Principles of Practice
By Isolde Schaupp
Even the best talent will not achieve notable results on an instrument without adequate practicing techniques. It is therefore essential that students are taught how to practice effectively. What might in the beginning be a mere following of detailed instructions given by the teacher should at a more advanced level, become a dynamic procedure, based on proven principles and continuous creative decisions by the player. Practice should be economical. It must therefore be well planned and executed with discipline. The following practising habits and strategies should be gradually developed:
PLAN YOUR PRACTICE
A player should always have a clear idea of how to use a particular practicing session before starting, either by proceeding after a set plan from a teacher or according to approach, know what material to work on, and how long, approximately, to spend on each segment of the session. Although one might deviate from such a plan in the course of a session it is still important to have a concept, for the beginner as well as for the highly advanced musician.
GET MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY READY BEFORE YOU START
The attitude towards practice should be positive before the session starts. If one is tired or has cold fingers, practicing should either be deferred or efforts should be made to wake up or warm up first, by doing some light physical exercise. Trying to warm up cold fingers by rushing through a string of mechanical finger patterns superficially is very inefficient and can even have an adverse effect on coordination.
WARM UP AT THE BEGINNING OF EACH SESSION
The warm up period should serve to build up concentration level and motorial responses to the highest possible degree. It is advisable to start slowly with familiar material. Scales are most popular, but anything can be suitable, even longer musical passages, as long as they are played with the right attitude, while focusing intensively on the playing action.
PRACTISE WITH MENTAL ANTICIPATION AND LISTEN CRITICALLY
The continuous training of both these skills is essential, as through them the musical imagination and self-assessment of a player will gradually improve. Eventually the ears will become trained to pick up the finest musical and technical details. Even the beginner should make “thinking ahead” and “active listening” a habit. The tendency to play on and on mechanically, without mental control, must be fought from the beginning, since it works against the development of expressive playing and reliable technique.
PRACTISE ONLY AS FAST AS YOU CAN RETAIN CONTROL
Practice which is too fast leads to inaccuracies and works against the development of technical control. Every single mistake delays the leaning process more than one might expect. It takes much less time to make a mistake than to erase it from the memory. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20 correct repeats can be necessary to prevent the return of a single mistake. Mistakes which have been practiced are especially persistent, particularly rhythmical ones. It can be quite an effort to eliminate them completely, and it is sometimes almost impossible. The memory must be fed only with correct information, in order to avoid confusion.
Many players become impatient with fast pieces, believing that they have to risk faster tempi during practice session, in order to increase their speed. It must be realised that the development of a good speed cannot be forced – it will occur by itself in due time. It is most effective to practice only as fast as one can without loosing control, but at the same time, practice should not be slower than necessary. From a rhythmical or dynamic point of view it can be very effective to practise certain passages in various speeds, from ultra slow to as fast as one can manage accurately. The use of a metronome is, in any case, of great help.
PRACTISE SHORT PASSAGES
Only if one makes it a rule to practice in short passages can enough attention be paid to each detail. If longer passages are repeated, too much information is presented and there is a greater chance that this information will be forgotten. Long units therefore require many more repeats to reinforce than are needed by shorter units.
ANALYSE TECHNICAL PROBLEMS BY DIVIDING THEM INTO SMALLEST MOTORIAL COMPONENTS
It is uneconomical to practise over and over again a difficult and complex sequence which represents a major obstacle. The solution usually comes much more quickly if one works on one technical aspect of it at a time by dividing it into separate exercises, e.g. by isolating a right hand finger pattern from its coordination with the left hand or by practising a left hand pattern silently without right hand involvement.
Playing in a relaxed manner, means that only the muscles needed for a particular coordination are activated. If too many muscles are used and/or if there is no alternation of action and relaxation in a string of different co-ordinations a feeling of tension or even pain is the result. Tolerating tension or pain and hoping that it will eventually disappear, as many players do, is the wrong strategy. It means actually reinforcing a wrong coordination and can also mean risking physical damage (e.g. tendinitis etc.). A better way to proceed is to practice slowly in very small units, focusing on active relaxation at every possible point until the alternation of action and relaxation becomes a habit.
