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The Best Way to Practice Your Instrument

The Best Way to Practice Your Instrument

... is to not practice. 

Ok, maybe its not that extreme. But I think sometimes we are so overwhelmed with messages from ourselves and others that tell us we aren’t ‘good enough’ -or that what we have to say as an artist ‘isn’t enough,’ that we forget to take a step back and make an actionable plan to move through that criticism. It’s easy to take these messages personally and let it negatively effect everything that you are trying to accomplish.

The reality is that your body is your first instrument.

Let that sink in for a moment.. I know many people have heard something similar in a movement for musicians class (like Alexander Technique), but think about what the implications of this really are. 

Here are a few realizations I’ve had over the last few years:

1. The way we take care of ourselves effects the way we interact with our musical instrument

2. The internal messages we tell ourselves can effect the way we interact with our musical instrument

3. The way we understand how our body moves in three-dimensional space effects the way we interact with our musical instrument

4. The way we perceive ourselves effects the way we interact with our musical instrument

5. The way we communicate with others and present ourselves as individuals effects the way we interact with our musical instrument

 

Therefore, there are ways to dramatically improve your playing that do not involve the viola (or whatever instrument you play) at all.

 

This last summer, I decided to detox from all the negative messages I was telling myself in the practice room. I knew I had some unnecessary physical tension in my playing, and the source was completely psychological.

I started with a simple idea to take a break from practicing - I ended up taking about 2 months off. Then came up with a plan to practice small amounts of time being hyper-aware of my technique and remaining free in my neck and shoulders. If I became aware of any negative self talk AT ALL during my practice time, I put my viola down and did something that made me feel good (like take a walk or make a cup of tea). I supplemented this with a short meditation session before my practice time, because I truly believe that practicing is a form of meditation.

I was careful NOT to introduce affirmations, because affirmations are often a way to hide your anxiety or insecurity without actually improving it at the source.

In the beginning of this experiment, I could not make it more that a few minutes of practice time before that negative self-talk appeared. But every day it got just a little bit better. I didn’t push myself, but tried to find ways of being critical without being negative. And it WORKED. A month and a half later I appeared as a guest artist at Vianden Music Festival, and I never felt more confident in my abilities as a performer. I had a new sense of calm and control over what I was doing that I never had before, and most importantly I didn’t have that awful, relentless internal dialogue telling me how I was going to fail. 

Had I not taken the time to go through this process, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all the things I did this semester.

 

So I encourage you this holiday season, as students wrap up their finals week, and us gig musicians look forward to our Messiah and Nutcracker performances on repeat, that you reflect on the way you take care of your first instrument -YOU. And create some actionable steps to improve for the new year. 

Feel free to ask me questions, or share your own ideas!

The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

The Virtual Violist: Using Technology to Enhance Technique

A few weeks ago I presented at the American Viola Society Festival, hosted by Colburn School, with Nancy Buck, Viola Professor at Arizona State University. The talk was centered around how technology can help us learn and perform music, and it was wonderful hearing everyone’s perspectives on using technology in the practice room. As many of you know, I began practicing and performing from an iPad instead of physical sheet music about six months ago. It was so liberating to not have to carry around a ton of music everywhere, and also be able to read string quartet music from the score with ease. I just wanted to take a few moments to share a brief overview of things I covered in this presentation, with the hopes that it may help or inspire you.

 

“Today’s musicians have a wealth of tools and products for use, with information immediately accessible by the tap of our fingers. The digital age is transforming the speed and manner in which we learn and process information. What is the latest in technology? Is there an app for that? This session will explore the ways to take advantage of available information, and how experimenting with the newest technologies stretches our capabilities beyond playing the instrument itself.” - Nancy Buck

 

I created a poll where musicians could share their own apps that they found helpful - https://poll.ly/#/LOvE4R7Q

Most people use some kind of metronome/tuner app nowadays, as well as Spotify and YouTube. However, (based on the results of this poll + talking to other musicians) not many have explored apps for sheet music or notation. Perhaps another avenue of exploration would be using apps as a means to expand your own personal creativity -or improving your musical skills.

It is interesting to note that the generation of musicians in high school/undergrad today is much more dependent on technology than any previous generation. This makes sense, but when you think about it these people are much more visually-oriented as a result. I think it’s important to acknowledge this shift.

 

Apps I personally find useful:

For each of the following apps, I have included a short tutorial video that shows a few of the features. They are probably boring to watch, but I tried to include features that I covered in the presentation. Feel free to search on YouTube for other tutorial/review videos if you are interested.

