When it comes to making progress on our instrument, we can often be our own worst enemies. Sometimes we adopt practice strategies that seem effective but are actually holding us back. Instead of spending hours practicing the wrong way (and frustrating yourself week after week), try using these more focused methods to save time and achieve faster progress.
1. Don’t Start Over
Do you start practicing a piece, bump into a problem area, then go back to the beginning? Many students think this is a productive way to practice, when actually it is one of the least effective ways to practice. If you start over every time you make a mistake, can you guess what is really getting practiced well? The beginning!
Sadly, the problem is getting ‘practiced’ too, but not in a way that is going to help. You are literally practicing your errors permanently into the piece. Trying to fix errors in a piece you’ve already learned is much more difficult than learning it right the first time.
When you make a mistake, don’t start over at the beginning. Instead, focus on the problem area until you can play it correctly (or have at least made some good progress). When you’ve addressed all the tricky spots, you’re ready to put the whole piece together.
2. Keep Your Brain in the Game
You should never practice something without thinking, nor should you try to practice while multitasking. Think about why you are doing a certain drill or exercise. What is your goal?
Goals don’t have to be large. Here are some examples of “mini goals” you could set for yourself in the course of a practice session:
a) Play these eight measures with a perfect bow grip
b) Keep the bow on the string, instead of lifting it off, at measure 27
c) Keep the wrist straight during this passage
d) Try to get a better tone on this sustained note
3. Harness the Power of Repetition
Learn to create practice units, which are a few notes or a phrase that you’ve identified as the ‘speed bump’ that causes you to stop playing. Find the hard part in your music and create a short exercise out of it. Then play the unit correctly, over and over, until it becomes easier. Play it, listen and evaluate, and fix problems as you repeat. Don’t start over at the beginning!
Isolating small sections in this way makes it easy to fix rough spots in your music. Try starting a few measures before the problem area and then play through it to see if you’ve solved the issue.
There will be times when this is not enough. Perhaps you know the problem spot but not the specific problem. In this case…
4. Separate the Hands
Practice the bowing on open strings to see if your problem is with the bowing instead of the fingering. Work out the bowing, and then add the left hand back in. Alternate between playing with and without fingers, concentrating on the problem. Did it improve? Now play it as written, starting a few measures back.
If the bowing is easy and the problem lies with the fingering, create an exercise to correct it. Size doesn’t matter–it’s OK if you have to break it down to a two-note unit. It’s better to spend 30 seconds playing two notes properly than four minutes playing back from the beginning. Repetition is your friend.
To recap: identify the problem area and start there, create small practice units, use repetition, separate the hands. Divide and conquer!