Rule No. 1: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!
I once knew a music professor who kept a sign on his door which read, “Practice makes perfect — if you practice perfectly!” There is great truth behind this saying, and developing at least good if not perfect practice habits early on will benefit the budding student throughout his life. Practice is more than simply spending time playing your instrument. It involves serious, concentrated work to develop the skills you’re seeking to enhance in each session. This doesn’t mean that practice should never be enjoyable, but it does mean that it also involves real work.
Below are some suggestions for the beginning student (and for the advancing student as well who may need to work on his practice habits) that will help you as you progress through your music lessons. Try to adapt these practice techniques early in your musical life and you will find that they’ll help you not only in music but also in your study habits in all your school subjects.
Before starting. Before you begin practicing, make sure you have everything you will need for your practice session. This would include having the music readily at hand, having proper lighting, and having as few distractions as possible. Violin students should be certain their instrument is in tune, the bow is rosined, and the bow and shoulder rest are adjusted properly. Mandolin students also should be sure their instrument is properly tuned and that everything needed is close at hand. Try to make sure the room where you’ll be working is not too hot or too cold, as you’ll want to be comfortable while practicing.
Getting started. Students who have advanced beyond the first basics should start each practice session with a few minutes of warm-up exercises. I will suggest several exercises to you in your lessons, and these may include a few scales, trills, arpeggios, or other light technical exercises. Beginning each practice with at least two to three minutes’ worth of these warm-ups will help you immensely as you then settle down to the more serious task of working on something new or challenging.
After you have warmed up, select the pieces or exercises you wish to concentrate on in this session. Play them carefully and slowly, paying particular attention to details stressed in your lesson. Check your posture, hand positions, and other physical characteristics that come into play. Violinists should stand while practicing and hold their instrument properly, nearly horizontally, and not point the scroll toward the floor. The bow arm should move freely and not stay at the side. (I only recommend that violin students practice while sitting if the piece they’re rehearsing is for an ensemble in which they will be seated during the actual performance. Otherwise they should always stand while practicing.) Mandolinists, on the other hand, will practice while seated, making sure the instrument is held properly. Some prefer using a footrest while playing as well, though this is a personal preference not required by all students.
Timing your practice session. Ideally only beginning students should have to concern themselves with timing their sessions; advancing students should have enough material to work on that they will simply do the work required and easily fill in the recommended time. But I do suggest, in broad terms, the following practice schedule:
Beginning students should practice 30 minutes daily. This time should be divided into two or three sessions of 10 to 15 minutes each. As the student becomes more accustomed to practicing the time can be gradually lengthened so that an entire 30-minute session can become standard. Eventually this time period should be expanded to 45 and then to 60 minutes daily, but with occasional breaks (which don’t count in the total time!) to avoid exhaustion. If you become tired your powers of concentration diminish, so it is much better to take a 10- to 15-minute break and then resume practicing after a bit of refreshment. Beginning mandolin students may experience some discomfort in the fingers of the left hand until callouses develop to protect the senstitive skin on the fingertips, so shorter initial practice times may be important until the fingers grow accustomed to the double strings.
In time you likely will extend your daily practice schedule beyond the one hour prescribed, especially if you are a serious student interested perhaps in pursuing a college degree in music. The serious student may end up practicing as much as four to six hours daily, though I recognize that this is not possible — or even desirable — for everyone. Breaks become even more important for these longer sessions, so be sure you avoid burnout.
Just how important is practice? A recent Indiana University study attempted to correlate early promise or talent (prodigy) in very young children with subsequent levels of music proficiency after 15 years of musical training. This study looked at some 240 violinists from the Academy of Music in Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and divided these professional musicians into three groups based on proficiency. Group 1 consisted of first-chair, virtuoso soloists; group 2 was made up of highly proficient second-chair professional performers/orchestra members; and group 3 encompassed professional music teachers who did not perform professionally. The study showed that there was no correlation between early promise and subsequent musical proficiency in the three groups. All groups contained what had been considered child prodigies, and all also had people who had not shown exceptional promise as children. The one correlation that was found within each group was … practice hours! The first group of exceptional musicians had practiced on average more than 10,000 hours between the ages of 5 and 20. This is an average of 2 hours of practice every day for 15 years. The second group had practiced an average of 8,000 hours, or 1½ hours daily. The third group practiced 5,000 hours, or 1 hour every day for 15 years. So the lesson from this is that if you want to succeed in music, a goal of an average of an hour a day minimum is required during your formative years of study.
One thing I do recommend is that you practice regularly six days a week, but I suggest taking one day a week off from serious practice. For me this was always Sunday, but you may prefer a different day depending on your schedule. It is fine to play your instrument on your day off, but do so just for fun and enjoyment. No matter how hard a worker you are, you need to relax occasionally so that you never forget the sheer enjoyment of music!
Getting down to work. As stated earlier, practice is more than just simply playing your instrument for a specified period of time. You need to work on specific tasks that have been pointed out during your lesson. The temptation is always to play an entire piece or exercise through from beginning to end. But in order to perfect a piece, you often have to give particular attention to certain passages within the piece. Practice your music phrase by phrase, beginning slowly, until you can play it without error. Then move on to the next phrase and do the same. Then play an entire section of your music that includes all the parts you’ve just worked on. Once you feel comfortable with the piece, stop playing and read through the music, listening to it in your head and note how it all fits together. Finally play the piece again, stopping if you need to to work once more on any difficult passages. Continue this procedure until you can play the whole piece without difficulty. You will be given more specific instructions in your lessons on exactly what to practice.
Rule No. 2: LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN!
One of the best ways to learn how music should sound is to hear it played by master musicians. Music is often called the universal language, but like learning any language you can only become proficient by hearing the language frequently and often. I strongly encourage my students to build a good library of recorded music, and I can recommended certain albums if necessary. We live in an age when it is possible for the average farm boy in rural America to hear more great works of music performed by master musicians than in any other time in history thanks to modern technology. CDs, tapes, radio, downloadable media — even the now-outdated LP records — offer an almost limitless opportunity to familiarize yourself with all the world’s great music.
But it is possible to expand your musical knowledge without the expense of buying CDs, tapes, or iPod downloads if these are beyond your means. Many recordings are available at the local library or can be borrowed through interlibrary loan. There also are many opportunities to attend live concerts throughout the area, particularly at Indiana University in nearby Bloomington; many of these are free and open to the public. And you can turn on classical music day or night by listening to the radio. We have two FM radio stations that can be received in Bedford that offer extensive classical programming: WFIU in Bloomington at 103.7, and WUOL in Louisville at 90.5. There also are a number of classical programs broadcast over various shortwave stations worldwide, and classical music is available over the internet from a number of sites (such as YouTube.com), often for free. In short, your opportunities are boundless! Take advantage of them and find out just how much beautiful music there is in the world.
And finally, don’t forget to read. There are countless books, magazines, and websites about music of all kinds. I also encourage you to read biographies of some of the great composers and performers. Doing so helps make these people more real to you and aids in your interpretation of their music. I have written some short biographies of a few notable composers and performers and have posted them to the internet (they can be accessed by clicking here), but there are thousands more available over the internet and in the library.
So until your next practice session, relax, put on a good recording, and read all about your favorite composer!