Over the past few months I was forced to step my performance and practice game up several notches. I gave my final doctoral recital in April, won an orchestra audition the week after, assumed a principal position in 2 orchestras and played some freaky hard 20th century music, all while maintaining my regular teaching and orchestra schedule. It was tough! The following tips are lessons I gleaned from others and truths I realized along the way. Many of them are tried and true and have been written about by many great pedagogues and performers. Some of them are little things I discovered on my own and a few may seem totally unrelated to the act of playing violin but are extremely important.
1. Use a metronome! - as if you've never heard that one before! Sometimes we forget the versatility capable of such a seemingly simple device. I use my metronome for lots of random things.
a. Slow practice. You think that's slow? Do it Slower! Fast movement of Bach got ya down? Work that sucker from the ground up. If I have a long passage of 16th notes for example - I put my metronome at 16th = 80 and I work it faster little by little. If you trip over a few notes go back and do them again AND THEN repeat the passage. This is the short cut. Practicing like this builds fantastic muscle memory. Nerves on Stage? Something about highly rhythmic, slow practice keeps your left hand working even when your mind might not be so calm.
b. Use it to test your memory. Here's another Slow practice tip I learned from Sally O'Reilly. Are you trying to memorize that Presto movement? Test your memorization skills by playing it with the metronome at 16th= 60-80 (or whatever the smallest subdivision of the beat is) without the music but with all of the correct bowings, dynamics and fingerings etc. Did your mind wander? Did you space out for a second? Did you come to a spot that is easy when played quickly and hard to organize when played slowly? BUSTED! Slow metronomic practice increases your mental endurance as well. I'm telling you - if you can't play it slow, you shouldn't play it fast.
c. Play it faster. This is especially appropriate for excerpts. Can you play it at the proper tempo? Good. Now do it faster. Did you find a place that falls apart? That is your weak spot. If you can't play it cleanly at multiple different speeds - both fast and slow - then you have some weak spots in your playing. Maybe your shifting gets a little sloppy and desperate when you crank up the speed. Maybe you find some weird accidental or unintentional accents caused by faster tempos. Welcome to the problem that needs to be addressed. And say hello to some technical exercises (see below).
d. Keep the subdivision. It is important to physically memorize the feeling of a consistent subdivision. If your little beats rush your big ones will too. Playing a passage 2 against 3? Triplets? Quintuplets? Guess you better figure those out EXACTLY before you start flippantly rushing through them. Play it 3 against 2, 2 against 3 etc. You get the idea. Figure out the precise placement of all those notes before you start making artistic decisions about slowing down and speeding up.
2. Drone! Pick a note, any note! Okay maybe not any note but something that will be consonant or perfect with at least 80% of the passage at hand. Play slow. No vibrato and align your intonation with the drone. Then pick another pitch and do the same - the root and 5th of a chord are a good starting place with this type of work. This tightens up your chords and passagework so your putting your fingers down in exact places and not just willy nilly in the heat of the moment. Speed it up once you are acing it and see if it sticks at a faster tempo. The last thing you should add is vibrato.
3. Record Yourself. Everyday and Every way. I was fortunate enough to work with a teacher who recorded every lesson I had. It made me cringe! But wow do you learn a ton from watching and listening to yourself. Sometimes you're so busy trying to pull off all of the fireworks on the page you can't hear everything that is actually coming out of the instrument. The only way to find the weak spots and improve is to hear them or have a teacher catch them for you. What happens when you don't have a teacher? You have to find these sections yourself - and this is the best way to do it.
I recorded little portions, larger sections, whole movements, rehearsals with pianists and lessons. I heard a whole bunch of stuff that made me want to quit the violin and never pick it up again. Yikes! It was tough listening to it all. But we do it in the name of progress and the quest for near perfection. Remember! YOU DO THIS TO IMPROVE NOT TO FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF!! Each day I would record numerous tracks then listen to them during my drives to work and gigs and teaching. Sometimes I was in tears, sometimes I was pleasantly surprised and always I had a distinct idea of what needed fixing or changing. Don't forget to listen for the musical elements as well as intonation and technique. You might stumble across a moment of your most natural musicality and it will be a pleasant surprise.
4. Sing. Sing for phrasing, sing for musicality, and sing for intonation. If you can sing it you can play it! If you have no idea what the next note should sound like how on earth are you going to find it on the violin? Don't cross your fingers and hope for the best, make a plan and stick to it. The first part of the plan includes what note comes next! Is there a big shift? Sing the note you're aiming for, once you figure that out you're halfway there. Sing against a drone. Its funny how your own tonal center, as in the one INSIDE you, needs to be just as precise as your intonation on the instrument. It helps you anticipate the correct pitches and plan more precisely.
