I have been practicing consistently for nearly 30 years now. Three decades! But seven years ago, my practicing and teaching changed for the better. My violin teacher at the time was always referring to “organic” practice–a term that seemed fuzzy to me at best. He was urging me to feel a natural connection to the way I approached everything from my bow hold, left hand position, vibrato, and the music itself. I tried to meditate my way into that ‘fuzzy’ state of being, thinking if I willed it to be so it would just naturally happen. But it didn’t. At least not for me. I knew there was something more I needed to learn to get into that organic connection with my instrument and the music.
I happened upon an article, now lost in the information overload of the internet, that talked about the scientific studies behind practice, how the brain processes my efforts and makes connections to form new capacities and abilities, and the importance of addressing mistakes quickly so that they don’t become permanent problems. It profoundly affected how I thought through my own practicing, and how I began to teach my students to practice.
From that point, I began to talk to my students about what I called “Smart Practicing”. Now, I realize I am not the first or only person to identify purposeful practicing this way, it’s just the easy identifier I bring up with my students each lesson. “Tell me about your practicing this week,” I will ask. “What Smart practicing tools did you apply? How did you apply them?” Each student will have different approaches and methods that work best, but the essence of it is to step back from mindless repetition and filling up a set amount of time. We talk about setting specific goals with each practicing session, making an effort to hone in on something small and approaching it from various angles.
For example, let’s say a student is struggling with a transition from one chord to the next. We step back to identify the voices that want to shine through in the music and the specific movement(s) that those particular voices require. Perhaps we will place all the fingers and continue using the bow for the whole chord, but only sound the voices that we have identified. We might roll the chords as a different way to engage the bow, pushing our mind to focus on something new in how we practice. We look at where the fingers were before and where they are going next. We talk about dynamics and how much bow to use, experimenting with several different options to identify what feels right and sounds best. We may set down the instrument and take a few moments listening to different recordings of the spot we are focused on. We may watch different performers and how they approach the section. In all of these steps, it is important to observe, notate, and write. My student’s immediate worry is that they won’t have the time to play through it ten plus times as they normally would. And then I reassure them, the brain will accomplish more with this deliberate, intentional, purposeful approach. I tell them to trust the process. Trust their consistency. They will feel a difference in their playing. I also find with myself and my students that when practicing is intentional in this way, all of the music is benefitted. I will not have time to scrutinize every note and section and transition, but working on difficult passages, or focusing on phrasing a lyrical part then translates to improving all of the music. My ability and capacity are increased overall. This broad benefit is what excites me the most in Smart Practicing.
Another critical aspect of Smart Practicing that I feel strongly about is that it can be detrimental to focus to narrowly, or singularly, on one skill for too long. I loved this study by the University of Southern California:
Variable practice improves the brain’s memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task.
The student, upon identifying a passage or transition that they want to work on, should set a timer anywhere from five to ten to fifteen minutes and only focus on that singular aspect for a set amount of time. This can be difficult in that the student often feels if they just spend more time working on a difficulty that it will surely improve. There is a point of failure, however, where continued practice, stress and worry over a part can cause it to unravel and break down further, causing more mistakes and frustration. Once the timer goes off when they have done their Smart Practicing on a particular item, I tell them to move onto something else. Perhaps in a different piece, a different skill altogether. It allows the brain to rest, rebuild, and process the work that has just happened. The student can move onto another passage that they want to work on just as purposefully. The brain will engage and continue to work, but having a step away from the previous intensity will make a difference.
From the study mentioned above, senior study author Carolee Winstein said,
We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity.”
Some of my students like to have steps written down and so we identify those together in their lesson journals, as they apply to their individual pieces. They then have a guide to practice practicing during the week. When they truly make efforts to be so engaged, I can tell immediately in their playing at their lessons. It doesn’t mean that they come back to lessons with performance-ready pieces and exercises, but it does mean that I see greater strides of improvement over mindless practicing and repetition.
Cindy Ann Broz created an acronym for her students to use with S.M.A.R.T. practicing. She writes:
Survey the piece by playing it through from beginning to end 1-2 times. Be sure to take note of the difficult sections.
Mark (in pencil) the sections of the piece that are most difficult for you to play. Use brackets or parenthesis. If you miss a certain note consistently, mark this note with a circle. Mark in key signature or accidentals if you miss them more than once. This is especially important in keys that have more than 3 sharps or flats. If the piece has a double sharp or double flat, circle this note along with the preceding and following notes.
Focus practice Attention on the difficult/marked sections. Practice circled notes by playing the note in context with the several preceding and several following notes. Practice double sharps and double flats by playing the circled notes first, then playing them in context with the preceding and following measures. Practice bracketed sections slowly, and then gradually increase to the appropriate or designated tempo.
Replay the entire piece or study with a special focus on playing into and out of the difficult passages. Polish easily executed sections.
Tie Together all elements of the piece. Practice dynamics, tonal elements, and tempi. Polish entire piece.”
I have used this acronym with some of my students as it helps them remember basic steps to be more engaged in their practicing. There are many articles about practicing across all skill and interests. I find that they can all be applied to practicing music.
Some other articles on practicing strategies that I have learned from and use that may be of interest:
natesviolin.com “Tired of Losing Practice Battles?”
lifehacker.com “The Science of Practice: What Happens When You Learn a New Skill?”
time.com “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect'”