Practice Like a Pro

Learn how to practice like a pro! Doing well at anything requires practice. Lots of practice! There are no shortcuts! Practice takes time, lots of time. It can be boring. Practice is not usually fun. But learning how to effectively practice is one of the most important things you can learn as a musician! Let me give you some ideas on how to make the most of your practice time.

Best Tips for Effective Practicing

Plan to Practice

Make a plan to practice. Just as you write tasks, assignments, appointments in your planner, do not forget to include your music practice in your daily plans. If you tell yourself that you will practice when you finish everything else, most likely you will not get to the practicing. Choose the time and place to practice that works best for you. My last year in college, because of the way my class and work schedules worked out, my slotted/assigned piano practice time was from 10 p.m. to midnight. Was it ideal? Probably not, but it worked for me. Fortunately for everyone else, the piano I was using was in a separate building, far away from where anyone was trying to sleep!

Always Take Time to Warm Up

No matter when you decide to practice, always take time to warm up. Proper warm up is SO important! This will help you in so many ways. It will prepare you for the practice session, it will get your muscles involved ready to work, and warming up will help you begin to focus on practicing. Warming up is never a waste of time! Work on long tones for tone quality, pitch control and embouchure endurance. Do slow, and then faster scale patterns. Do some physical stretching to prepare your body for the practice session. Always do warm ups!

Be Intentional

Have a plan for each practice session. What are you hoping to accomplish? Be specific. Don’t just hope to play through the first movement of the sonata without any mistakes. Have a plan. “I am going to work on the correct dynamics of the first sonata movement. I think I am missing some crescendos.” The more specific your plan is, the better you will be able to accomplish your goals.

Be Efficient

Your practice time is limited. Use it efficiently! Don’t let your mind wander while you are trying to practice. You won’t know whether you played something correctly or not! Stay focused. Concentrate on what you are playing and how you are playing it. Listen while you play. Do you like what you hear? Why not? What can you do to make it better? Be your own critic and solve the problems you hear. I used to have a teacher who would tell me (repeatedly!) that if my mind was not engaged with what I was playing, I was wasting my time. Who has time to waste in the practice room?

Isolate the Problems

The purpose of practicing is to solve problems. Don’t spend all your time playing a piece from beginning to end repeatedly. Most likely, you can play most of the piece well. Find out where you are having problems, mark them, and focus on correcting the specific problems. Let’s say that in measure 22 you have problems playing an arpeggio section. Don’t play through measure 23 and then go back to the beginning. Take just measure 22 (where the problem is) and work on solving the problem. Play it through very slowly, but correctly. Do it several times that way, then take it just a tiny bit faster. Gradually increase the tempo until you can play it correctly several times at the correct speed. Then play measures 21-23. Does the problem section sound better? Then try playing measures 17-25. When you can do that correctly (several times), then you can think about going back to the beginning of the piece. Don’t waste your time repeatedly playing what you can already play well, focus on the problem parts!

Mark Your Music

There is no rule against marking your music. Smart musicians will mark their music to help them remember what to do, or what not to do. Markings can point out sections that need more practice, accidentals you miss too often, key changes, time signature changes, etc. You may not want to mark all this on your original copy of the music. (For competitions or auditions this would not be a good plan!) Make a copy of the music and mark all over it. Use different colors, use erasable highlighters. Use colored pencils. Whatever works for you. As you are playing through a piece, mark the problem spots so you know what needs special attention. (And so you won’t forget where the problem areas are!) Markings will draw your attention to certain things that you might forget about. You can mark where the melody line is. Mark your dynamic changes. Highlight where different voices enter. (Bach fugues?) Marking your music is a tool to make you a better musician.

Practice Slowly

I had a professor tell me once (or more than once!) that if I could not play the piece/passage correctly slowly, I would never be able to play it correctly up to tempo. He was right. When we play everything up to tempo all the time we learn to sort of gloss over the problem and hope no one notices. When we play through the passage slowly, we hear all the mistakes and unevenness that need to be corrected. So learn to practice slowly, find the problems, solve them, then work your way gradually back to the correct tempo. Slow practice is SO important!!!

