The end of the semester is quickly approaching, which means only one thing for the lower division, undergraduate music majors: juries. While the idea of a single 10 minute time block in front of a panel of violin and viola professors representing an entire semester’s worth of work might send a tingle of fear down my back, it serves as nice benchmark or snapshot of my progress as a violinist to date. As I look back over the course of my time at the University of Texas, I realize the most significant change has been in my practicing style from last year to this year.
Where last year I had a huge (well, three hour) block of the morning dedicated to personal violin practice with time for my morning routine, intense repertoire study, and many pre-lesson-meet-ups with my studio mates. I didn’t realize at the time, of course, how luxurious my extended practices were. That time and space offered a great deal of opportunity for personal improvement, self introspection, and, well, lolly gagging. I certainly worked hard while in the practice room, but it wasn’t necessarily efficient work.
Sophomore year has necessitated a dramatic overhaul of my previous practice style, as nice as it was. No longer do I have the cushion of freshman freshness to guard me in rehearsals or lessons. I have also become a part-time teacher, and regularly see students enrolled in Monarch Suzuki Academy and the UT String Project. With 19 students for a combined 14 hours of teaching weekly, no longer do I have extended morning practices to enjoy. And with the opportunity to teach those kiddos, no longer are my practice habits informed merely by my experience as a student.
I can now spend the precious time that I have, practicing like a teacher. This is my strategy…
Take advantage of the time that I have.
- Capitalize on the 5 minutes, the unexpected orchestra rehearsal setbacks, and the canceled lessons.
I can no longer wait for hour long pre-planned practice blocks to begin my study. This semester demands the use of all available times I find with my instrument. I use the small bits to do a scale sequence, work out a couple of tricky measures, or do a play through of important rep without a warm up.
- Prepare for mental fatigue.
Because my plate is far more full than it was, I sometimes practice in unideal circumstances — when perhaps my brain is more fuzzy than I would hope. To stave off toxic bouts of mindless practice, I follow the advice of Dr. Christine Carter who recommends “randomizing” practice. Instead of spending 30 minutes on 10 measures of a concerto and then moving on to the next, I rely on my iPhone timer to inform me to move on after 2 minutes of focussed passage work. I repeat this process with a rotation of about 5 passages for a total of 30 minutes. Each time I begin working on a passage, I am challenged to defamiliarize myself and prepare ahead — ultimately training a reliability worthy of performance.
- Use my time to accomplish the right goals.
Time spent practicing would be hardly useful if it wasn’t on the material assigned and advised by my teachers. Just as I expect my students to practice the work I assign them, I attempt to prepare everything assigned to me in each lesson. I make a couple of quick notes immediately after I leave Prof. Yamamoto’s studio, and bring my iPad to each lesson in order to take a video of our full 60 minutes.
Take my own advice.
- Practice consistently.
Even over the phone, when I am first discussing the prospect of teaching someone’s child, I make it clear that daily practice is mandatory for the longterm success of a musician. However, that standard is easier to communicate than it is to put into practice. Because I touch my violin throughout the day in rehearsals and in lessons, it is tempting to leave my violin in its case when the end of the day draws near. I find the easiest way to make sure I end up in the practice room is preplanning at least one hour a day at the beginning of the week, telling friends about my practice plans ahead of time, and taking the elevator rather than the stairs up to the fifth floor practice rooms.
- Listen and practice mentally.
I still find that the most essential part of my new music learning process is the critical listening stage that I assign each of my students. Spotify premium is my favorite medium for collecting a variety of recordings of a single work and listening on the go or while multi-tasking in my dorm room.
What would I say to myself (as my own teacher)?
- Now that I have experienced a few lessons from the other perspective (teacher rather than student), I am beginning to ask more and more critical questions of my own playing as I practice…
- Would I be able to hear these dynamic contrasts? Do they need to be exaggerated?
- Is this passage REALLY in tune? Is my violin REALLY ringing? Could it ring more?
- Do I know the historical/dramatic context of each piece? Could I apply a story or character to add a new dimension?
- What could I do to make each passage more reliable?
- Gosh, is my posture REALLY facilitating efficient violin playing…?
With the new opportunity to teach, not only have I moved one more step toward my ultimate professional goal, but have also been able to increase my efficiency in the practice room!