Whether you begin your practice sessions with scales or finger pattern type exercises or something entirely different it is important to be sure to be fully connected to what you are doing. The best way to accomplish this is to engage in what we call mindful practice. Don’t just go through the motions of moving your fingers while your mind wanders. It can be easy to do that when you are playing a scale or other warm up. Instead, force yourself to really focus on playing each note as beautifully as you can. Working on your tone, articulation and intonation at the beginning of your practice session helps to set the tone for the rest of the time you spend at your instrument. Play notes of all different durations, long notes, short notes, staccato notes, etc. Though a bit controversial string players can even use scales to practice different techniques such as vibrato, or bowing patterns.
Once your are warmed up you are ready to tackle the piece(s) you are working on. This is when you are likely to encounter some passages that are difficult for you to play. There are many effective methods to deal with challenges when you are face to face with them. Sometimes the challenge is related to tricky rhythms, difficult patterns of notes, awkward fingering, bringing tempo up to par, metronome use or sight reading to name a few. We’ll deal with each one in its turn starting with rhythms in this post.
Personally, I usually find that tricky rhythms are my biggest challenge. After all there are only so many notes and though some note patterns may present a struggle to negotiate, tricky rhythms get me every time. For you it may be the melody, or the reading aspect of music. What you find challenging is personal to you but I can guarantee you that you are not the first or last person to find that aspect difficult.
As I said rhythm is often my biggest challenge. When the rhythm is tricky I take some time to count aloud while playing and even count and clap until I get the feel. Your teacher will have gone over this at your lesson. Practicing includes reinforcing the rhythm as well as the notes. For really tricky syncopation cello teacher, Stacey DeBernardo suggests a mathematical approach to help you get the feel. Whenever you are really struggling with a difficult rhythmic pattern, take a moment to divide the notes into the smallest component of the piece. If the shortest notes are 1/8 notes think as follows.
As you can see, each 1/8 note gets one count,; 1/4 notes are equal to two counts; dotted quarters, three counts; half notes get four counts, etc. As a learning tool only, until you get the feel, instead of counting one and two and three and four and (assuming a 4/4 time signature) and trying to play a note on the “and” of the beat try to think in terms of the value of each independent note. Taking the above measure as an example, you have a quarter note, a quarter note tied to an eighth note and a dotted quarter note:
Instead of counting “one and two and three and four and” (with notes played on the bold, italicized syllables) try just identifying the value of each note and count “one two, one two three, one two three” for that sequence (again playing on the bold italicized syllables which means you are only playing on one). You won’t believe how much easier this can make the early readings of a piece of music. Here is another example.
Take a moment to see if you can work it out in the same manner as described above.
For these two measures, you can try to count traditionally. “One and two and three and four (which is a rest) and one and two and three and four and”; or simplify the count to, “one, two, three, four, five, rest, one, two three, four, one, two, three, four, five. Again, you are only playing on the bold, italicized syllables. Now would be a good time to sit with your instrument and try these rhythms. Don’t worry about what note (s) you play. That only complicates the matter. Just choose a note and work on counting the rhythms. Start with the conventional method and then try the second method. If you’re like me, you’ll find the second method a bit easier. I think it’s a matter of coordination. If that method makes the rhythm easier to play, practice playing it a bunch of times until you are feeling it in your hands. You probably began with a slower tempo. Once you can play the rhythm easily begin to play it faster until you have it up to whatever tempo matches the rest of the piece. When you are at that point you have it.
All you have to do now is find something syncopated or just a bit confusing in your own piece. Isolate that section and take some time with it. If it helps start by learning the rhythm on a single note or open string. Once you are comfortable with the rhythm it is time to tackle the actual written notes. Next work on the tempo. Finally, work that isolated passage back into the piece.
Playing music is a complex task with many levels of different activities coming together at once to make the music we hear i.e. notes, phrasings, fingerings, rhythms, tempo, articulations, dynamics and combinations of all of these. This is one of many examples of the benefit of taking some time to separate out one or more of these elements and working on them individually before putting them back together to make the piece whole. I find this to be a much less frustrating way of learning difficult sections of music. Let me know if you agree.
I don’t want to inundate you with too much information. Now that you are sitting down and developing a practice routine, we can discuss each potential hurdle that you face. I will come up with my own list of challenges on the basis my own experience and those of our students. If you have a challenge that you would like us to discuss or better yet a success story about overcoming a challenge, we would love to hear from you.