Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Practice (Advanced Student)

Today I wanted to discuss how I teach my advanced students to practice at home.  This is something I go over constantly. It is very easy for students to just run through their assigned music at home a few times and be done with it, but that isn't how a student will improve, so this is the formula I use. The amount of time varies for each day and student, but I have a time suggestion for each, if the student was to practice an hour.
  1. Scales/Arpeggios (10 minutes)
  2. Etude (15 minutes)
  3. Main Piece (30 minutes)
  4. Reward (5 minutes)


Scales and arpeggios are usually one of the least favorite parts of practicing for students. The key is to give them goals to focus on while they are practicing their scales. I usually give them a physical technique to work on during scales and arpeggios i.e. correcting the bow hold, straightening the left wrist, bowing in the correct spot, etc. It can also be helpful to change up the rhythm, tempo, and style of the scales and arpeggios.  All of this changes their focus and helps them to stay fresh when all they want to do is skip this important warm-up step.


This is another easily hated part of practicing.  I think the reason why so many people hate etudes is because they do not understand them.  I explain the purpose of the etude to the student so that they can focus on that while they learn and practice the etude. I try to tie in the goal of the scales and arpeggios into whatever the etude is working on.  This doesn't always happen but I give myself a pat on the back when it does.

Main Piece

This is the big chunk of practicing time, but it isn't the ENTIRE time the student practices.  This is also where I train my student in how to practice.  How a student practices is very important. I tell my students that when you practice and learn a piece, it isn't about running through the music. It is about breaking the music down, chunking it, learning it correctly, and working on it in manageable chunks. It is much easier to learn a piece slowly and correctly than to learn it wrong and have to relearn a piece.  Breaking bad habits is the most difficult thing to do! Here are the steps I teach my students to take when learning and practicing a piece.
  1. Listen to the piece
    1. Try to hear a few different versions so you can hear a variety of performers and hear some different opinions on expression.
  2. Study the form
    1. How is the piece written? 
    2. What is the road map?  
    3. This also helps the student chunk the piece into parts that are more manageable to play at a time.
  3. Work sections
    1. Start from the end of the piece and work back to the beginning.  
    2. As you learn a new section, play through what you know so far; this reinforces what you have learned and keeps you from forgetting all the hard work.
    3.  NEVER just run a piece. Take the piece apart and work on a section until something improves.
    4. Set realistic goals for practice time.
      1. Have short-term goals for a one-day practice.
      2. Have long term goals for the week.
 Do you prefer to see and hear this explanation?  Here is a video that explains and shows an example of what I mean.

 Reward Yourself!

This is so important. After you have spent all that time practicing and improving, don't just put your instrument away.  Do something fun with it!  It could be playing through fiddle music, improvising, playing with the radio or YouTube, or playing music from movies.  Just do something fun with your playing and enjoy it.  All the practicing is important, but it is a moot point if you don't enjoy what you are doing.  If you don't know what to do, go to a music store and look for a fake book you would enjoy. Whatever you do- just love it.


How often should you practice?

"Only practice on the days you eat." ~Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

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