Time efficient, productive and enjoyable practise
Learning to practise a musical instrument is actually a Life Skill. It is The Art of Learning. The methods and procedures used, can be applied to almost any discipline or process in life. Therefore learning to practise well, can save you enormous amounts of time, can be highly productive and extremely satisfying.
This is a huge subject and in this lecture, I hope to cover the aspects I feel are fundamental, the principles that I have developed and refined in my own work as a concert cellist and teacher over many years.
What is the purpose of practising?
To prepare a wonderful performance; a performance in which we feel confident and free to be as expressive as we want, as expressive as we can be.
Concerns I often hear:
I donít know how much I should practise.I get bored.
I keep having to practise the same things, without really fixing anything.
I get very tense.
I donít get through the material I have to learn.
I donít really know where to start.
I find practising depressing.
I think Iím mostly wasting my time.
I donít know what Iím doing, so concerts are a nightmare.
Iím asked a multitude of questions, including:
How do I practise a difficult passage?
Is it best to practise passages slowly or in the actual tempo?
What should my expectations be in each session?
What should I do when a passage goes completely wrong and I grind to a halt?
Practising as I said, is a Skill and an Art in itself.
It is the training of our minds and bodies. It should be approached like a sport. Itís also a journey of discovery. So a regime and a structure is essential so we donít get distracted or spiral out of control. Learning doesnít happen in a straight line, just like the journey of the music. So our expectations must be related to the practise system so we can cope with the ups and downs.
Practising is fascinating, demanding, physically and mentally tiring and very importantly rewarding, but it has to be an absolutely normal part of your life and it has to be one of your priorities.
It shouldnít be entered into lightly. I have always found that crossing the line into my music room is something I take very seriously and sometimes with trepidation. The practise room is a place where you expose yourself to your weaknesses, your strengths, your emotions and your worries. But it is also the place where you can find deep satisfaction, exhilaration and a frequent sense of achievement. A place where you can stretch yourself and feel the journey of increasing knowledge. Itís also the place where you commune with great composers like Bach and Beethoven. Itís also a place where you can escape from all other things in your life! Which we all enjoy at times!
Focus and concentration are paramount. As are being true to yourself and to the music. Worry, and the anticipation of failure are negative and undermining. We need to be consistently positive and creative, which I know is a tall order! To achieve this requires a regime, a system, a set of guidelines.
Timetable your work for the week.
Morning, afternoon, evening? We must learn to ignore our preference as a morning or night person, because in professional life, we rarely get choices; time constraints, fitting in with schedules and the effects of time zone changes. Practise time is in a zone of its own.
Regularity builds fitness and stamina, both mental and physical.
Practising every day is the ideal we should aim for. Even after a long day of orchestral sessions, a short private practise can be very beneficial.
Eat and drink in readiness. Start your practise hydrated and sustained. Have healthy snacks and water close to hand for your breaks.
Think about seating, lighting. Be prepared for a hot or cold room.
For 1-2 minutes before you take your instrument, do some gentle but large physical movements to get your circulation going, your muscles active. Gently swing your hips, arms, legs, shoulders. Breath deeply, stretch your facial muscles, smile, sing, enjoy relaxed uninhibited movement - no one is watching!
Put other things to one side, phones, To do lists, bills. Donít have them in sight. They prey on you. Face away from distractions outside the window if that is a problem.
Take your instrument:
Start by gently playing a few minutes of some music you know and enjoy; a movement or section of not-too-fast music. Bach Suite 1 Prelude for example to get you in a good mood, enjoying playing music and your instrument. Play with a beautiful sound. Feel good vibration, resonances. Feed your body with the resonances of the instrument.
Then starts the 3 Stage Plan:
I highly recommend that you are studying three or more works at any given time; something new, something that is Ďwork in progressí and something close to performance level. The 3 Stage Plan, which is applied to each overall practise session, is designed to vary your pace, vary your use of energy and vary the physical and mental demands in your practise session. It also allows you to recover from the demands of one area, while you work in another.
Starting on a new piece. Sight reading: Look carefully at all the composerís instructions; tempo, dynamics, articulations, expression markings etc. Look at the score (piano part) to roughly identify the relationship of your part with the other instruments and to see the context of your part. Slowly read/play through the music, phrase by phrase, stopping frequently and making initial decisions on fingering and bowings. Just enough to enable you to play from the start through a short section (2 or 3 lines) without stopping frequently. Then start the process on the next section.
Delving into the music: Playing at the real tempo, exploring and testing different interpretations, fingerings, bowings, sounds, moods and emotions. Use these variables to search for what you feel expresses the music in a way that is both faithful to the composersí directions, to the artistic creation as a whole and to the way you feel personally about the music, the way you react to the music. Be extremely sensitive to your instincts and your feelings because your genuine responses to the music from the tiniest detail to the entire piece will be your unique view. No one else can or will have the same feelings you have, so having clear feelings and applying them to your playing will automatically make your interpretation unique. You will have no reason to worry (as many frequently do) that you need to find a way to be different. Expressing your genuine feelings makes you different.
