mind change daily – but that’s the fun of practicing! ☺


BREAKING IT DOWN
BABY STEPS

Since the purpose of practicing is to eliminate the barriers or “hiccups” which hinder the flow between your imagination and the ears of your future audience, a practice session can be compared to a trip to the doctor.  Your mind is the doctor, your playing is the patient, and your inner-ear or imagination is the exemplary human body in perfect health into which the doctor would like his patient to eventually develop.  Your job as the doctor is to compare the patient with this perfectly healthy human body, determine the patient’s shortcomings, and prescribe what is necessary to improve the patient’s health.  In short, your job as a practicing musician is this: “If there is a problem, determine what it is, why it happened, and how to prevent it from happening in the future.”

In order to help myself as the “doctor” in my practice sessions, I have come up with a list of seven items through which I can systematically pass any piece of music, any phrase, or even any single note in order to determine if I am being true to my inner ear.  This list has been my “stethoscope” in helping to locate, define, and eliminate the barriers and hiccups between my imagination and my dream performance.

  1. Intonation – Is it in tune? Am I taking the piano/orchestra part with its harmonic direction into consideration in choosing my intonation? Is it expressive? Or is it pure? Or is it tempered? Which sections do I consistently play out of tune? Why?
  2. Rhythm – Am I playing all the right rhythms?  Is it directly on the beat, before the beat, or on the back of the beat? Does it move forward? Does it ritard naturally?  Am I taking into consideration the composer’s style/background along with the flow of the other instrumental parts? Do I need to break it down and play slowly with the metronome?
  3. Bow division – Have I planned to use my bow in a way that reflects all accurate rhythms?  Have I taken into consideration all of the elements that follow: dynamics, phrasing, and quality of sound?
  4. Dynamics – Have I followed all of the composer’s directives on placement of dynamics/character of dynamics? Have I studied the score in order to understand the placement of dynamics with the other instruments? Is it well planned out, or do I have randomly chosen areas which I play a certain way for technical reasons and not musical reasons?
  5. Character/mood/direction of phrase – Is this phrase in the character that I really want? Does my body reflect the mood? Does my choice of phrasing follow the structure in which the work was composed? Am I leading my listener somewhere or am I musically stuck? Is this how I would sing it if I didn’t have my instrument?
  6. Sound production/quality of sound – Is this the quality of sound that reflects the character, mood, and direction of the phrase?  How would I sing it?
  7. Relaxed coordination/thinking ahead – Is my body being used in the most efficient manner? Do I have tension? If so, why? And how do I play this passage with the least possible physical exertion? Am I tripping up because my mind is not singing far enough ahead so that my body becomes surprised and things happen by accident?


I often find it helpful to practice with colored pencils at hand, marking (in a XEROX COPY) any problem spots in any of the seven listed areas above, so that I can know exactly what to improve in my next practice session.  Also, when I am having difficulty improving a phrase, I often find it helpful to single out one area of focus and eliminate any other thoughts.  For example, if I decide to improve my intonation on a particular spot, I will eliminate all thoughts on rhythm, division of bow, dynamics, etc… and only add back the other elements one at a time after I have adequately improved the area in focus.

BEYOND THE INSTRUMENT

Practicing is a physical exercise which demands an enormous amount of mental discipline.  Indeed, a musician who practices well will discover the need to develop more than just muscle memory, for practicing wisely requires…

  • Self-reliance and trust, in order to know when your body has learned what it is that your “doctor” is teaching it and when to let it rest.  Breaks are very important for keeping the body AND mind at their optimal functioning levels.
  • Imagination and courage, in order to seek out and discover what is really YOU and how it is that YOU truly want to make music, and to take the time to listen to your inner-Heifetz.
  • Mental preparation and discipline, in order to seek out your own imagination, but also to make sure that your imagination coincides with that of the composer.  Studying the entire score of a work BEFORE picking up the instrument, familiarizing yourself with the particular style of that composer, and digesting any pertinent background material from the life of the composer and/or the time in which the piece was written are all necessary activities in understanding a work as you prepare to perform.  If there is any discrepancy between your own ideas and that of the composer, then it is your responsibility as a performer to take the steps necessary to more fully educate yourself on all that can be learned about the composer at hand.
  • Keen awareness of the state of your body and mind and their connection.  Practicing well requires constant physical and mental re-assessments in order to determine whether you are possibly over-tired, bored, adequately challenged, overwhelmed, or in need of taking smaller “bites.” For example: Is how I am working actually improving this passage or have I become like a robot and started drilling needlessly? Is my brain too tired to digest the work I am doing right now or should I find a new way to feed it information?  Is my body too tired to keep up with my mind? Should I take a break and come back?


In addition, this sort of objective self-evaluation will show that sometimes you have to “push on” in a disciplined practice session, while other times you just need to let yourself indulge in those juicy passages which you know you can play really well and do not really need to practice so much.  (I call this “letting it rip,” ignoring any problem spots as I play through an entire section or piece merely for the sake of enjoyment.)   This balance is EXTREMELY important in allowing yourself the room to remain inspired and in love with what you are doing.  This is no different than in real life outside of the practice room; living a healthy lifestyle requires that you allow yourself adequate time for relaxation and rejuvenation, or “play-time,” in addition to your time for hard work, so that your hard work is most productive.


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