The rehearsal room is where violinists and violists make many of their most important discoveries, where movements become muscle memory, where musical concepts come to life in the form of sound.
Examining how we spend our practice time can be of crucial importance in creating a formula for success, and the topic âEffective Practiceâ was the subject of a lively panel discussion in December at. American viola societyMini-Festival at the Primrose International Viola Competition in Colburn school. The discussion brought together four distinguished violists and professors: Victoria Chiang from the Peabody Institute; Paul Coletti of Colburn; Ames Asbell from Texas State University; and Mai Motobuchi, violist of the Borromeo Quartet (who is in residence at the New England Conservatory of Music).
From left to right: violists Paul Coletti, Victoria Chiang, Ames Asbell and Mai Motobuchi.
Each violist had their own approach to the practice.
âIt must be happy and exciting,â Coletti said. “If it’s too dry, if it starts to feel like a chore, then go where the joy is.”
And that joy has to be present in the sound – “I have never practiced anywhere other than in the bathroom or in places with glorious acoustics,” said Coletti, “I have learned to seek magical sound.”
Asbell advised starting with the end in mind. “You have to have a vision of where you want to end up.” If you want to play with ease in your movements as well as in your emotional state, it must start in the practice room. âSuccess is based on success,â she said. “If you want to be successful on stage, you have to choreograph this trip to the rehearsal room.”
Motobuchi stressed the importance of choosing the right time of day for maximum concentration. âEveryone is very different,â she said. “You need to know your level of concentration and use the best time of day for your brain.” For her, it’s the first hour in the morning, and she advises most students the same. Waiting until the end of the day isn’t good – you end up spending the whole day feeling bad for not working out yet!
âThe practice process is what you have to embrace,â Chiang said. “There is always a musical context, keep the context that guides you.”
Most of us need to warm up when practicing – what’s the best way? Are they ladders?
Coletti recommends using scales and arpeggios that are part of the repertoire, rather than completely decontextualizing them.
âI never taught them like they are in books,â Coletti said. “You have to practice the repertoire and see what it calls for.” What song are you playing at the moment? Are there newts? Third ? Then incorporate them into your practice.
Of course, many teachers, students and professionals practice scales on a regular basis, and not necessarily tied to a specific repertoire.
âIn my school, the emphasis is on the three-octave scales,â Asbell said. You can also warm up on one-position scales, even some opera excerpts. Whatever your warm-up routine, “You must have the tools in your toolbox.”
Motobuchi actually offers scales at a very detailed level of pitch precision – not only does it require students to play scales in different tones, but it also assigns color scales (12 tones) as well as 24 tone scales. This means playing a scale with 24 tones between each octave, including all microtons such as quarters and midtones.
âBeing able to hear this in your ear is crucial,â Motobuchi said. When she hears people playing works that include micro-tones, like works by GyÃ¶rgy Ligeti, she has noticed that “a lot of these quarter-tones sound very rough – you must know that difference in your ear”. In order to play these 24-tone scales, she asks students to start by working with a chromatic tuner to measure and learn to hear the middle tones.
She told the students to “guide your finger through your ear – don’t listen with your finger!” ”
Chiang pointed out that “some people play mechanically,” but it is important to learn to have intonation in a key.
They talked about “salt and pepper” – those little adjustments you make to bend notes so that they “taste good” in context – when you play a key or when you match the piano.
âI say to my students, if you play the piano, then play exactly what the piano plays,â regarding intonation. “Too much on the left, and it’s too much salt. Too much on the right, and it’s too much pepper.”
Several of the panelists (Motobuchi and Chiang) were jury members for this year’s Primrose competition, and they noted that a contestant can make a bad impression on the jury by stepping out and tuning the piano – and getting it wrong. “They don’t realize, the judgment is already taking place by then,” Motobuchi said.
Return to the topic of practice: How do you go about learning a new piece?