This is also the stage to solve technical problems. Solving problems means understanding what makes a passage difficult and finding a solution, both physically and mentally. (I will discuss this in detail later in a section entitled Analysis). At the beginning of Stage 2 practising, go straight to a specific problem passage to work on. Solve the problem and then play through that passage from well before until well after. Then move to another specific problem passage and do the same. Do not play from the start until something goes wrong.
This is the point you need to start flying! Polishing, refining, working on larger scale interpretive ideas. Playing through. Stimulating your adrenalin with your involvement in the music. Also rehearsing with a pianist or other members of the ensemble. Above all, search for the deeper meanings, the reason the music has been created this way, the message you are going to communicate.
Organise your practise to distribute the 3 Stages within a practise session. e.g. half an hour of each (this is flexible, depending on your requirements at a particular time). You can repeat the cycle of Stages throughout the day, but it is very important not to slog at one Stage for many hours. Moving from one Stage to another within your practise session will be hugely beneficial to your efficiency, your ability to learn and your well-being. It will enhance your absorption of the information you have acquired and thereby enable you to better recall your discoveries and decisions. It is essential that your feelings and decisions sit comfortably in your memory.
Within every Stage it is essential to take short moments of rest. For example, after solving one problem which may have taken you 10 minutes, stand up and turn around. Take some deep breaths and sit down to embark on the next challenge. After finishing a Stage, take a longer break of say 5 minutes. Drink, have a bite of a snack. After two Stages, take a longer break of 15 minutes. Get some fresh air, walk, move your body just as you did in the warm up. Remember youíve been focussing for long periods at the music on you stand (only a metre away). Give your eyes and your brain a change by looking at things in the distance; your creative mind (and your eyes) will appreciate the change.
Goals for each session:
Set goals for each session and each week of practising.
Decide how much material you realistically would like to cover that day and that week. And if you find that after a few days you have fallen very short of your target, donít get stressed. Over time, and with the guidelines I am explaining today, youíll learn your capabilities and youíll become quicker and more efficient with your practise.
Analysis and learning:
Analysing is an essential skill. It is key to learning.
Analysing is thinking about what is in the music, how the phrases are shaped, where it breathes, what is the emotion, the structure, the colour, the energy, what the message of the music is. When you have some thoughts, add your thoughts to your playing phrase by phrase.
Donít think that your ideas now have to remain unchanged. They are just a step in the never-ending creative process.
Play a short section and then stop. Consider what you like and donít like about what you just played. Focus on one aspect and think how you can improve it. For example the quality of sound, or sense of direction. Think how you are going to make that improvement and apply it. Donít just say ďOh that was dreadfulĒ and straight away play it again, hoping it will be better. When you decide on an improvement and apply it, play with absolute conviction. Listen intently and stop again. Consider what you have heard and remind yourself what you did. Make any further improvements in the same manner. Once you are basically happy with the section, challenge yourself by playing it in an entirely different way; with a different mood, or different tempo (slower or faster), articulation or dynamic. Or a combination of new ideas. Listen intently how the music speaks differently to you and consider if any of those elements would enhance the section, even if used in the subtlest of ways.
Analysing technical issues:
We must accept that no movement happens in your hands or body unless given instruction by your brain, conscious or unconscious. Therefore, understanding what you think, is key to understanding why things go well or go wrong.
Pinpointing the actual problem starts with sensing what your thoughts are. Do you have a positive, active thought and feeling to play a particular note, or are you waiting to see what happens, waiting for a disaster? Do you tense up and blank as you approach something that previously went wrong? ďOh God, here we goÖ!Ē
Do you really hear what note you are about to play in advance of playing it? Take for example one note followed by a note a 7th above. B to A, played on the same string. We know where both B and A are, as weíve played them many thousands of times. Weíve played the large shift A to B thousands of times too. So why should there be a difficulty now, in this particular phrase? The difficulty is not to play the notes but to hear them well, in enough time in relation to each other and to the particular notes that are around them, a unique combination. Itís only possible to achieve a confident and reliable shift if the A is anticipated in the ear.
If you start the shift without a clear A in your ear, your brain will not reliably tell your hand where to stop shifting. You memory of the exact mechanical place to play A will only give you an approximation - many of you without perfect pitch will recognise the disturbing difficulty of finding a note, even in first position, when playing highly abstract music. Without an aural reference we cannot play confidently in tune. Itís important to understand that we tune a note to fit into its context. The difference between a note in tune or slightly out of tune, can be a question of microns. Itís not possible for humans to mechanically measure the distance from one note to another in microns as we play. Therefore we use the truly magical power of music to guide us at high speed to the correct place. There is no scientific explanation as to how we can place a note so accurately. Music has magical powers!
The other important reason that gives us the ability to play the A in tune, is the content of the music. Music is a powerful force. Incorporating the musical gesture of a phrase, the beauty of the music, the dramatic thrust into our playing, gives us the impetus to go positively to the A. We must use the musical message, our will and and our energies to move us to that familiar A without our conscious mind questioning, doubting, distracting us from what is after all not a complicated task in the grand scheme of things. In short, hearing the A in advance and giving the entire passage a meaning, enables us to play considerably more accurately and reliably.
