Practice Tips

Having trouble with a passage? Piece not getting better? Can't remember how I told you to work on it? Here are some tips and tricks to help you make more progress, more quickly.

  • Start slowly. I can't emphasize this one enough. If you're trying to play the piece faster than you're ready for, you will not only take longer to learn it, but will likely pick up bad habits along the way that will need to be unlearned, and that's always a big drag.

  • Practice while looking in a mirror. What you feel while playing and what is actually happening don't always match up, and if you watch yourself play you can fix many problems before they become major issues. Check to see if your bow is straight, your left wrist is straight, your viola is held flat and not drooping towards the floor. You could also get someone to photograph you while playing; then you can examine the pics for things you might not notice while in motion.

  • Record yourself playing and listen to it. Any surprises? Just like our voices sound different to other people than to ourselves, playing can too, and listening to a recording can help you hear what is actually coming out of the instrument, not just what you think you're doing.

  • Use a metronome, but use it intelligently. Just having it ticking away won't do you much good unless you're also paying attention to and matching the beat. If you're trying to get a piece (or section of a piece) up to a certain tempo, start at whatever speed you are currently able to play it well, and play the passage three times correctly in a row before moving to the next fastest speed. If you reach a tempo where you just can't seem to get it, stop. Come back to it tomorrow, when your brain and body have had time to process what they've learned. Here's a list of tempo markings to use as you advance:
    40 - 42 - 44 - 46 - 48 - 50 - 52 - 54 - 56 - 60 - 63 - 66 - 69 - 72 - 76 - 80 - 84 - 88 - 92 - 96 - 100 - 104 - 108 - 112 - 116 - 120 - 126 - 132 - 138 - 144 - 150 - 156 - 164 - 172 - 180 - 188 - 196 - 208

  • For passages with all one note value (i.e. eighths, sixteenths), use practice rhythms to break up the "hard stuff". Start with a long-short rhythm (i.e. dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth), then reverse it to short-long (sixteenth followed by a dotted eighth). As with metronome practice, aim to play the passage correctly three times in a row before proceeding to the next step. For particularly tricky passages, break the notes into groups of four (or three if you're working with triplets) and make each note of the group long in turn while playing the others quickly (i.e. first note long, next three short; first note short, second note long, third and fourth short; first two short, third note long, fourth short; first three short, fourth note long).

  • Set specific, achievable goals for your practice session. Saying "I will memorize all of Book 3 today!" is a recipe for discouragement; "I will learn the C section of my Gavotte", on the other hand, is definitely doable. Beware of nebulous goals like "I will practice until it's better." What's better? How much better? Instead, try "I will improve my intonation on the Eb major section", or "I will play the second half with the right bowings".

  • For double-stop passages, practice each line separately before putting them together. First play just the top line (using the same fingerings as when you are double-stopping), then the bottom; then finger both lines while bowing only one. Still having trouble? Try a linking bowing, going back and forth between each pair of double-stops until the motion from one to the next is clean, then move on to the next.