How I practice - A Guide to Maximising your Time
So the Easter holidays have arrived and the first school term is done. While I do miss the kids (and the income) I do not miss the endless traffic jams I face each day driving around Auckland.
The best thing about the break though - ample time to get back into some solid practice.
This term has been super busy, especially trying to fit in work on my side business (Tricot et Toile) around classes and performances. Regular practice kind of took a back seat. Luckily over the summer I worked out a good routine and schedule for my practice, so it's easier to drop back into it when everything else cools off a bit.
It's easy to find lots of tips and tricks online about practicing and how to practice specific things in more detail, but I haven't found much describing what a good practice session actually looks like - the nuts and bolts if you will - sometimes I find it helps to see what those ideas look like in a practical sense, to then adapt it to your own practice.
Typically, depending on the time I have, I'll do 1 or 2 chunks of 1.5 - 2 hours each -they go a bit like this:
- Tuning (2 mins) - It's important to spend the time to tune properly, 'near enough' is not going to do your intonation any good. I try whenever possible to tune by ear to a concert A, my other strings in perfect fifths. Using the tuner is quicker for sure, but after a while it makes your ear lazy.
- Warm up Scales (10-15mins) - When short on time it's tempting to skip this part, but even just 4 or 5 minutes makes the work you do from then on so much more effective. Scales are such a great way to get you physically and mentally in the zone. I find it's also a good indicator of the day I'm having, if I can crack into it or if I'll need to take things more slowly. I tend to switch between all different types of scales and patterns to keep it interesting.
- Studies (10-20mins each) - I usually have 2 or 3 that I work on at a time. I might spend 1 or 2 weeks looking at it before going on to something else. Studies are an excellent way to target specific areas of technique and develop or maintain skills that are perhaps not as often addressed in the repertoire. Currently I'm working through some Dotzauer studies, but I also like Sevcik and Werner.
- Repertoire (1 hour approx.) - Depending on time and how much there is to cover, I usually divide it up, working 15-20mins on each part. For example:
15 -20 mins each on 2 movements of Symphony
20 mins on Overture
15 mins each various excerpts
15 mins each 2 sections of Concerto
This way I can cover a large amount of repertoire, spending time on certain areas or aspects of the music. Rotating through everything over a series of practice sessions. I will of course periodically dedicate a longer time in order to run a whole work or larger section.
When doing 2 sessions in one day. I've found I work best doing one session in the morning, then at least 2 or 3 hours where I can get on with some other work, admin, lesson prep etc. Make something to eat and then return to my cello later in the afternoon. The structure I follow is basically the same but I will vary the material. This way I have more energy and focus, as opposed to doing it all in one hit.
When time is limited, an abridged version of the schedule will leave out the studies and I will be much more selective about choosing the parts of repertoire needing the most attention, either based on technical difficulty and/or performance deadline.
Around 95% of my practice is spent with a metronome.
The most important thing I've found is the quality of practice above quantity. If I'm really focusing, correcting things, listening and feeling everything, the practice is far more effective. For me, I do this better thinking in terms of small chunks. If I sit down for an hour and half to practice just as it comes, it's far too easy to whittle away the time without really achieving much
At a master class with Richard Aaron, professor of cello at Julliard, I remember him saying he'd get his student to set the timer for every 6 minutes and then note down what they had done in that time. Making you hyper aware and accountable for every minute spent. Whilst I'm not quite that disciplined, a little time pressure certainly keeps me focused and motivated.
Here are a couple of nice resources with further tips for good practice:
BBC Bitesize guides - this is aimed at school aged students but the concise pointers can apply to everyone.
Creative Commons article: This longer article goes more in depth with ideas and advice around effective practice techniques.
I hope this inspires and motivates you to work out the best most positive and sustainable practice regime for you. Please do let me know if this was useful and fell free to share any ideas or questions you might have.