Somebody said that it is impossible to teach, but it is possible to learn. We can agree or disagree with this statement, but it’s very true when it comes to home practice. You see, during a lesson with a teacher, some students may remain in a passive state of mind. And really, why not? Your teacher is supervising you! Whatever mistake you’ve made, the teacher will stop you and give you valuable advice on how to correct it. However, the experienced and responsible teacher is aware of this tendency and will make you proactive during class. No fundamental mistakes will remain undiscussed and unresolved.
Another thing to consider is your home practice. Nobody observes you, and you learn what you learn – including unnoticed mistakes. So, what is the solution? Of course, what initially seems to be the best idea is to take a class with the teacher every day. However, if we take another look at this idea, we realize that it is not a good one. There are a few reasons for that. First, beyond the perfection of technique and musicianship, home practice is dedicated to developing the skill of self-observation, which should awaken your mind. Second, if your teacher sees you every day, the chance exists that he or she will ‘get used’ to your mistakes and miss more of them in the future. We are all human beings, after all. Third, daily lessons might not be affordable.
So, what is the solution?
First, you must admit that your progress is your own responsibility. Yes, even in the teacher’s classroom. Start by listening carefully to the teacher, and, please, ask questions. I will tell you a secret: We teachers like when students ask us good questions. That is what we do, after all – we share our expertise and we like those who request more. At the very least, your teacher will see that you care about what he or she is trying to bring to your attention.
Second, have a notebook for your teacher. Ask him or her to provide notes about what and how you should practice at home – just the essentials. If you did not sleep during the class, those notes will be like cues for you; they will refresh your memory of what happened during the class. If possible, video-record your classes; however, make sure you spend time watching the videos.
Now, let’s talk about the actual home practice. Because nobody will tell you more than your teacher about what exactly you should practice, I will limit myself to offering general advice which should work for almost everyone. Start with the environment; you’ll find good advice in the previous post. In short, make sure you have everything you need with you and that you will be undisturbed. You have tuned your instrument and are ready. Grab your violin and bow, think about the first note, take a breath and … STOP! Now, put down your violin. Did you open your homework book to check the teacher’s notes? Do that! For your home practice to be productive, you must have a master plan for what to do. This is where those notes come in handy. Done with that? Alright, grab your violin again and follow those instructions.
- In most cases, I suggest that you start practice with some kind of warm-up. Some students use scales for this. However, I recommend using exercises or simple pieces you have already played. In my opinion, scales require you to be warmed up already when you approach them. For students who have already learned the basics of left-hand fingering, which means four fingers in first position, I assign exercises from The School of Violin Technics – Book 1 by H. Schradieck. You will want to have this book. Spend a few minutes warming up. Now you are ready.
- You must be focused during your practice. There is no use in practicing something mechanically when your thoughts are elsewhere. Honestly, it is even worse than to not practice at all. If you feel that you can’t focus, put down your violin and try later. If you are a beginner, you have probably been advised to not practice more than 15-30 minutes per day. Of course, if you are a more advanced learner, you must practice more. If you practice 30 or more minutes per day, you might find it useful to divide your daily practice into two or more sessions. That will help you stay focused. If your daily practice is longer than 45 minutes, you should divide it. The best length for one session is about 30-40 minutes. You may take a 15- to 20-minute break between sessions, and do something else during that time. If you don’t trust me, ask Leopold Auer; he would have agreed with me on this. You should know who Leopold Auer is. Check Google if you don’t.
- Should I mention the importance of using a metronome? Ask your teacher about this. Whenever you practice technique, or even pieces, it is useful to play them with a metronome, at least sometimes. However, be sure to avoid another mistake: You shouldn’t practice with a metronome at all times. It exists to help you develop a sense of pulse, not to substitute for it.
- Scales, arpeggios, studies and other technical exercises are important! They deserve daily practice, which will create good dividends in the future. The same applies to aural exercises, sight reading and musicianship skills.
- Learn your pieces and etudes in parts. If you are learning just one, it is a good idea to divide it into a few parts and master them separately, rather than to go through the whole piece over and over. Only once you have mastered the separate parts can you play the whole piece, at which point you will focus on the shape and overall musical performance rather than on the technical demands. Always listen to professional violinists play your pieces. You will find many impressions from great performances, which will show you areas for improvement.
- Music theory. Just do it. Please. Yes, it is essential. No, it can’t be done during your violin class. Language and literature are different subjects, but one helps you understand the other. The same applies here.
- I strongly recommend that you learn the basics of piano for violinists. I can’t say it is absolutely necessary but you will find it helpful.
- Practice every day.