Practice until You Cannot Play the Piece Incorrectly

When we practice, we are training muscles to respond correctly so the music is played correctly. We need to practice until our muscles automatically know what to do next – without conscious thought being involved. Our fingers/hands need to know what to do so our mind can focus on making the music flow from the finger/hand response. And that requires much practice! Concentrated, focused practice. Practice until the passage is played correctly every time, not just once in a while. Play a game with yourself – commit to practicing a section until you can play it correctly ten times in a row. If you mess up on time #8 then you have to start over at #1 again. If it takes an hour to accomplish that challenge, then take an hour. But when you finish, you will be able to say that you really accomplished something in that practice session.

Strategies for Solving Problems

Listen to Find the Problems

You must listen while you play in order to find the sections that need extra attention. You can not put your brain in neutral and just mindlessly play through a piece and expect to improve. You must focus and listen. Find where the problems are. Train your mind to listen critically to find things that need attention. Don’t rely on your teacher to find all your problems for you. Be your own critic. It might help to occasionally record yourself, then follow your music while listening to the recording. Mark all the things you hear that are not correct, or that don’t sound quite right to you. Then you know what to go back and work on.

Mark the Problem

One you listen and find a problem passage, mark it! Most likely you will not remember where every problem section is, and then you will waste time trying to find it again. Mark your music when you hear something wrong so you will remember what you need to come back to.

Analyze What is Wrong or What is Causing the Problem

When you begin to work on a problem passage, first, think about what is wrong with it. Are you playing wrong notes? Missing an accidental? Is the rhythm wrong? Is the passage uneven? Are the dynamics wrong? Before you start to practice the passage, you need to know what you are trying to correct.

Isolate

Isolate the problem. Don’t work on two pages if the problem area is only two measures long. Concentrate on solving the problem in just those two measures. When you are confident you can repeatedly play those two measures correctly, then work those two measures back into the context of the piece. Start two measures before the problem and play for a couple measures after the problem. When you can do that well and up to tempo, add in a few more measures.

Practice to Solve the Problem

Remember your focus – what are you trying to correct? Solve the problem! Maybe you need to experiment with different fingering to make the passage easier to play. Maybe you need to mark that missed accidental in some bright color so you can’t possibly miss it again! Keep your mind focused on what you are trying to accomplish. Don’t give up and quit before you finish.

Learn how to practice efficiently and effectively! This is probably one of the most important things you can learn as a musician. The sooner you learn effective practice techniques, the sooner you will become a better musician! So go out and Practice Like a Pro!

Happy Practicing!

This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child practice.

And if your child does not want to practice, here are some ideas that might help.

Viola – The Unsung Hero of the Orchestra

Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.

Did You Know?

The viola was developed about the same time as the violin – in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.

Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.

Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G, D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.

Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.

Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!

What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?

Making the Viola Popular

The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.

Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.

William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for viola.  

What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?

In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.

Similarities Differences
Both instruments are held the same way Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar
in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of
the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
  Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a
violin

Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor

The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.

Violists are a Step Above

Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?

Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.

The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)

Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.

Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can read both treble clef and alto clef?

There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!

Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!

If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.

Read Here

And Here

Also Here

And Here

And if you want to read about some other instruments, you can read about Flutes, Violins, Trumpets, and Marimba.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

Buying new strings for your violin (or viola, or cello)? There are several things you need to know before you press “buy.” Some of them you probably never even thought of before. I’ve had string players in my home for over 20 years, and still had to ask several questions before our last string purchase. There are so many options! How do you figure out exactly which strings to buy? And how do you know when to get new strings? Let me help you figure this out.

When Is It Time for New Strings?

First Big Question – When is it time to get new strings? How do you know? Guess what – there is no easy answer! Strings do not come with expiration dates. They don’t turn colors when they need to be replaced. The answer is somewhat subjective. Obviously, if a string breaks it must be replaced. But what about the ones that don’t break?

If the end of the string is starting to fray or unravel, it is probably time for new strings. It is probably time for new strings if you are having to work harder than usual to get the sound you want. If your strings are unresponsive, or dull-sounding, you probably should get new strings. Having a hard time getting your strings to stay in tune? That might also be a sign that it is time for new strings.

The more you play, the more frequently you need to replace your strings. For an advanced player, someone practicing several hours a day, strings probably need to be replaced every 3-6 months.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

What do you need to know before placing an order for new strings? A Lot! Not only do you have to know the correct instrument and size, and which strings, but you have to know what type of end you need on the string, gauge, brand, core, tension, full set or not, etc. Let’s take a look at each of these.

What Instrument, What Size, What String?

