Do I feel like Practising?
Practising is what we do for ourselves. It is solitary. It is where we work in harmony with ourselves and teach ourselves everything we will ever know. A good outside teacher is essential, and skills are learned in lessons. However it is that time on our own, where we make those skills our own, through our own brains and our own instincts – that makes the instrument our friend and the skills second nature; money in the bank to be drawn on at will.
Practising is a luxury. Students often fail to realise this. In the full hormonal bloom of adolescence, the answer to the question “Do I feel like practising?” may have a predictable answer! But the question, “Do I have to practise?” is another matter. Treat it as a sacred enterprise, something you do for yourself, where you enter a special zone and come out feeling good and contented.
There are many ways to make practice dull and boring. Many teachers seem to encourage this. Much practice is wasted on meaningless repetition with too much time spent on one thing, taking the teacher’s advice thoughtlessly without putting it to work sensibly. Early on I had a student who was a prime example of this. He would do exactly what I told him. I had told him to practise something slowly but had neglected to tell him to then gradually speed it up. You can imagine his next lesson. I have had students spend inordinate amounts of time on studies and exercises that are a strain on their hands. I long ago learned to specify the dose.
I believe that practice should be broken up into many segments, none of them boring, all leading to playing the piece or study at whatever level has been achieved. There should be a strategy for getting into the ‘zone’. Something fairly straightforward like finger exercises (Schradieck was always my favourite), memorized of course, with careful monitoring of the intonation, relaxation and action of the fingers. Any other warm up will do; we all have our favourites.
To balance out my hand and loosen up shifting, I do Kreutzer 11, a masterpiece in my opinion, from memory. Then as a quasi-religious rite, I do Kreutzer 25 in octaves, as double stops, repeating each and slurring to the next octave; again from memory, reinforcing the frame of the hand and lightening up the first finger, leading with the upper part of the hand, third and fourth fingers together. Then I am ready to do whatever needs to be done. There is always work to do on learning pieces. Take time with this, and don’t just ‘bomb’ through it. Take your good sharp pencil and enjoy the process of learning it deeply, memorising as you go. Divide into bite-size pieces, getting some command of it into your brain before going on. Practise slowly, and then push up to a faster speed, still accurately. Every now and then try to play it at speed. Notice what fails. Now stand up and start playing it, shaping it, experimenting with phrasing and expression. Let it ‘stew’ and come back to it later. Practice for forty-five minutes, and then take a break! We are all different here, and if you are just getting somewhere after forty-five minutes, then keep going. But don’t continue into the dull time, when you are no longer thinking.
At a certain stage, a student will need to spend a lot of time on developing bow hold and balance. Breaking bad habits here is as important as anything you can do. It is too easy to fall back on comfortable, well-learned mistakes. This is a point at which a good teacher may slow you up and ensure that a new habit is trained before letting you go on. Be patient and take it seriously. Above all, don’t practise too much!