The definition of a “curse” is: “something unpleasant and unavoidable that never goes away”. Practice is – or can be – the (instrumental) musician’s curse. After Pablo Casals’ left hand was crushed by a falling rock, he confessed that his first emotion after the accident was actually relief: “thank god – now I don’t need to practice anymore” !!
Researchers have compared the number of hours of practice required to acquire different skills. Learning to drive a car requires dozens of hours, learning a language hundreds of hours, mastering tennis requires several thousand hours, but mastering an instrument – especially a string instrument – requires tens of thousands of hours. More hours in fact than almost any other skill. But this is not just a simple mathematical equation (certainty).
Although thousands of hours of practice are almost unavoidably necessary to make a really fine instrumentalist, this doesn’t mean that everybody who puts in those hours is guaranteed this reward. If everybody automatically became a great instrumentalist after 10 000 hours of practice then there would be a lot more brilliant musicians buzzing around. Not only does every aspiring cellist have different talents and abilities, but also not every hour is worth the same amount.
HOURLY INEQUALITY: THE YOUNGER, THE EASIER.
Practice as a child is incomparably more powerful than adult practice. This is not just because of brain plasticity. The young body, as well as the young brain, grows with and adapts to the instrument, as though it were part of the body, in a way that an adult’s body is unable to do. Many of the finest violinists seem to have a nice juicy cushion of natural fat under the left side of their chin. It is possible that this “natural” cushion – an extraordinary aid for holding their instrument – comes from the many hours they spent playing and practicing the violin as a child. This is, however, only the most visible part of a process of adaptation to the instrument that can only happen in childhood and adolescence. Learning to become absolutely comfortable with a string instrument is similar to learning to become absolutely comfortable and proficient in a foreign language: both are much harder for adults than for children.
But that is not the end of it. Not only do we have to spend all these thousands of hours of “lost” childhood mastering the instrument, we then also have to continue practicing regularly to maintain and improve our skills. A musician who wants to keep playing well is obliged to practice from their (musical) cradle to their (musical) grave. Playing a string instrument is such a complex, highly developed, and physically unnatural skill, that the strength, coordination, accuracy, control etc required to play well, are rapidly lost if we stop exercising them regularly. Even the best players will start to play badly if they stop practicing even for a relatively short time. Fortunately however, learning an instrument is like learning a language, or like learning to swim (or to ride a bicycle etc): even if we do stop playing for a long time (years even), once we start practicing again, we come quickly back to our original level. Fritz Kreisler didn’t play for a long time (several years?) during WWI but when he did eventually come back to the instrument he was soon playing at exactly the same level at which he had stopped.
PRACTICE AND CLOTHES-DRYING
Practice requires great patience. Rarely is progress visible instantaneously. We could think of the process of practice as being similar to hanging out our wet laundry to dry: even though we can’t see anything happening, the clothes are slowly drying. Good pedagogy, conditions and motivation are like sun and wind on our wet washing: they speed the process up. But no matter how favourable the weather might be, if we don’t hang out the clothes, they will never dry!
BODY OR MIND? MENTAL PRACTICE
Thinking about the music can help us find a great interpretation. “Reading it” without the instrument – especially if we read the full score, and especially if we are listening to a recording at the same time – helps us very much to really get to know the piece. But neither of these intellectual activities will help us to become a great player. It is possible to “know” a piece very well, and have a very good interpretation worked out, but still play it very badly, because the physical side (body-instrument-acoustics) lets us down. Instrumental musicians are “athletes of the small muscles”. Just like for athletes, to play the cello – or any instrument – well, there is no substitute for many, many hours of physical, bodily, athletic, repetitive practice. But when we have done those hours of physical practice, we need to rest our body, and it is then that we can do these other types of “mental practice” (without the instrument). Sportspeople usually have coaches to do their thinking for them, whereas the mature musician is usually much more alone and unsupported once we have finished our youthful study period.
So what are some of these mental practice tricks? Even just imagining that we are playing the instrument can be a very useful technique for memorising and for reinforcing (or checking) our mastery of a piece of music. As mentioned above, listening to a piece while simultaneously following the score helps us very much to really get to know it, because when we are playing it, we are often so occupied with what we are physically doing that we don’t really pay much attention to what is going on in the other voices. Click on this Mental Practice link for a more elaborate discussion of these ideas for “practicing” away from the instrument. Here also is a news article talking about the use of “Mental Practice” for one young musician.
WHAT TO PRACTICE? REPERTOIRE OR TECHNICAL WORK?
