Practicing your musical instrument is a necessity and an art. Time is money. Time wasted is therefore money wasted. By making the best use of your practice time you have more time available for things like preparing meals for yourself, spending time with loved ones, or finally starting that underwater basket weaving you’ve been dreaming of!
I remember hearing a friend play the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto from memory after only 48 hours or learning it. I was amazed. But when I asked her how she did it, she couldn’t give me a useful answer. Ten years later I am figuring out this process and I want to share with you what I’ve learned!
Read on for a few techniques I’ve been implementing in my own practicing that is helping me to memorize and create more beautiful sounding music with my instrument.
1. Be absolutely clear on the sound you are creating
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Imagining the exact pitch
- Singing the note aloud [audiation]
- Hear the quality of the sound in your head [soft, loud, abrasive, calm]
- Sing the quality of the sound you are looking for
- Create mental images for the sound
2. Know where the string crossings are
I learned an exercise recently [originally from Heidi Castleman] that goes something like this:
- Play passage in music until there’s a string crossing [might be only 1 or 2 notes]
- Say “stop” out loud and stop playing while keeping your bow on the string
- Say “cross” out loud and change strings [this includes proper arm level placement]
- Play the next set of notes until there’s a string crossing
- Say “stop”
- Say “cross”
- … eventually decreasing the pause time between steps until you only mentally say “stop” and “cross”
I see the value in this practice because it makes the brain teach the body what to do and when. Then the magic is in the letting go. After several rounds of the passage practiced in this way you simply stop thinking and let your body play. Make a “before” video and then an “after” video and see what happens! Read more bowing advice from Heidi Castleman here
3. Slow down!
Itzhak Perlman says:
“One must always practice slowly. If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly.”
I also heard a couple weeks ago that he says to practice slowly because that allows you to think about many things at once. What is the left hand doing? How is the wrist? Is my jaw clenched? Where is my head looking? How about my right shoulder? Am I leaning to one side more than the other? Where are my feet in relation to my hip joints?
So, while you are practicing slowly, make the effort to imagine the note, think through the phrase, and create the sound YOU want to create.
4. Record yourself
Video recording myself at key points in practice sessions and over time has become clutch for my practicing. From what I’ve learned about the brain I think this works because we present the brain with a Point A and a Point B. Point A is where you are now. Point B is where you want to be. What the brain does is take the starting point with the end-state in mind and it finds a way there for you! Note: This is why my first point of being absolutely clear of the sound you are creating is the vital first step.
Here are some ways to using video recording:
- Focus on one part of the body: left hand, right hand, stance, posture, face, neck, jaw…
- Send it to a friend for accountability and/or comments
- Record your scales [perform them]
- Listen like a teacher or a panel judge
- Once for intonation
- Replay for rhythm
- Replay for musicality
- Make marks in your music and review [play through] them immediately
These are a few techniques I’ve been using lately and I’ve been able to memorize 6 out of 10 pages of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in Cm within a few weeks. This is a huge triumph for me. I am 32 years old, I did not grow up playing classical music, I started the viola at age 15 and was never required to memorize my music. Now that I’ve shifted my focus [at age 28] to get a Master’s degree, apply for Doctoral programs, join a national-level orchestra and compete… I have some catching up to do! Smart practice is the only practice I aim to do. But of course, some days I just play whatever I want to play and let the music carry itself. It’s about dedication, diligence, and determination with balance.