Tag Archives: technique

Practice? Well, Maybe Later …

David Allen, the productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done has a maxim that goes something like this:  “The more something is on your mind, the less is getting done about it.”

I guess that’s why practicing music has been on my mind so much lately.   More “thinking about” than “doing.”

A hectic work schedule, a lot of 97-degree-high-humidity summer days, and the lack of something specific to prepare for right now have combined to throw me off routine.  The piano has been getting token practice the last few weeks; the violin, almost none at all.  Yet practice is like any other discipline, like brushing your teeth or putting away your clean laundry:  you can make up excuses but – in reality – you just have to do it.

The good news is that while in Baltimore, I learned some things to make practice much more efficient.

First, if you are tired or mentally checked out, you are probably better off not to practice – or at least, not practice anything complex.   For the violin, it’s probably one of those good times to watch where your bow is engaging the string and hear the different tones you get at different pressure points and with more and less hair, bowspeed, arm weight, etc.

Second, make sure you are not trying to do too much at once.   Sometimes, in my enthusiasm for a new piece, I keep playing it all the way through, over and over, rather than breaking it down and perfecting smaller sections.  In the end, I just keep perfecting my ability to sight-read, rather than my ability to play.  Professionals approach pieces differently.   They might listen to a recording, to get a sense of what the piece is and what their part sounds like.   Then they’ll work on the rhythm, perhaps walking around or dancing a little to get the feel of the rhythm into their bones.   Then, they attack the notes.  And, as the notes become secure (and memorized), the music itself emerges, with judgments of interpretation, nuance and tone.  Only then are they playing all the way through.

A side-effect of slowing down and working on smaller segments is that you can focus on technique; chances are your difficulty is arising because the technique you are trying to use is flawed in some way.   Or, as Peter keeps reminding me at my piano lesson, no one ever learned piano technique playing hands together!

One other professional tip:  when working on a difficult run, start at the end of the phrase, playing only three notes.   Play those notes repeatedly, until you can play them flawlessly 10 times in a row.  Then pick up the three notes that come just before the three notes you’ve learned.   Now you’re playing six notes over and over, until you can play those flawlessly.  Then pick up three more notes, and so on to the beginning of the phrase.   By the time you’ve done this, you probably have the troublesome phrase memorized, and have “locked in” on the correct way it should go.

There is a side benefit of this technique for orchestra players.   At tempo, it is not unusual to get tense and lose your place in a long run of very fast notes if you are trying to read them off the page.   Perfecting the end first means that even if you do get lost in the middle of a very black set of measures, you will soon come to the place you know well, and regain your balance.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do … as soon as I fix a lemonade, lay out on the chaise, and finish that novel!

 

 

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BSO Academy: Little Change, Big Difference (Georgeann)

Thursday morning, our Group had a late rehearsal with Marin Alsop and the orchestra, so it gave me a chance to “lock in” on some advice I had received in a Wednesday morning lesson with Associate Concertmaster Madeline Adkins of the BSO.

Ever since I took up the violin again, I have not felt secure about my control over the bow.  She looked at my grip, suggested a slight change, and then said, “I don’t feel secure unless I can feel the music in my index finger (of the right hand).”  What she said immediately connected with me, and I gave it a try.   But I couldn’t seem to get it.

Her ultimate diagnosis was simple.

“Allow your arm weight to rest on the bow.  The violin can take it.”   She was right.  I had been holding the bow up and moving it across the strings, but not allowing my arm weight to rest on the bow and fully engage the instrument.

I relaxed, and let my arm weight settle on the bow.  The change in sound was immediate, and my finger could “feel the music.”  A few more bows across the string, and it felt “right.”  I had regained the sense of control I had been missing.

That’s not to say that I have mastered the bow.  It seems to be a constant struggle for everyone.  The scales professional orchestra players do before each concert are as much about bow discipline as they are about fingering the notes correctly with the left hand.  It is also said that Pablo Casals used to spend hours playing open strings on his cello, figuring out the nuances of bow control.

Nearly all of the orchestra members I talked with mentioned the importance of the bow, and that the bow needs to be “in charge”.  I was frequently told that if the bow is doing the correct rhythm, the left hand fingers will eventually fall into line in difficult music.

I’m still figuring that one out, but in the meantime, I do know one immediate side effect of my lesson with Madeline:  letting my arm weight rest on the bow, instead of holding the bow above the instrument, helped prevent the “knife in the back” pain I had been experiencing when playing for longer periods of time.

One simple change.  Big change in sound.  No more pain.

I’ll be writing about the interesting “musician’s body” stuff we learned at the Academy in future posts.

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