All of these apps can be found for iPad. The reason I did this is because the iPad is the most user-friendly and reliable for the purpose of reading sheet music. There are several other options out there, but be wary of any device that uses a hard drive instead of solid state storage -you definitely don’t want a computer fan turning on in the middle of a performance. Also at the time I am writing this, I am not aware of another tablet that can be as large as 12.9” and also have the ability to rotate the image. Disclaimer: I am not an “apple person” by any means, but for musicians it is hard to deny the advantage apple products have over everything else on the market today.

 

Time Guru (~$2)  https://youtu.be/kcOcvb_jkM0

At first glance this may seem like every other metronome app, but what I love about this is the ability to randomly mute the beat. This is so helpful in practicing orchestra excerpts where you want to internalize the tempo. It’s also great because it has the most complex rhythm options I have seen in a metronome app, and with a wide range of sound options. You can also save each of your metronome settings as a preset so that you can come back to those settings later. I like the ability to name the preset the title of the piece or excerpt I’m working on, which makes it super easy.

 

ForScore (~$10)  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XfwyTpjQTI

This is a very common app for viewing and editing sheet music. I prefer this over other options, because of the sheer amount of things you can do and how easy it is to edit and organize your music digitally. There are multiple ways to upload sheet music, and in a pinch it is great to use the iPad camera with the ‘darkroom’ setting in the app. You can also export your edited sheet music as a PDF file to a cloud service (like Dropbox or Google Drive) and print without needing the Apple Air. 

I really like how you can create set lists of music, and then randomize them. I use that function a lot when practicing (see my blog post on practicing). Additionally you can review how much time you’ve spent on each piece by viewing the ‘dashboard.’ 

There is also a built in keyboard/metronome/tuner within the app which is super helpful. 

     

    Symphony Pro 5 (~$15)  https://youtu.be/5Mfcu7mI4Qk

    I love using this app as my primary way of notating music. It can be used with or without the Apple Pencil (I haven’t found much use for the Apple Pencil outside of this app), and is extremely user-friendly. It’s especially helpful for someone like me... who did their undergrad orchestration project the night before it was due on Finale, and still has nightmares about learning the keyboard shortcuts. I actually bought this app after researching Finale and Sibelius to try and find an affordable version that doesn’t expire after a year. For $15 and continuously updates for free, this was perfect.

     

    Politonus (~$2)  https://youtu.be/aoomRz0P5rI

    This is an extremely basic ear training app, and I am sure there are many other ones available that work well. There are options for fixed or movable ‘do,’ and it’s nice to work on ear training skills away from the viola or on the go.

     

    Clapping Music (Free)  https://youtu.be/3ShGCj08z3c

    This is a free game that came out a few years ago, and is based on Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music.’ I found myself getting addicted to this game, and also found myself thinking about rhythm in new and creative ways after trying this out. 

     

    There are quite a few apps out there that can train your brain to think more creatively. They are designed from a neuroscience perspective with the goal of improving brain function. These can be incorporated into a warmup before your practice time, or whenever is most helpful. Some examples are: Luminosity, Elevate, and Peak. I am not sure how effective these apps really are, but I think it’s interesting that there are game apps with the potential to improve the way you think.

       

      The downside of using this technology is that the basic iPad Pro 12.9” with 64GB storage retails at around $800. If you are a student or educator, you can check out the educational discounts. I like the 12.9” screen because it is similar to the size of a sheet of paper, however for your own needs you may not need something that large. I also use my iPad as a laptop with a Logitech keyboard attachment, and as a student this was really important for me. It is my hope that as technology advances and becomes more inexpensive, there will be even better options for musicians. 

      Personally, adapting to using a pedal for page turns was quite unnatural. I consider myself very coordinated, as I’m sure many string players do, but for some reason adding a foot tap was awkward. I am still working on pedal placement and making the page turns not so obvious. I discovered that printing out the music was more helpful for me in the end. I use the iPad to make colorful edits to my sheet music, and practice with the pedal. Then when I wish to perform it, it is simple to print and play from the physical music. This really removed my anxiety of charging the pedal enough / not being awkward with it, but I may change back to performing with the iPad once I am more comfortable. 

      All technology has a learning curve, but don’t ever let a learning curve deter you from trying new things. 

       

      Many thanks to Nancy Buck, who invited me to be a part of her presentation. I learned so much through this experience, and I am very grateful for having this opportunity. 