First, you must specify your instrument, the size of your instrument, and the string you want. Be sure you choose the strings for your instrument – violin, viola, cello. OK – this seems basic, but you don’t want to be careless and make a mistake and order the wrong strings!

Then, what size instrument do you have? Full size? ½ size? And if you are playing viola, full-size doesn’t one size. There are several sizes of full-size viola. Know the correct length of your viola. (Viola length is determined by the actual length of the body of the instrument, not including the fingerboard. Most full-size violas are between 15.5 and 16.5 inches.)

And then, if you are not ordering a full set of strings, be sure you order the correct string.

Full Set of Strings or Individual Strings?

Which brings us to the next question. Do you need a full set of strings (all four), or are you just replacing one string? Do you want the same brand of strings for all four strings, or are you planning to mix brands? Know that you can buy a full set of strings, or you can purchase strings individually. For younger players, you will probably be well served by just buying full sets of strings.

More advanced players may like the sound of different strings for different ranges and may choose to buy strings individually. How do you make that decision? Ask your string teacher for suggestions and advice. Some online stores will list sound descriptions of the different strings they sell to help you choose what you want. (dark, mellow, bright, etc.)

How Do the Strings Attach to your Instrument?

You need to know how your strings attach to the tailpiece of your instrument. Do they have a loop at the end, or a ball at the end? And sometimes strings come with a tie knot. Tie knot ends attach the same way that ball ends strings do – the knot replaces the ball. And some strings now are sold with removeable balls – you can use it with the ball or remove the ball and have a loop end.

If you don’t know which end you need, ask your teacher or orchestra director. If any of your strings have fine tuners, strings with ball ends work well for tuners with two prongs, and strings with loop ends work better for tuners with one prong.

Cores and Wrappings

The next two things you need to think about are cores and wrappings. Strings are made with one of three core materials: gut, synthetic (composite) or steel. Each core material affects both the sound of the string and its responsiveness.

Gut core strings offer a full, rich, complex tone. Steel core strings are often very bright-sounding, and they tend to produce a more “metallic” sound.  Synthetic core strings are similar in sound to the gut core strings but are more resistant to temperature and humidity changes. They hold their pitch a bit better than the gut core strings.

Often these strings are wrapped or plated with a different material – like aluminum, silver, gold, or titanium. How to choose? Each material will affect the response and tension of the string. Also, some may react with an individual’s body chemistry differently.

Gauge and Tension

Finally, you must decide on gauge and tension. Most student violinists (violists, cellists) will be fine with medium gauge and medium tension. Gauge measures the thickness of the string. While most will want medium gauge strings, the other options are thinner (or “weich” or “dolce”) and thicker (or “starck” or “forte”).

Tension refers more to how hard you must press on the string, or how pliable the string is. Unless you have a specific reason for “lighter” or “heavier” most people use a medium tension.

Where to Buy and How Much Will Strings Cost?

You have figured out all the details you need for buying your new strings. Now, where will you buy them, and how much will they cost? Start with your local music store – see if they have what you need. If you are buying basic student strings, your local store should have them, especially if they service or provide school instruments. And if you break a string the day before your performance, your local store could be a godsend.

If you are looking for more advanced strings, or more specialized strings, you may have to order them online. I have personally purchased strings from Shar Music (sharmusic.com) and from Southwest Strings (swstrings.com). Both have a great selection of strings available. (And no, I don’t have any connection with either store.)

How much will they cost? As you search, you will find that the cost can vary a lot, based on the strings you want and the instrument you play. A full set of student violin strings will be between $15 and $20 while a full set of better quality strings for violin could be $150 or more. A full set of student cello strings is about $50, while a set of higher quality cello strings could cost over $250.

Put the Strings on the Instrument – No Easy Task!

Have you ever put strings on your instrument before? If not, it’s best to have your teacher help you with this. It’s not as easy as it looks. It is too easy to break a new string when putting it on, if you don’t know what you’re doing. (Been there, done that.) But the #1 most important rule when replacing strings – only do ONE string at a time!!!!! Otherwise, you risk have the bridge fall out

More Resources

You might want to check out these other resources for more information about buying strings.

This is a great article explaining the different kinds of strings, gauges, tensions, etc. Read here.

Here is another article about choosing and buying strings.

This article explains the process of changing strings.

Here are some other sources I used for my research. Read here, here, and here.