In our cello practice it is very easy to mix up “technique” with “interpretation”, in a way that ultimately hinders the development of both. The wonderful italian cellist Enrico Dindo has a very useful idea with respect to the separation (and ultimate fusion) of these two areas. When we start to learn a new piece of music, he encourages us to consider these two areas as being in two entirely separate “rooms”. In one “room”, we practice the piece, at the cello, in a purely “technical” way. In another “room” – without the cello, but with the score, historical information, our singing voice, recordings etc. – we work on the musical and interpretative aspects. As we gradually get to know the piece better, these two separate rooms become more and more connected until ultimately they fuse into one large room in which we are practising simultaneously a competent execution and a well-thought-out interpretation.
Often, working on studies and exercises specifically designed for certain areas of technique is a more efficient way of training our bodies than just hammering away at repertoire. Repertoire, rather than being our training material, is actually what we train for. Ideally, we can keep our repertoire emotionally fresh by not repeating each piece 1000 times but rather by working on our technique away from the piece, and working on our intimate knowledge of the piece away from the instrument!
One of the best ways of avoiding the mind-numbing repetition of difficult passages is to invent exercises directly derived from those passages. There are many ways to do this: transposing the passage up and down chromatically, changing the rhythms, modifying some of the notes etc. In this way, not only do we keep a fresh, active mind but also this method allows us to work on the passage from many different “angles” as it were. This reinforces not just the passage, but also our technique in general. Sevcik, the great Czech violin pedagogue was an expert at this. He wrote a book of “preparatory” exercises for each of the Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn violin concertos. What an efficient and pleasant way to work on the technique of difficult repertoire!
If we practice in this way, absolutely any composition (series of notes), from the most complicated to the most simple, and from any different musical style, can be used as practice material: improvisation, pop, folk, orchestral, any tune, any rhythmic figure, any accompaniment passage. There are valuable skills to learn or reinforce in every note series, no matter how simple, and if not, then we can move on immediately to something else!
When learning a new language, we have to slow it down to a speed at which we can both:
- understand what is said to us with ease, and
- pronounce each sound of what we want to say correctly.
If it all goes too quickly, our brain can’t keep up, and when this happens, not only do we learn nothing but also we get into the very unsatisfying habit of chaos, muddle, confusion, and tangled threads. Learning our instrument, or a new musical passage, is exactly the same: if we don’t slow it down enough that we can play it well (= relaxed, in tune, in time, and with a good sound) then we will probably never get better, and in fact, risk getting into the habit of doing “it” badly (tensely, out of tune, lacking rhythmic control and with a bad sound) forever – or at least until we finally slow it down! Once we actually slow the passage down to this “easy” level, it is extraordinary how quickly it can be mastered but if we never allow ourselves the luxury of playing it slow enough, we can spend hours just making it worse!
START AT THE BEGINNING?
When practicing a piece of music it may seem logical to “start at the beginning”, but this is only logical from a musical point of view. If we are working on our technical mastery of the piece then it is probably more useful to start with the most difficult passages and then work downwards through the hierarchy of difficulty towards the less problematic bits. And even from a musical point of view, starting at the end and working our way back towards the beginning normally makes our voyage of discovery even more interesting.
PRIORITISING: WE ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS OUR WORST PASSAGE
After performing any piece we can do a post-mortem (autopsy) on it. Then we can choose only one problem to work on (our most serious) from each of the four main categories of our musical work: left hand, right hand, musical language (including sound quality), and psychology.
FINDING THE STRUCTURE IN THE MESS: REPEATING ALWAYS THE SAME ERRORS
When a passage is not going well, it is easy to think of it as a sort of random, unpredictable, out-of-control mess. But this “mess” usually has a lot more structure and predictability than we are aware of because, most often, we are repeating the same identical technical errors each time we play it, and thus we are making the same identical mess each time. For example, if any particular note in a passage is often out of tune, then it will normally be repeatedly (predictably) either flat or sharp, rather than just randomly (unpredictably) “out-of-tune”. Or, if a passage is rhythmically unstable, it will normally be unstable in the exact identical way each time we play it. Unfortunately, we very often don’t realise that we are repeating the same errors each time. When we do however realise this, then it makes it a lot easier to “clean up the mess” definitively, quickly and efficiently, because we now can see more precisely what the solution is. For example, instead of thinking simply “this passage is out of tune, therefore I need to practice more” we can refine our analysis to say “this shift (or extension) is usually too big (or too small)”. Now we know exactly what corrective measures to take, rather than just lashing out at the “generalised mess” problem blindly, with hours of unfocused practice.
PRACTICE OR PERFORM?
