How to Practice

It is just as the saying goes, “you only get out what you put in”. For anyone to foster musical growth, they need to practice on a regular basis. There is always something to practice each week in order to master the art of playing the violin. To play the right notes with your left hand, your fingers need to get adjusted to the spacing of the tapes on the violin. To keep a straight bow, your right hand needs to get adjusted to the direction of the bow and your wrist needs to learn how to bend and flex with each bow stroke. To improve note reading, you need time to study and recognize the notes on a page then connect the notes you're reading with the correct fingering on the violin. Each of these techniques takes practice and repetition in order for your brain and your body to commit them to memory.

Good practice starts with pinpointing what technique or skill needs more attention for the particular piece you are working on. As a teacher, my job is to help point out those skills that need more work so that my students walk away from our lessons knowing exactly what to practice. While the amount of practice time may vary between students, the consistency of practice time throughout the week directly impacts how much progress we can make in our lessons. Learning an instrument is like learning a language; the more you are exposed to it the more you will retain in the long run.        

The quality of practice is also more important than the length of time that is spent practicing. One student can practice a song 10 times in the span of 30 minutes and still come to our lessons less prepared than another student who practiced 15 minutes on the same song but focused on the trouble spots we were having in our lesson. Good practice is more than playing through a song 10 times! It involves some thinking and planning to figure out what you want to get done during the practice session. You can get the most out of it if you set a tangible goal at the beginning and aim to accomplish that goal by the end of the session.

Here are some examples of good practice goals that are clear and tangible:

For the song "Etude" in Suzuki Book 1, remember to play Low 2 fingers on A string and E string for the entire piece this week. Low 2 on A string is the "C" note and Low 2 on E string is the "G" note.

  • On Monday, play the first 2 lines of the song with all Low 2’s. Practice this until you can play it 5 times in a row correctly.
  • On Tuesday, play the last 2 lines of the song with all Low 2’s. Practice this until you can play it 5 times in a row correctly.
  • On Wednesday, play the entire piece with all Low 2's. Practice this until you can play it 5 times in a row correctly. If you miss a Low 2 somewhere, start over.
  • On Thursday, play the entire piece with all Low 2 fingerings and make sure your 3rd and 4th fingers stretch far enough to reach the tapes. Practice this until you can play it 5 times in a row correctly.
  • On Friday, review what you practiced during the week. 

Quality practice is often overlooked because we don't want to take the extra time to think through how to spend our time more wisely. My recommendation for students and families would be to take the first 5 minutes of each practice session to reflect on what was discussed during the lesson time. This will help you focus on the things you need to work on and remember the tips your teacher gave you. I like to have my students bring a practice notebook to our lessons so that I can write down what we are working on from week to week. This has been helpful for my students to refer back to throughout the week so they know exactly what to work on. It's also really encouraging to be able to look through the notebook and see how much progress we've made on certain songs and techniques! This is both affirming and rewarding for me and my students to reflect on past stumbling blocks we've been able to overcome together with diligent practice and constant encouragement.

To read more about how to practice, check out these articles:

How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice? by Noa Kageyama, a performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member.

The Case for Active Practicing by Henry Myers, a cellist at Northwestern University.

Sophia Hsiao

Sophia has been teaching violin privately since 2013 and has enjoyed learning more about how to help her students reach their musical goals. See her biography here.

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