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Pay the Piper
Doing your practice
Practice is a contentious issue in
most families. There are not many musicians who enjoy it. There are
even some very fine musicians who do very little of it - a recent
survey of professional instrumentalists revealed some surprising
results. So if you are told, as we were once, "You need to do an
hour a day at Grade 3, and 6 hours a day at Grade 8", take it
with a pinch of salt. A very large pinch!
What matters is not the quantity of practice, but the quality .....
Little and often does the trick. Provided you do it every day
(well, don't be too hard on yourself - say 6 times a week!) most
people can get away quite nicely with about 15 minutes' daily
well-organised practice for every two grades of progress. So if you're
between beginning and roughly grade 2, say 15 minutes per day; around
grades 3/4, 30 minutes; grades 5/6, 45 minutes and so on. Really. The
trick is in the words "well-organised".
The French for "practice" or "rehearsal"
is "repetition". A very wise and musical race, the French!
Because that's exactly what good practice should be - repetition.
Playing a thing once is not practice.
Learn to take music to pieces. We repeat - playing a piece all
the way through and then putting the instrument away is not practice.
Only very rarely should you play any piece all the way
through. Pick a shortish section, and say to yourself "today I'm
going to practise this section, and tomorrow the next".
When you find a place that always goes wrong, decide which
note or notes are the problem. Play that note or those notes several
times. Then add the note before, several times. Then add the whole bar
before several times. If it goes wrong again, go back to the beginning
of the process. If it goes right, try the whole section again and see
what happens. If it still isn't right, make a mental note to do the
whole thing again, perhaps not next day but the day after.
Be patient, and forgive yourself. Everybody makes mistakes.
Most of us make the same mistakes over and over. It's very
frustrating, but you don't have to be perfect straight away. You can
be perfect next week.
Don't ask too much of yourself. Set yourself targets that you
know you can achieve. Don't say "I'm going to play this whole
piece with no mistakes at all", but "I'll play the third
line four times over, and then I'll stop even if there are still
mistakes". But before you put your instrument away and go and
watch telly, get your notebook and write down "Still wrong notes
in bar 16 - practise this tomorrow".
Practice can be very tedious. Don't be embarrassed to play
silly games with yourself to make it more bearable. If you've decided
to play one passage four times, for instance, play it once normally,
then once standing on one leg, then once looking out of the window and
once with your eyes shut. Or get a packet of sweets and give yourself
rewards: say to yourself, "I'll have one sweet when I have played
this bar once without a mistake, and then I'll have another when I've
played the whole line, and another when I've played the first two
lines.." and so on. Silly, isn't it? But ... whatever it takes,
However boring and pointless they may seem, scales are of
vital importance. On string instruments there is nothing else that
establishes finger-patterns quite so well, and on all instruments you
are practising patterns of notes that will occur over and over again
in all sorts of music. Once you really know your scales, you'll be
pleased you took the trouble.
Treat scales (and arpeggios when you get to them) just like
pieces: don't just play them a couple of times, but take them to
pieces and work on the difficult bits over and over before putting
them back together again. And if they're still not right, don't curse
and take up knitting instead - just patiently do it all over again
Routine is valuable for most people. Do things in the same
order every time you practise, and try to do your practice at the same time every day.
If you have somewhere you can leave your instrument out
instead of putting it away in its case - in your bedroom, or on top of
the piano, say - then do. Beware little brothers and inquisitive dogs,
though! You are more likely to actually do your practice if the
instrument is sitting there all ready to play.
One more thing - spelling. When the word "practice" is being used as a noun (a thing), it is spelled with a "c" near the end. If you're actually doing it, it becomes a verb (a doing word) and it's spelled with an "s" near the end instead. Here are some examples ...
"I'm going to do my practice now" - it's a thing you're talking about. It's a noun.
"We're practising our scales today" - It's a verb because now you're doing it.
"Practice? To hell with practice! I never practise!" - See? Noun, noun, verb. Thing, thing, doing word (or, in this case, a not doing word).
You may think this is a bit pedantic. Perhaps it is. But it seems to us that if you're going to be doing something day after day, year after year, you might as well take the trouble to spell it correctly. Not spelling words correctly is usually down to laziness, and if you were a lazy person you wouldn't be doing your practice, would you?