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Sunday, January 2, 2011

How To Practice, part I

I waste a lot of time practicing because I don't approach my practice time thoughtfully enough. As with so many things I do in my life, I leave little time for reflection before and after my practice sessions, and my practice product or result probably suffers as a result. So I think I'll take the time right now to reflect carefully about how to approach my practice sessions with more planning and insight. Then I'll have a blue print for future success, and hopefully you will find something useful here for your own situation. In future posts I will discuss various methods for recording and structuring practice sessions.

There are different types of practice sessions and different types of approaches to specific practice. This is a wide subject area with many different avenues of exploration. Let's just start with the thought behind approaching the practice of a new piece of repertoire.

When I went to purchase a house, I didn't just show up at a realtor's office and point a finger at a picture in the realtor's brochures and say, "I'll take that one." There was more of a process to go through before even getting to the selection phase. In my mind, I have 5 phases that are involved in the purchase of a new home, and I use these phases as analogies to learning a new repertoire piece. I'll call these 5 phases: the neighborhood drive by, the model home, the house showing, the move in, and the redecoration.

Neighborhood Drive By

When I first meet up with a realtor, we make an appointment for the realtor to show me some properties that fit my specific criteria. We pile in the realtor's vehicle and start driving around neighborhood areas. While driving, the realtor points out little tidbits about the neighborhood: there's a community pool over there, an elementary school the next street over, nearby grocery store, and a public library. I also get a sense of the type of neighborhood we are driving through. Are there mostly families with small children or retirees? Are there broken vehicles up on blocks in the driveway or carport? Are there several unkempt lawns or open and overflowing garages? Is there a general sense of tidiness or of disrepair?

Model Home

After getting a feel for the neighborhood and selecting an area that suits me, we proceed to the model home, if there is one. This is where we look through a home that has been set up as an example or model to show what the home would look like. I imagine it is easier for a realtor to sell a new home once the prospective buyer has the opportunity to see what a finished product might look like. Here the realtor is able to demonstrate the possibilities, and the prospective buyer is able to experience the new home through the senses. Even without a model home to visit, the realtor could still accomplish the same purpose by indicating various other real properties in the neighborhood as examples of possibilities.

House Showing

The next step is to view specific properties that are for sale. Here the realtor takes the prospective buyer inside specific homes, and the buyer considers whether the particular property fits the bill. The realtor makes the necessary disclosures about any positive or negative attributes, and the buyer looks around to consider any other possibilities. At this point, the buyer is beginning to envision what the house will look like once the buyer has completely moved in. The buyer begins to make plans for certain rooms to serve a specific purpose. Here is the master bedroom, here is the office or den, here is the family room, and so forth. Are there any areas that will be difficult to populate with furniture? Decisions are made and plans are finalized for the purchase.

The Move In

Time for the move in. The buyer now brings all of his or her possessions into the new home and starts to set things up. This is where the buyer brings the sum total of everything he or she owns or has gathered up to this point in life and now distributes them around the new property in a new configuration. Some belongings will stay in similar configurations as in the last property, but the buyer may use the new home as an opportunity to explore new combinations, arrangements, or design.

The Redecoration

In this phase, the buyer makes alterations to the house in order to accommodate the specific needs or tastes of the buyer. The buyer puts the finishing touches on the decor style and the points of functionality, perhaps adding a home entertainment center to one room, a garage opener to the garage, a new fridge in the kitchen, shelves in the office, and so forth.

So how do these phases relate to practicing? I use these phases to remind me of how to approach a new repertoire piece.

The Neighborhood Drive By

When I come to a new piece, I do the neighborhood drive by. I play through the piece in general from beginning to end to get a sense of the "neighborhood." Where are the tough spots? Where are the transitions? Where are the fun spots? How big is the piece? Where are the sections? Just as I drove around exploring the neighborhood, so I play through the piece and explore its offerings. I just let myself experience the sum total of the piece without spending too much time dwelling on the specifics except to just notice them as I drive by.

The House Showing

In this practice phase, I start planning my specific detail work. Notice I used the word "planning." I'm still thinking of different aspects of the piece, but I'm beginning to think in more concrete terms of what will go where. Will this section be more spiccato or detaché?

The Move In

With the move in phase, now I get specific in my practice work. I incorporate all my practice tricks into learning the new piece. I spend time working specific areas until I have mastered the technique required to perform these areas. I shore up any weak technique that was revealed by the demands of the new piece.

The Redecoration

With this phase, I have now pretty much learned the piece and formalized what I will do with the piece in terms of musical phrasing, interpretation, expression, and technique.

At this point, it's time for me to add a little more detail to my practice sessions. How do I manage all of my practice discoveries, ideas, notes, and plans? In the next few blog posts, I will include several discussions about the various methods that could be used to enhance practicing.


  1. I guess my 100 day practice count will need to start again tomorrow for myself, but not my girls. As for my decision regarding what to change, I am still trying to narrow it down. However, I know that if it falls in the spiritual category, it would definitely affect the 80% of other things you referred to.

  2. I'm working thru 3 challenges myself: violin practice, exercise, and bible study. That pretty much covers work, health, and spiritual (which affects everything else). The first time I just chose 1 thing. After the first 100 days, I thought about adding other things. My advice: start small and let your steps grow bigger with confidence. Pick just 1 thing to experience.