My students sometimes tell me they can’t practice much at certain times because they have mountains of schoolwork, exams and other pressing activities. It isn’t that they don’t have time to practice, but that they often have mistaken ideas about how, how much and when to practice, which can lead to not practicing at all. Here are some of these misconceptions and their remedies:
Wrong: If they can’t practice for 45-60 minutes it isn’t worth opening up their violin cases.
Remedy: I suggest they dedicate just ten minutes – or even five – to doing a scale really well and then go back to their schoolbooks. Ten minutes is better than nothing, and ten minutes well spent in concentrated practice will really make a difference. I always remind parents that even a little practice is better than none, the difference being that whoever practices a little will certainly play the instrument at some level. Whoever does nothing, well . . . . .
Wrong: You can only practice with the violin in your hands.
Remedy: There are lots of ways of practicing other than with the instrument in your hands. Visualizing – practicing with the mind without the body – is a very effective technique, allowing a student to “practice” mentally while riding in a car or school bus. Using visualization, he can solve technical problems while walking to school. I jokingly tell my beginning students that they can practice their technical bow exercises with a pencil in less interesting moments at mass or school. Every little bit counts. It is so important to get them into the habit of thinking about their instrument or about music when they are not actually playing it. Also, I try to impress on my more advanced students that deciding what kind of sound, dynamics and mood they want before they practice a piece is an extremely important part of practicing and can be done at almost any moment. This makes actual physical practicing a lot more efficient and saves time. Listening to classical music is also extremely important and today, with iPods and smart phones, more accessible than ever.
Wrong: Practicing when tired from doing homework or other activities.
Remedy: Practice BEFORE doing homework. Why before? Because practicing before doing homework provides a needed break from school and refreshes the mind. Here I quote fellow teacher Lyz Russo in her blog Violintrix: “…. neurological studies show that violin practice makes a child (and an adult) focused and calm while charging up the whole brain (to get) ready for mental action. They will get their homework done in half the time if they practice the violin first. Physically, too, the effect is the same as mild exercise: a lot of oxygen to the brain without overly large muscular exertion.” I have not read the studies which she cites because they are published in German, but I myself have been giving this same advice for years and it works, both for the violin and the schoolwork. Also, practicing before homework makes sure some practicing gets done. Usually practicing is left for last when fatigue has set in and practicing is either ineffective or not done at all. On the other hand, homework always gets done. So my usual advice to a busy no-time-to-practice student is to practice 15 minutes before homework, between subjects do another 15 minutes and then, if time permits, another 15 minutes at the end of homework. For younger students, 10-minute intervals work well. The important thing is to get in that first bit of practice before homework so at least something gets done. Developing the habit of practicing at a certain time every day, even for just a few minutes, is also is a big help. I remember when I was in high school I always practiced as soon as I got home – a habit that provided a welcome mental and physical break from my school day and recharged my mind.
next: the biggest misconception, the best remedy and other thoughts