When analysing a passage, slow down so that you can sense all your physical movements. Watching your hands is not helpful. Feeling exactly what you are doing is essential. Make decisions as to how your hands are going to feel. Remembering what your hands and body feel like is essential.
Look at what is natural versus what is unnatural. Some physical actions are unnatural for us; for example moving one hand slowly while the other hand moves quickly, or one hand away from our body quickly while the other hand moves towards us slowly.
Like the classic patting your head with one hand while making a circular movement with your other hand on your stomach. In the music, unnatural actions can sometimes be coordinated better by arrangement; changing bowings and fingerings. But sometimes there is no possibility to make changes to a natural movement. Simply recognising when a movement is natural or unnatural is information that can solve a problem.
Understanding left and right hand rhythms and coordination is also essential. Left hand stays basically static while playing notes in that position until a shift; the shift becomes the left hand rhythm. Changes of bow direction create right hand rhythms.
When you have your memory bank of information, make sure you play a specific way, with an intention, with commitment, with determination. Only then do you have a standpoint from which to move on, to improve.
Is repetition good? I think that repetition is a looking backwards policy. It means you desire to play the way you played before and I believe with this approach you will always be disappointed, because everything is constantly changing; each time you play a phrase, your perception, the way you listen changes, your body no longer feels exactly the same, your thoughts change and you will struggle to replicate something that is disappearing into the past. Probably you will never achieve it exactly. So frustration, disappointment or worse, are almost guaranteed. Therefore I say repetition is not a productive, positive attitude.
Most importantly, every time we come to play a concert, we will feel different, the acoustic will be different, the temperature, the humidity, our instrument may respond differently, our colleagues will play differently. Nothing will be the same.
Itís no good getting something right by accident. I often hear people repeat a passage many times over, and perhaps the 10th time, it is correct. They donít know why, but they feel better. Until they discover they have to play it at least another 10 times before it happens to be right again.
If we are constantly improving our playing in our practise, striving for more, we get used to breaking new ground. We see deeper, notice more, are more ready for anything.
The Learning Loop:
Understand the movement and momentum in the learning process.
Forwards with enthusiasm with newly discovered knowledge
Slowing down at saturation point.
Stall and fall as you loose momentum.
Revisit and analyse more
With new awareness and knowledge, move forwards again.
Think - play and listen - stop - think - apply positively.
a) Think about how you would like the music to sound
b) Play and listen intently
d) Think, analyse, fix and improve in your head
e) Play again, apply your improvements actively, with conviction
I say again:
What is the purpose of practising?
To prepare a wonderful performance; a performance in which we feel confident and free to be as expressive as we want, as expressive as we can be. A performance where you show what you have discovered in the music. What you feel is the message of the music.
Performing adrenalin is a subject I will focus on in my final lecture of the year, however I believe it is essential to incorporate adrenalin in Practise, as a preparation for the performance. You need to be familiar with it. It needs to be an energy that assists you and something you plan on.
Practice performing from the earliest possible moment.
From the first moment of playing fluently, play as though someone is listening, or you are playing to an audience.
Push yourself to make the best possible quality of sound at every moment. To say something with your playing.
Sound quality has an immediate effect on our mood and is the basis for all our musical and technical decisions. It is also our inspiration, quite possibly the reason we play music at all.
Discovering new thoughts and feelings about the music is stimulating and exciting and therefore can also boost adrenalin. As I said before, you need to be constantly accepting of changes in your ideas and feelings. There is no One Way.
A big question that almost everyone wants an answer to is:
How can I feel safe?
Well Iím probably repeating myself, but Iíll stress: Donít try and fix a way of playing, one way of playing, in order to feel safe, more secure. Give yourself many experiences with the music with every passage. Play many different tempos; very slow and very fast give completely different perspectives that can be very illuminating. Many different styles with different fingerings and bowings; colour and articulation changes bring new possibilities. You will find great security in that broadness of experience, your ability to be flexible and the familiarity of testing yourself in new areas.
Iím sure those of you who have had good performing experiences will recognise the feelings of ease and freedom.
I liken this whole process to a Jumbo Jet. On the ground, it is a 333,000 Kgs (over 300 tons) mass of incredibly detailed and highly designed elements. As it starts its journey, it rumbles along the ground, shaking and rattling, roaring very loudly, feeling every gram of its weight. We find it hard to believe that there is any way such an ungainly beast, struggling so hard to move can ever take off. But then it reaches about 175mph and there is nothing in the world that can stop it from leaving the ground. From that moment it becomes an aeroplane, an amazing, free, bird that is constantly adjusting to the air, to the wind, to the thermals. It is weightless. It can glide and soar. Every detail of itsí design is for flight and for the ever changing environment.
On a very practical note: Reminder
Visual reminders of the regime and philosophy: write key words in large writing on a sheet placed on your stand.
© Robert Cohen 2014