      Also if you have never been to an AVS Festival, it’s totally worth it. I have only been to this one, and the one before hosted at Oberlin, and both were incredibly motivational and inspiring for me. If you are a violist it’s a great way to network and learn about advancements in our field.

      ***Update:  Thank you to Violinist.com for the article! https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20188/27404/

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      Let me know what you think! Are there any apps that you find helpful? Did you try out one of these apps, and was it helpful for you? What are some of the challenges you face when using technology? Questions? Thoughts? 

       

      *My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind

      Practicing + Time Management

      Practicing + Time Management

      Since I began my Teaching Assistantship this semester, I have often felt overwhelmed and short on time. I thought I had practicing down to a science -which I did, but needed at least 4hrs a day to feel like I had made significant progress. This semester on an average day I have about 1.5-4hrs if I'm lucky, before I run out of the mental space to focus. 

      I always have a primary intention with my practice time, and now that is my upcoming recital. With everything I have going on I needed to find a sustainable solution, where I didn't have to rely on sight-reading skills, feel stressed for every rehearsal, then feel more stressed because the outcome was not what I wanted.

      I have done extensive research in the realms of: practice techniques, sports psychology, neuroscience focused on information retention, body mapping and coordination. So I developed a plan for myself about a month ago, and have slowly been shaping it into a system that is much more efficient. I'm still tweaking it into something that works best for my way of learning, but I wanted to share how I successfully minimize the times I feel unprepared.

      *Sidebar: I practiced 6hrs a day before beginning my DMA, and that type of muscle memory development is extremely important. I'm simply advocating becoming more efficient with whatever time is available to you.

      Before I get into the practice time itself, I just want to say that nutrition, developing coordination + body awareness, and getting ample sleep are key to making this work. As my Alexander Technique teacher would say, "your body is your primary instrument, and you use this instrument to play the viola."

      1. I take some time every week to plan out available practice time in my schedule, within reason. I also map out what movement(s) of a piece will be my primary focus each day. Throughout the course of a week I want to have spent time on whatever solo rep I'm working on (for me right now that means covering every movement of my recital program). I plan what to practice based on available time that day, and what my responsibilities are. Once you make the plan, follow through without worrying about other things you need to do. "I have time" is one of my favorite mantras.

      2. I have a "warm-up book" that is every technically challenging excerpt from every piece I am currently working on. It includes parts from solo, quartet, and orchestra music. It's not a real book, but marked sections throughout my music. I am constantly adding and removing excerpts from this. Essentially I practice them in a random order, and don't spend more than a few minutes on each one. I challenge myself to play these passages flawlessly and without tension. I have to think critically and creatively in order to succeed, and so I do this toward the beginning of my practice time. I'll remove a section if I can play it flawlessly on the first try for several days in a row.

      *This method was derived from interleaving techniques that are highly successful in neuroscience studies. If you are interested in this, I would suggest checking out my first blog post!

      3. I practice sight-reading every single day. I put on noise cancelling headphones, take out a piece (or movement) that I need to learn (and haven't looked at yet), and see how far I can get. I then mark difficult sections for my warm-up book. If I run out of pieces, I pull out a viola part from a Beethoven String Quartet and do the same thing. I like to do this towards the end of my practicing or if I'm feeling unmotivated.

      4. When I practice a movement of solo rep, I only focus on the musical aspects (and perhaps metronome work), because I've already practiced the difficult spots. If something isn't working in context, then I might spend more time figuring out what the challenge is and how to solve it. I practice performing sections to see what happens.

      5. I begin my practice time with a scale chosen at random, with the focus on bow technique and intonation. I once had a teacher say that if you can play with perfect intonation in your first hour of playing each day, then it will never be an issue. It definitely helps! I'll also practice a scale after orchestra or a long rehearsal to feel more centered in my own technique, and make sure I'm not picking up any bad habits.

      6. I do score study when I can, and try to listen to as many different recordings as possible. I also try to understand the style of each composer of the pieces I'm working on. If I can understand the composer's musical language, it becomes so much easier to create a successful performance.

      7. I approach my practice time with an attitude of experimentation to see what works and what doesn't, with no expectations. I record myself as often as possible so I know for sure whether or not something worked. I see unsuccessful performances as opportunities for growth, and I refuse to believe in failure. Rather than focusing on the outcome, I focus on the process and this process is ever growing and changing.

       

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      Let me know what you think! Is there a method you have for practicing when you're short on time? Did you try some of my practicing strategies, and how did they work out for you? Questions? Thoughts?