When we play “from the heart” all of our attention is going into the emotional, communicative aspects of the music. This is valid for performance but is not a helpful practice technique. In fact, the great violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian used to say “don’t practice from the heart”. If our practice of a piece of music is just a copy of our hoped-for ideal performance then not only we are probably not getting the optimal use of our practice time but also we are at risk of emotional burnout. Heifetz used to say “save your nervous (emotional) energy for performances”.
VARYING OUR FOCUS OF ATTENTION
When practicing from memory a piece that we know well, our attention is free to go anywhere we want it. In spite of this potential for freedom, we do however tend normally to direct our attention always towards the same narrow aspects: perhaps being lost in a musical trance, or thinking mainly about intonation, or any other objective(s). Forcing our concentration (attention) out of its usual path (rut) and into other unusual areas can be a useful practice technique. For example, we can concentrate our vision permanently at only one (at a time) of the following points (areas) of interest:
- the bow’s point of contact
- the right hand and wrist
- the vertical angle of the stick of the bow
- the right elbow
- the left elbow
- the left hand
SEPARATING THE HANDS
While the coordination of the movements of our left and right hands/arms is one of the greatest and most constant challenges of string playing, there are many benefits to be had – as a practice technique – from making a total separation of the work of each hand. To isolate the righthand we will play everything exclusively on the corresponding open strings, while to isolate the lefthand we will put the bow down and sound the notes only with lefthand (and perhaps the occasional righthand) pizzicatos (whacks and plucks). This allows us to concentrate exclusively on one hand at a time, which is a luxury so rare in normal music-making that we can only really create these conditions artificially in our practice room.
Pianists use this practice technique often, but string players use it rarely. This is perfectly understandable, for at least two major reasons:
- unlike for pianists, when string players play with only one hand there is absolutely no music happening and absolutely no musical satisfaction. Ravel wrote a Piano Concerto for only one hand, but such an idea for a string player is obviously impossible (but would make a good comedy sketch)!
- unlike for pianists, playing a string instrument with only one hand requires reprogramming the music. For the righthand, we need to recreate the music with only the open strings, and for the lefthand, we need to consider which notes will sound naturally with a lefthand pizzicato, which ones we will want to hear with a righthand pizzicato, and which will remain silent. Especially for the righthand, this transformation can sometimes be so complex as to require almost the rewriting of the music in order that we can concentrate on observing the movements of the hand rather than trying to work out on which string it is supposed to be playing.
“Playing” a piece of music using only the open strings is perhaps even more musically unsatisfying than playing the same piece with only the lefthand, but while both are musically/emotionally barren they are very rich in intellectual/technical stimulation. This practice technique also gives our nervous system a rest from the constant emoting that tends to happen automatically as soon as we start playing the cello with both hands !
OTHER PRACTICE TECHNIQUES
Playing along with a recording is another very good way to reinforce our learning of a piece of music. It’s a little like learning to walk while holding someone’s hand, learning to ride a bike with the two extra lateral safety wheels to stop us falling, or like shadowing someone in their job in order to learn how to do it. It is also like reproducing a great painting by colouring in a “paint-by-numbers” template! When playing along with a recording, not only are we “guided” in our own part, but also we can hear all the other voices as we are playing, which helps us to hear how our part fits in with all the rest. This practice technique is also an excellent way to learn how to “follow”, which is a very important skill, especially for orchestral playing. As an orchestral tutti player, nobody will ever follow you, so we need to get used to following the orchestra: playing exactly with the other players when the pulse is clear, but a nanosecond behind when the pulse is not clear. This situation is exactly the same as when playing with a recording, but with the added difficulty that, when we play along with a recording, there are no visual cues from a conductor. This means that we have to listen very attentively, and respond very quickly (but not in a panicky, nervous way) to what we hear, which is a very useful skill.
A very pleasant and painless way to get to know a new piece of music would be to follow the following progression of increasing independence (autonomy):
- play along with a recording
- play along with a recording of only the accompaniment (“Music Minus One”) of which many exist nowadays on Youtube
- play with real live people
- transpose difficult passages into neighbouring keys (only when there are no open strings in the passage)
We all need to practice, but we also need to be aware (= beware) of the dangers of “over-practice”. It converts music into robotics and will kill the spontaneity necessary in performance. See Preparation-Spontaneity. Fortunately, practice doesn’t have to be a “curse”, a dry boring exercise. Although it is a lifelong, almost daily necessity, it CAN be made pleasant. Basically, any playing where you can hear yourself well (i.e orchestral playing is definitely not “practice”) can be considered practice, of which chamber music is the healthiest and most enjoyable type.
And how can we avoid all these hours of mechanical practice ??
Be a singer, conductor, composer …………………. or critic !!