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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, right?
• 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 tomorrow.
• 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?