Article: Making practice perfect

The dreaded Coronavirus is causing gigs to be cancelled or postponed, and orchestras to go into recess. Virtually all amateur and professional musicians are in lockdown at home. But all is not lost. The situation offers a golden opportunity for some really productive personal practice.

With this in mind, I sought the observations of several local musicians and teachers on the subject. The views of Peter Best and Ed Mc Dermott (both ex-Royal Marines musicians), Spencer Bundy (ex RAF musician, ex cruise liner multi-instrumentalist and university tutor) and Lorraine Masson (formerly an orchestral violinist and viola player in Spain and Portugal) are reflected in this piece. These are pearls of wisdom from prominent musicians and experienced musical directors.

Why practice at all? Unless you are a naturally-talented musician like Fritz Krysler, whose wife used to scold him for not practising, players are unlikely to improve without practising. Time spent honing up your technique is never wasted. It’s a chance to improve what you know already by playing simple, uncomplicated things over and over again. Single notes can be repeated until a pleasing, sonorous tone is fostered. Also, muscle memory can also be established this way.

When is the best time to practice? Most people agree that playing when your energy levels are highest is the most beneficial. For many, this is in the morning. Obviously, this depends on whether you are an early bird or a night owl. Practising when tired can be counterproductive.

Where to practice? Any quiet place with enough elbow room will do. A music stand, pencil and rubber are useful accessories. The metronome is an essential tool to cultivate an even tempo and correct rhythmic playing. So is a mirror which enables players to correct their stance and posture. For many modern musicians, access to YouTube is a real advantage, enabling them to see and hear virtuosi playing the pieces they are learning.

How to practice? Standing up is best as this makes the core muscles and diaphragm work as they should. Although this is particularly important for wind players, it applies to upper string players too. For those, like ‘cellists, who must sit to play, a business-like, upright chair fits the bill.

What to practice? Scales, played slowly with careful attention to tuning, are absolutely vital for they are the building blocks of music. Any book of scales will probably do. However, Hrimaly’s book of studies for violin is excellent. It starts very simply but soon leads the player to very challenging two- and three-octave scales and arpeggios in all keys. Slow and steady playing is vital to avoid embedding bad habits or sloppy playing.

Next come exercises. Etudes composed by Playel, Kayser, Kreutzer, Wohlfahrt and many others are superbly beneficial for taking musicians through every key as well as the upper and lower registers of the instrument. Mazas studies are well regarded too because they are both tuneful and testing. Sevcik’s School of Violin Techniques Opus 1, 2 and 3 are so comprehensive that they probably take a lifetime to master fully. They should be practised in manageable bites. The best advice is to tackle the material which is hard work first rather than put it off till the end. This removes the temptation to postpone it until the next day.

Finally, there are pieces which, once mastered, are enjoyable to play. These are particularly useful to round off the practice session with pleasure and a feeling of achievement.

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