In his first year as a member of the Borromeo Quartet, Motobuchi learned an impressive number of new pieces – 76 new pieces! To do this, she did her best to make the 24 hour daily allocation look like 36 hours. How? ‘Or’ What? By cutting his training session in half, and also by looking at the score as much as possible, without an instrument.
âSo many pieces, I learned on the plane, even before I went to my instrument,â Motobuchi said. She intentionally didn’t listen to the recordings of the new tracks she was learning, as she felt it was important to have her own fresh first taste of each track. âIt is crucial to taste it for yourself,â she said.
Motobuchi’s literal take on sheet music changed when the quartet made a major change in 2007 – they were among the first to start fully reading their music on computer tablets. Combined with the footswitch to turn the pages, this technology allowed each member of the quartet to read the full score. Suddenly everyone was looking at the big picture.
âIt gives you the composer’s perspective – it’s like a drawing, where you can see the discrepancies between the first idea, the second ideaâ¦â Motobuchi said.
At first it seemed like too much information, but now it seems essential for him to see all four parts. âNow I can only watch one part,â Motobuchi said. “It’s like spicy food you’ve never eaten before – at first you don’t like it, but then you end up loving it.”
For Coletti, his inspiration for learning new pieces came from his teachers – Yehudi Menuhin and Alberto Lysy. Both, by the way, were violinists – “I always played the viola, never the violin, but I always studied with violinists,” he said. “I had wonderful teachers and they believed in great things. If you see gold in front of you, it makes you go for gold.”
Asbell said listening to recordings is certainly part of learning new pieces for his students, with the caveat that they should listen to more than one recording and avoid getting stuck in a performance.
When practicing, it’s also important to target specific places in the music that require more attention, evaluation, and rehearsal. âStudents don’t always realize how much time you have to spend on difficult things than on other people,â Asbell said.
And how important is slow practice?
Slow practice is valuable, but it needs to stay within the general context of the music, Asbell said. âMake sure you practice at a tempo where you can play every note just right and with the right approach,â she said.
âThe point of practicing slowly is to be able to hear more,â Chiang said. And this applies not only to the pitch, but also to the dynamics, musical ideas and rhythm.
Coletti stressed that it’s also important to practice in tempo – and maybe beyond.
For example, a typical car speedometer reaches at least 120 mph.
âI might never go 120 mph,” said Coletti, “but I would never buy a car where 70 mph is top speed!”
How do you train to get on stage? How do you deal with performance anxiety?
Coletti said that you have to accept that it will sometimes be difficult to get on stage. In the training room, “you have to set your goals high”, in terms of technique, tone and achieving physical freedom. Then when it comes to playing, you have to get into some kind of “divine force” in the music. “If I get nervous, it’s my ego. My ego is not part of this story.”
Asbell said it’s important to prepare for the stage environment: manage self-talk, don’t look in the rearview mirror when playing, and find things to look forward to in music. You have to practice playing – doing it a lot – in order to improve yourself.
Motobuchi told a story about her sister, who has been an Olympic diver three times. Because she had little time on the diving board, she spent a lot of time viewing and listening to her coach’s recordings speaking throughout the process. If you can visualize with focus and precision, then by the time you take the stage, “you’ve been there so many times in your mind that you feel safe knowing what to do.”
Coletti said as a kid he would get up early in the morning, carry his cock, and practice all the difficult passages in front of the mirror. Chiang pointed out that even Itzhak Perlman described the alignment of the chairs, to practice as if performing in front of people.
What do you do when you practice and something just isn’t working?
âLife is full of blockages – sometimes you think, ‘I can’t go from here to there,’â said Coletti. When this happens, you should either stop and come back to it later; or change the way you think. Coletti has learned from experience, “It’s not a matter of ‘I’ll never get over it’, it’s just a matter of when.”
Chiang said overcoming these blockages is a bit like solving a puzzle – it takes creativity and intelligence. âPatience is great, and so don’t be in a hurry,â Chiang said. “Give yourself time to think.”
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