When I'm beginning my practice on a new work, I have identified the most difficult parts of the piece before sitting down with my cello. But what to do after that? I begin by consulting this nifty guide, the Seven Stages of Practicing. The guide came to me through a friend during my time in graduate school.
Many of you know that I’ve moved to the Atlanta area for some exciting teaching and performing opportunities, but many probably don’t know that I’m commuting to Pennsylvania twice per month for other exciting work. As a consequence of my commute, I have a lot of time to myself in planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve spent much of this time listening to some wonderful audiobooks (send suggestions; I’m running out of things to listen to!) to both stay awake and broaden my horizons at the same time. One of the books I’ve recently “read” (and we’ll just allow the word “read” from now on, even though my “reading” is really just “listening”) is Malcolm Gladwell’s pretty cool book, Outliers.
If you live in the northeastern United States - like I do - you're probably sitting in your home or office looking out the window at a beautiful snow fall. If you're a 9 year old - like I seem to be - you are also resisting the urge to run outside with your sled, in search of the closest hill. But if you are a musician - like I am - you are stuck staring out the window of your practice room, wishing for the bygone days of your care free youth.
I am a really big fan of taking a lot of time off and away from the cello. I believe that the time spent at a desk, studying music, or outside on a run keeps the analytical mind fresh and ready to tackle all problems that arise during regular practice. Small practice breaks (see my lecture on organized practice) during individual sessions and larger breaks (multiple days) away from the cello serve the same purpose: to prepare and ready your body and mind to achieve big things in the practice room.
I play the cello, so let's assume that I have a recital in three months which includes the third Beethoven Sonata, fourth Bach Suite, and this super short new piece that my friend Joe Schmo wrote for solo cello. AHH! What to do?! I haven’t even started learning the music! I'll be planning like this:
After you’ve spent a few hours with the music, maybe listened to a recording, and (For string players) you’ve got fingerings and bowings marked in (some you’ll love, some you’ll hate -- keep that eraser handy). What happens now?
The act of practicing - actually being in a room with your instrument and applying your musical ideas and instrumental techniques to a work of music - is one of the most innate parts of being a musician. Yet, despite it’s importance in the field, many students don’t know how to practice! They spend inordinate amounts of wasted time playing one thing or another, lofty goals never being achieved. Teachers spend too little time discussing both practice techniques and musical organization, expecting - ridiculously - that their students will simply “find their own way.” Students, on the other hand, don’t realize the progress they could be experiencing if only their practice were more regimented and their techniques more refined.