I have to admit something: I’m a practice room “eavesdropper”. I mean that I’m not above lingering in the hallway outside a soloist’s dressing room to “overhear” their work.
Hopefully you don’t think less of me! But what choice do I have? Growing up, I heard how my dad practiced the flute. These days, I get to hear how Akiko practices the violin. But until recently, aside from those stolen moments in the hallway, I had no idea how anyone else used their practice time. I knew what methods worked for me, but that was it.
That’s why the last few months have been so fascinating. Since starting the Virtuoso Master Course this summer, I’ve gotten down to details with my dedicated group of violinists and violists. Week by week, I’ve had the chance to shape their practicing, and to share in their results.
It’s actually gotten me thinking about my embarrassing sports career! So let me tell you a story about an average athlete who learned an obvious lesson about practice and performance. Then ask yourself: am I sabotaging my own violin practice without realizing it?
A short man’s sport
For somebody who’s not very tall (some might even call me short!), I’ve actually spent a lot of my life playing sports. Most days growing up, I actually spent more hours outside than in the practice room. I loved basketball most, even though that’s the single worst sport to play as a short guy. But I grew up in Kentucky, and playing basketball is the law!
I also ran track though, and I was a little better at that. Not great, but as long as I picked my distances I could do pretty well. I wasn’t super fast, but I didn’t get tired either. So the two-mile race was my sweet spot.
Eventually I got good enough that my coach wanted me to take the next step: win some races for a change! But I soon discovered that that would mean running faster, which would mean less chance for conversation with my friends during our practice runs. And that had been my main motivation for signing up in the first place.
A winning strategy?
So I figured I’d just keep doing the same leisurely runs I always did in practice, but add some sprints in there too. Best of both worlds, right?
Luckily the coach had a lot of kids to oversee, and he didn’t interfere with my brilliant plan. One of my friends noticed, though. He asked, “how are you going to run faster in the race if you’re practicing like this?”
I didn’t know how to explain it to him; he just didn’t get it. Race day would unlock something special inside me. I just had to have the right mindset.
A predictable result
Right before the two-mile race, coach came to me and said, “Nothing fancy. You’re used to getting behind early and staying there. This time just run with the leaders as long as you can. If you’re still with them for the last half lap, then run faster than they do!” That sounded good to me. My mind was in the right place.
Unfortunately, after mile one, I ran out of gas. I had run one mile that fast before, but never two. It was uncharted territory for me; I had no foundation, no training, to handle what would happen when the pressure was on.
I wilted and finished with the same time I always recorded. There had been no race-day magic. I performed as I had practiced.
A performance problem, or a practice problem?
You can’t ask for a clearer example than my middle-school track misadventure. It’s so obvious it’s silly: I never tried practicing my distance at the time I hoped to run in the race. Why would I expect things just to “come together” when it mattered?
What’s just as silly is that most of us do the same thing to ourselves in the violin practice room. We don’t set out to do it. We have good intentions, and armfuls of scale and etude books. We might even set aside loads of time to practice. But once we get on stage, the results don’t match our expectations.
In fact, we may fool ourselves into thinking that our performance fell way short of our practice. In other words, while we practiced carefully and prepared fully, we have a performance “problem”.
The truth is that for the vast majority of violinists (and over the years, I’ve worked with a vast number!), we perform pretty much how we practice. So maybe the “problem” is that our practice isn’t quite what we think it is.
How practice makes performance
One way of thinking about the effect of practice on performance is to consider that your performance will be the average of your last 100 repetitions. If you’re talking about a big piece, those 100 repetitions may stretch back a month or more before the performance date. How do you usually sound a month before a performance?
Your early work on a piece will shape your performance, whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not. So the question is: how do you make every day of practice count? Every hour? Every bow stroke?
It comes down to three areas of focus, which together form a framework I call “Practice Makes Performance“:
And luckily, I have a video for each one! These are pretty substantial videos, an hour each, because they were live interactions with my Facebook community:
Mindset governs how you relate to the instrument, how you spend your time in the practice room, and how you move from stage to stage with a piece of music: from “first reading” to “walking on stage”.
Tools are all the foundational skills you need to be a complete violinist: the ability to play scales in all keys, the basic (and not-so-basic) bow strokes, double stops, shifting, vibrato, the classic etudes. In short, everything you know you’re supposed to practice, but might not know how!
Techniques are not violin techniques but practice techniques: ways of working that deliver results whether the problem is intonation, uneven rhythm, inconsistent shifting, poor sound quality, you name it. Everything from metronome work to repetition falls under this heading.
Putting it all together
It’s my hope that these videos will get you started on the road toward more effective practice, and ultimately, better performances. If you’d like more personal guidance through the process, take a look at the Virtuoso Master Course. There I can tailor a program specifically geared toward your strengths and weaknesses.