This will also help to gradually reduce the muscle power used during the action, which will result in the playing feeling more and more relaxed when playing the same passage. Apart from the playing apparatus, the rest of the body should also be observed to detect accompanying tensions which only absorb valuable energy that should be used for playing.
PLAYING OVER SHORT PERIODS
Practice which is executed with the described mental and physical discipline is most effective but also very exhausting. It is therefore advisable not to practice for too long at a time, especially not after the concentration fades and playing becomes mechanical and uncontrolled. With continuous application of the described discipline, endurance should improve quite rapidly. A player should observe him/herself carefully, and take a break, rather than force him/herself to practice for over lengthy periods. This wastes energy and will only require longer recreation time afterwards. 30-45 minute practice units are most economical for the adult player. Children do well with 10-30 minutes, depending on age and individual situation. One should remember that the quality practice is worth more than hours of shallow playing. How many sessions per day a player can do and should do, differs from one individual to another.
CHOOSE EXERCISES CAREFULLY
Many players believe that they are doing the right thing by working blindly through a daily technical training program suggested by some authority in the guitar field. This can be very ineffective as such a program does not necessarily serve the needs of the individual. There is considerable variation in technical talent, with very varying strengths and weaknesses. Apart from that, an elaborate technical standard program can take away too much valuable time from the work on the actual music. There is not much point in practising a great number of daily exercises before one has reached a certain standard of aural control and musical expression. Music teaches a player best what to listen to and what to aim for technically, and also where his/her weaknesses are. Much fundamental technical work can be covered by an appropriate choice of pieces and studies and by the way one works on them. Also, specific technical exercises will emerge during the work on such pieces anyway. The more advanced one becomes musically and the greater one’s aural awareness, the more one can afford to focus on purely mechanical exercises in order to achieve greater dexterity in certain technical areas. Such work will also be more effective because of the higher degree of aural control. The choice and number of exercises a player should practise is therefore a matter of each individual case.
WORK ON PIECES STEP BY STEP
Before practising a new piece a player should gain an understanding of its mood, structure and style, by reading and imagining it, playing through it several times, analysing it, listening to it etc. The fingerings for both hands must be established on the basis of musical and technical considerations. To what degree, a teachers guidance is required in this, depends on the standard of the player.
In practising a piece, it would for obvious reasons be advisable to approach the most difficult passages first. The piece may then be practiced in small technical units. Each unit should be repeated at least 5-10 times, aiming at playing the correct notes, with correct fingerings, well connected and in correct rhythm (strictly as noted – no rubato – check with metronome). This procedure should be repeated until one can play through the piece accurately, with a clear tone at a reasonable speed.
The next stage involves paying special attention to the phrasing and the disciplining of emotional responses. In the course of this, one should focus on voice leading (e.g. singing the melodic phrases, in contrapuntal contexts, singing or imagining one voice while playing the other(s) etc.), and rhythmic-dynamic shaping (rubato within the pulse should be practised with the metronome -stronger rubato effects may be included as well if appropriate). During this stage, a player should also work on the piece just mentally, away from the guitar, referring only to the printed music in order to refine his/her image of the piece as a whole and in its detail. Systematic memorization may be started in connection with this.
As a last step larger musical sections should be practiced concentrating on how and where to vary tone colours. Work should also be undertaken on the technical projection of the overall shape of the piece, on the basis of analytical understanding and practised emotional responses.
The above mentioned steps are to be understood as a rough guide only, open to individual variation. Also, it must be added, that periods of rest away from the piece are important. They may be periods of days, weeks or even months, either between any stages or during stages, depending on how long and how intensively one had been working on the piece. Such periods of rest are of great benefit, because the mind keeps working on a piece subconsciously. Suddenly, it appears to be easier and new interpretational ideas arise.
Practicing efficiently means working hard, with a well planned strategy. Although the result rewards the player, many students have difficulties in the acquisition of the necessary discipline. Teachers should be patient and realise that this can be a long learning process. If practice methods such as described here are introduced gradually from the beginning, students usually cope with them very well. Ideally, a player will succeed in refining and developing his methods of practice until it becomes a creative act in itself.
Teaching students how to practice should be part of a whole concept of teaching the instrument.