Organized, Habitual, and Intelligent Practice, Part 3

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:

Long term goal: RECITAL!

Short term goal: Today I will … learn - pitch perfect - the notes (not rhythms) for the first page of the Bach Prelude; figure out the rhythms of the new piece, pitches don’t matter today; memorize the exposition of the Beethoven Sonata.

Here’s how the practice plan for the day looks:

X:00 - X:30 -- Warm up: scales, arpeggios, easy etude work
X:30 - X:50 -- Drone work on Beethoven exposition, just to solidify pitch, quarter notes
X:50 - Y:00 -- BREAK

Y:00 - Y:20 -- Bach, First phrase, following 7 Stages of Practice, step 1
Y:20 - Y:30 -- Schmo, first phrase, clapping a beat, singing rhythms; no cello
Y:30 - Y:50 -- Beethoven, painfully slow metronome, correct bows/fingers, exposition
Y:50 - Z:00 -- BREAK

Z:00 - Z:20 -- Beethoven, Memorize first phrase, following 7SP, step 7
Z:20 - Z:30 -- Schmo, first phrase, stomping a beat, playing the rhythms on static pitch
Z:30 - Z:45 -- Bach, First Phrase, following 7SP, step 2
Z:45 - Z:50 -- Scale warm down

By determining exactly what to practice and for how long to do it, we take some pressure off of ourselves. Walking in to a practice room unprepared to practice because we don’t know WHAT to practice is silly. Taking the wonder out of practicing makes life much easier in the long run.

The most important part of this method of scheduling is what I enjoy calling the “road kill method”. Practicing in this manner - with everything from composer, to task at hand scheduled - means that you must be incredibly disciplined. You might not finish memorizing the first phrase of the Beethoven sonata in 20 minutes; that is quite an undertaking. If you don’t accomplish your task, you add it to the list of goals for the next day, and you go on to the next thing. You worked hard, but you failed. Kind of. Not really. Just a little bit. It’s ok. Road kill. Drive on. This poses a problem for the traditional weekly lesson model. Note the make up of the schedule for that first practice day. We’re not really accomplishing a great volume of music. At the beginning of the process, the go is slow. Especially when juggling so many works at the same time. When you are practicing three different pieces, it’s hard to bring substantial sections to lessons. As things go on, say two months later, the schedule starts to look like this:

X:00 - X:30 -- Warm up: scales, arpeggios, easy etude work
X:30 - X:50 -- Beethoven, run mvmt. I, with drone, note pitch issues
X:50 - Y:00 -- BREAK

Y:00 - Y:20 -- Bach, run Allemande, Courante, metronome
Y:20 - Y:30 -- Schmo, record piece, listen to ending
Y:30 - Y:50 -- Beethoven, record mvmt. II, listen, mark problems
Y:50 - Z:00 -- BREAK

Z:00 - Z:20 -- Beethoven, mvmt I, fix pitch issues
Z:20 - Z:30 -- Bach, record Prelude
Z:30 - Z:45 -- Bach, check Prelude and Gigue memory

You can see that the tasks get larger. It’s now about finishing the piece, polishing, making it performable. This takes time, it doesn’t happen over night - don’t fall in to the Google trap! Now, lessons will be more substantial.

What you do in the practice room determines what kind of performer you are going to be. I believe that it’s hard enough to practice efficiently, manage tension, and critique ourselves, without thinking about WHAT to actually practice. Developing habits - the good kind, the kind that make us in to better performers - should be the ultimate goal. 

All of these suggestions I’ve made are things that I employ in my own practice. I’m an average cellist, when it comes to natural talent my cup doesn’t runneth over. But, I believe that what the other average person accomplishes in four hours, I can finish in three, two and a half if I really push myself. It may not seem like much, but it means that I can bang out a respectable 90 minute recital program of difficult music in four months instead of six. It means I can be performing one concert program while practicing for the next doing three programs in one year. In the lap of luxury of the academy, you don’t have to think about number of programs you have in your back pocket, but being able to get something prepared in a very short amount of time is quite helpful. It will put money in your wallet. For me, three readily-performable programs equals thirty concerts per year. Thirty concerts equals rent, food, and maybe a vacation.

Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Practicing habitually, intelligently, with a plan, will make you a more efficient, better prepared musician!