Students sometimes feel a bit lost when practicing. They aren’t really sure why they are practicing the piece or exercise. This happens more often when a teacher has the habit of assigning every etude in a book, one after the other, without really considering what technical or musical skills the student needs to address at the time. (For the less experienced students out there, “etudes” are studies that are usually presented as repetitive pieces of music focusing on one or two techniques at a time.) I believe that for everything you are practicing you should know and be able to describe the following:
1) Why are you practicing this piece, etude, exercise, or scale?
It’s not good enough to say, “My teacher assigned it” or, “it’s the next one in the book.” You should know exactly what techniques you are building with the piece. There will probably be a few techniques that are challenging for you in the assigned piece. Perhaps there are shifts that you haven’t worked on yet. It could contain a new finger pattern that you are not yet comfortable with. There will also likely be musical challenges. In a slow, lyrical piece, you will need to apply vibrato in a pleasing way and connect the notes smoothly. In a faster piece, you will need to decide on the length of the notes and the articulation that will make the piece exciting. And in every piece, you will want to make choices about tempo and dynamics to “tell the story” that you want to tell.
2) What will it mean to be successful with this piece?
You should always have a clear idea of when you can consider yourself “successful” or “done” with the piece. Again, don’t just rely on a teacher to tell you that you are done. Often, you will be performing the piece and should be “done” learning it sometime before then. However, as you are practicing the piece, you should have a clear goal in mind. For example, you should think “my goal for this piece is to get comfortable with three different finger patterns in third position.” Or, “my goal is to develop a consistent vibrato that doesn’t stop between notes while I play this scale.” You will then have a clear picture of what you want to achieve and will know when you have arrived at your goal.
3) What are the common pitfalls that most students struggle with on this piece?
It is helpful to know what the common problems are as you begin a new assignment. I make it a rule to point out the spots in a piece that cause the most difficulty in order to draw the student’s attention to them. If you are aware of the problem ahead of time, it can save a lot of practice time doing something wrong. For example, if I know that a student is likely to struggle with the fast string crossings in a piece I have assigned, I will point it out early on and instruct the student to pay more attention to using proper, efficient string crossing motions in that section.
4) How exactly will I practice this to become successful?
It is possible that you could sight read something and learn a new technique with no other strategy needed. However this is very rare. Almost everyone needs to break skills down to get to the eventual goal. You should always have a clear sense of direction of what to do to be successful. For any skill, you can break it down to something simpler, then add elements that make it more like the actual music. As I add to this blog, I will be providing many examples of this strategy. You can use the Suzuki books as an example of this as well. There are good practice suggestions in the books that do just what I am describing here. They provide a step-by-step road map to achieving a goal. In almost all cases, there is something better for you to be doing than just running through the piece from beginning to end. That is a very inefficient practice method.
For every new assignment that your teacher gives you, or every piece you choose for yourself, go through this list of four questions and see if you can answer them. It would be very beneficial to discover the answers. You could even write them down and keep them with the piece so you can refer to them as you practice. This will focus your practice and make it as productive as possible. In some cases, you will discover that the piece is not right for you at that time and can move on to something more appropriate. As always, I wish you the best of luck!