It’s an old joke with a ring of truth to it. A violinist visiting New York asks a passing hippy how to get to Carnegie Hall. The hippy replies “Practise, man, practise.”
Professionals and amateurs (gifted or otherwise), all must practise to raise their game. This period of lockdown with cancelled gigs across the board should be a chance to get some decent practice in. But repetitive exercises can be a hard slog. It’s not easy on your own. So, what’s the best advice around to banish boredom and make private practice beneficial and also a pleasure? Here’s what soloists, teachers and experienced players think.
That inspirational violinist, Nicola Benedetti, advises getting both body and mind prepared for a practice session. She starts by loosening up her wrists, shoulders and arms as this helps to focus the mind into a positive and calm state. She also believes that two shorter practice periods can often be better than a long arduous session. A mid-session break with a bit of a rest, maybe with a drink and a snack, could be just the thing to refresh the aspiring player.
Nicola stresses the importance of playing pieces very slowly but with unwavering attention to detail. In her opinion, even slow playing should never be a holiday for the mind.
Hollie Branson is an up-and-coming violinist in the Royal Marines Band Service. She’s working up to a recital in September which is part of her career’s advancement. She’s also working her way through Nicola Benedetti’s Learning with Nicky online tutorials.
Hollie’s currently concentrating on Elgar’s Salut d’Amour which she discovered through Nicola’s lessons. She’s also been preparing short pieces for the weekly Thursday evening applause for the heroes of the NHS. She regards this as useful sight-reading practice for herself.
Lorraine Masson, musical director of the Meon Valley Orchestra and ex-professional violin and viola player, believes that if a player is struggling with a particular piece then he or she should turn to a different composer of a similar genre, say, like going from Telemann to Bach. Alternatively, you could take a break and listen to a good rendition of it on YouTube, CD or cassette. After listening, you may want to have a go at playing along with the recording.
Nula Land is a highly experienced upper strings teacher who also plays in many orchestras locally. She has some valuable hints to impart. She says, don’t beat yourself up, struggling with challenging works and playing them slavishly from top to bottom over and over again. Concentrate on the difficult bars, the tricky corners, and carefully sort them out.
If a piece is giving you a problem, she advocates leaving it alone for a while so it matures in your mind. Once it’s settled in your brain you can return to it with renewed vigour. This advice is echoed by several top musicians.
Other local enthusiastic players have little tips to help the talented and not-so-talented alike. Some say you should set yourself manageable goals like mastering one new piece a week. You could even pretend that you have to perform it in the not too distant future. Nothing like a deadline to crank up the concentration.
Finally, in these strange, doldrum-like times it may be a good idea to give your instrument a careful clean, fit new strings or get your spare bow re-haired. One ‘cello player I know has taken his spare instrument to bits and rebuilt it. That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think?