If you're looking for some real fun sing and play at the same time. Working on Bach A minor fugue I realized its kind of fun, and at the very least interesting to sing one voice as you play 1 or 2 of the others. Its hard! And funny - and according to my dog sounds absolutely terrible but if you can play in tune with yourself those double stops and chords will be so in tune it hurts. I started working on all double stops like this. It keeps your inner ear in tip top shape which only serves to improve your left hand.
5. Breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe, BREATHE. You must practice this. Breathing is calming. Breathing helps your brain function the best it can. If you hold your breath, you deprive your brain of oxygen and send your body into panic mode. This makes you rush, tighten up, forget things, miss shifts and function in a state of desperation. This undermines all of the work you calmly did in your practice room. Don't let a lack of breath get the best of you. Spend some time before the performance or audition or whatever calmly taking large, expansive breaths. Then continue this throughout the performance. Do you feel yourself clamming up? Or sense the tension from a tricky passage coming up? Replace that anxiety with a reminder to breathe. Even write it in your music if it helps. Keeping your breath calm and not shallow is essential for performing at your best.
6. Stretch. Amping up your practice schedule in anticipation of a big event can lead to tight and overworked muscles. I'm a huge fan of yoga. I practice on my own, attend class whenever I can and throw in a few poses mid rehearsal if I feel extra stiff. Almost immediately I can feel my body expand and relax, like a massive THANK YOU to my whole system. Even my brain feels better. I like to start and end my day with a little bit of yoga. At the minimum 20-30minutes in the morning and right before bed do a world of good. You can stretch however you'd like but yoga has always been the most effective for me. At times of my life when I feel really stressed I turn to slow, meditative and restorative yoga. Your body needs to open up and find length - not tighten up and muscle through a workout. I aim for that Yoga High at the end of practice. If I achieve that in yoga I know my violin practicing will go much more smoothly.
7. Drink Water. Sounds Silly, I know but staying hydrated helps you concentrate and also wards off feelings of exhaustion. The last thing you want to do is battle fatigue while you're working up a recital. I like to think that I'm flushing all of the stress out of my body with every gulp of water. Its amazing the effect of being properly hydrated has on your entire system and ability to work.
8. Practice the thoughts. Thoughts are things. I'm not kidding! If you think 'I can't do this' or 'this is the spot I always mess up' guess what happens? Practice the positive thoughts, the helpful ones, the ones that give you success. Like 'I am calm' or 'Breathe' or even the practical rational things like 'where is my contact point?' Make a mental plan - sometimes the distraction of having real and practical things to focus on gives you no room for all of the awkward freak out thoughts that like to creep into our heads in times of stress. THINK RATIONAL THOUGHTS.
9. Sleep. Your brain needs a chance to throw out the garbage and clean all of the cogs and wheels of the mind. If you never hit the off switch you never have a chance to recharge. Don't skip the zzzzzzs. Not only does it hit reset it also magically helps all of the things you've worked so hard to solidify stay in place. That metronome work you did yesterday? Still there. That shift that was really difficult last week? Still improving. I love sleep, it feels good to be well rested. Don't deprive yourself the luxury of several horizontal hours.
10. Technique. Don't skimp on your scales! Seriously! A little a day keeps you a lean, mean, playing machine. I highly regret not spending more of my practice time solidifying the basics prior to my recital. Gearing up for the audition I amped up the Sevcik and Flesch and man were my hands well behaved and my playing was pretty rock solid. Now I keep a little practice log so I don't repeat the same things too often. The following is a sampling of my current favorites. I take a taste from each everyday. On a good day I spend 1.5-2.5 hours on this stuff. It feels good to dive in. At the end of your practice session you feel instant improvement. The benefits of practicing technique are far reaching and you will feel the effects in repertoire almost immediately.
Flesch Scales - all on 1 string, 3 octaves, arpeggios, broken thirds, chromatic. A new key each week
Sevcik Bowing - Like meditation for the right hand. Slows me down so I appreciate every inch of my bow. Hones specific techniques that might be a little weak (aka up bow staccato)
Sevcik Shifting - I rotate through a few of these every week. My shifting was getting sloppy and now I feel much more finely tuned. I practice slow, without vibrato.
Sevcik Double Stops - Intonation. FEEL THE INTERVALS.
Galamian Scales and Arpeggios - I pick the same key as the Flesch and do these for the accelerations and alternative chord progression in the arpeggios.
Schradieck - A messy, poorly behaved left hand cannot play efficiently. This helps my concentration and my dexterity.
Etudes/Caprices - Right now I'm challenging myself to some Paganini. Its the toughest of the tough but I think I'm getting there.
I could keep going. But these are the points I find most helpful in prepping for anything. Anyone have some good ideas to add? Leave a comment!