Focused Practicing

| posted in: practice 

Until eleven days ago my practice habit / routine had become toxic. I didn’t look forward to practicing, I wasn’t actually practicing when I did do it, and I was embarrassed to present the results of my efforts to my teacher at my weekly lesson.

At best I was treading water. I certainly wasn’t making any progress, or if I did make progress it was random and by accident, not by any design.

All of this came to a breaking point about two weeks ago after I had two abysmal lessons in a row. At one I couldn’t play a triplet passage to save my life. I was very unhappy with my performance and with how I was behaving about cello. Something needed to change.

I am very fortunate that my wife is a piano teacher, and a very good one. I have often turned to her for help with my music. Feeling like I was doing nothing but floundering I again asked her for help. The result has been 11 days in a row of productive, focused practice. I feel invigorated about practicing again and about making music again. I had been in over my head. I couldn’t see what needed work because I was only seeing the results of not practicing.

The current piece I am working, and will be performing at the studio recital in December, is the first movement of the Romberg E Minor Sonata. There is nothing in this movement that should be beyond my technical ability. There are however some passages that require detail work - a willingness to focus on one or two measures at a time, and to only slowly add more measures. In other words, passage work.

The last line of the Romberg is all triplets with a few quarter notes at the end for the finale. The initial goal was just play just one measure of triplets - 12 notes - perfectly. I had to slow my tempo way down before I could play it correctly. For each incorrect attempt I played it correctly at least twice. The goal was to be able to play the entire passage 9 times out of 10 without any mistakes. Once I was reliably playing the passage I would speed it up. After a couple of practice sessions, I moved up to the previous section of triplets and repeated the process there.

Each practice session looked something like this:

I also have been playing mandolin by ear, sounding out melodies and even playing parts of the Bach Cello Suites. Having an instrument that I am learning to play by ear has been immensely helpful. Plus it’s fun to play.

I have set out some goals for my practicing. I want to practice at least as long as my lessons are, each day. Or 40-45 minutes every day. Longer on the weekends when I have more time. I’m using focused passage work to contain my efforts on manageable, attainable improvements. No more playing the whole piece (incorrectly) several times and calling that practice. I’m focusing on repeated playing of passages to improve my mental stamina. And I am using new-to-me literature for sight reading and additional passage work.

The biggest change has been in my attitude and approach to practicing. It is no longer something “I have to do” or something I feel like I “should” do. It is something I want to do. My practice times have increased from 15 or 20 minutes a day to 40 - 60 minutes a day. I haven’t missed a day in 24 days now (granted, some of those were prior to the change that happened 11 days ago). There has been a marked improvement in my progress in the Romberg, and there has been a marked difference in the musicality of my practice. I am no longer going through the motions, I am making music now.

If I had to sum all of this up in one of two sentences, I would say that I have identified what I value in practice (or want to value) and taken steps to focus on those values. I’ve made a practicing lifestyle change.

It feels good to be making music purposefully again.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Mastodon.