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Practice Makes Perfect

By Joel Kennedy

Everybody knows that if you want to be better at anything, you need to practice. Most people would also agree that while practicing is good, practicing more is better.  It's also quite obvious that more accomplished musicians practice more than the people who are not accomplished musicians.

However, what many people are not aware of, is that talent plays a very small role in the overall success of any person wanting to master an instrument. Many studies have been conducted and what they show overwhelmingly, is that the amount of hours of practice and HOW you practice, will determine your success.

As a viola teacher, I've had the pleasure of instructing many students over the years. I assumed when I first started, as most people do, that the level of talent that a student had would probably determine how well they would comprehend my instruction, and also determine the level of their charismatic performance abilities.  After a few years of teaching and seeing many students travel through my pedagogical system, it became very obvious to me that the sheer amount of hours that were put into practicing made the biggest impact on success. If a student put in many hours of practice, pretty much every aspect of the learning process was easier.

The second thing that I learned a little farther down the road in my teaching career was that the virtuosic level a student achieved, had a lot to do with the material that I had them practice.  More and more I found that if I gave the student very targeted exercises utilizing scales, arpeggios and etudes, they became much more technically proficient at their instrument. In turn, this greatly assisted them in being able to learn just about any piece and it made the entire learning process easier and more fun.  As I became more experienced, I developed my own step by step systems to enable any student to master advanced techniques through a very controlled process. I directed them to work on specific techniques repeatedly until they could accomplish the exercise with ease. After I developed my own focused exercises for a particular technique, it became increasingly obvious that how much a student practiced was not nearly as important as HOW they practiced. The practice sessions and materials needed to be focused, specific and repeated until perfection was almost an imminent outcome.

Little did I know at the time, but I had stumbled upon a phenomenon known as deliberate practice.  I found it related to the concepts in Geoff Colvin’s book entitled Talent is Overrated, in which the author goes into great detail about the benefits of practicing a lot and practicing properly.  He sites study after study in which it is proven beyond a doubt that mastering an instrument or anything else in life, is achieved by practicing a lot and practicing deliberately.  He also shows that any natural proclivity that a student may have towards a given task, has little effect on the overall success of the student.

To be more specific about what deliberate practice is, I will give a few real world examples.  If you set out to learn a concerto, you could play a page at a time and play the page over and over again.  You'd repeat the page until you reached the point at which you felt it's finally acceptable to perform or that you've reached the point at which you can't improve it anymore. This practice technique will yield results and you will improve your ability to play that particular page.  However, this is a very inefficient way to practice and while it may eventually make you a better player, it will never enable you to master your instrument. To truly master the piece as well as your instrument, you'll want to take a particular measure and practice it until you've mastered the particular technique that it is requesting of you.  For example, if you have several measures that have trills, make sure you know exactly what note the trill starts on AND ends with and practice the trill over and over again until it is controlled and consistent. After you've practiced it over and over again, and can play it consistently without fault, play the same measure but in context with the rest of the page.  Play several measures before and after it, to make sure your mind can properly transition from one technique to the other without musical interruption. Let’s say you have a few measures where you have to play a descending scale with off the string spicatto stroke. Instead of playing the line over and over again that includes the spicatto section, practice your spicatto on a note or two on a string of your choice and practice it until it is clear, controlled and relaxed. Next, practice just the passage with the spicatto technique and play it until it is just as clear, controlled and relaxed as the single note spicatto that you just practiced.  Once you've mastered this, add the measures before and after the spicatto passage and you will have mastered the entire section and will not have to be filled with fear when it comes up in your solo performance.

Regarding spicatto specifically, I have about 9 exercises that I give students when it is time for them to learn spicatto.  The exercises are always done with a metronome. They start off with a very simple exercise. First they play a 2 octave scale and bounce every note 4 times.  Their goal is to reach a certain speed of stroke, clarity and relaxation during play. Once they've mastered this, they go on to a 3 octave scale. The next exercise will be a little harder.  They will slur two notes and play the next two up bow and go up and down the 3 octave scale. There are many exercises after this. Each exercise practices a very specific bowing technique that they will assuredly come across in their solo and orchestral repertoire and when they see it, they will be ready for it.

The point of all of this is, you want to practice A LOT. You can't get anywhere without it.  Studies have shown that the average best players at most conservatories practice 25-28 hours per week and there are NO exceptions. If you want to master your instrument, this is what you'll have to do.  However, making sure that your practice focuses on very specific techniques, will ensure that you are practicing deliberately. Remember, an amateur practices a passage until they get it right. A professional practices a passage until they can't get it wrong…

Happy practicing!