One of my favorite parts of my career is that I get to meet incredible artists/humans with inspiring minds and beautiful souls! Stephen Sitarski is one of those people! I have for a long time been a big fan of his amazing violin playing and I have a huge respect for him as a person. I feel incredibly fortunate that he has allowed me to share his wonderful insight on practicing here on my blog. Please visit is website (http://www.stephensitarski.com/), read through his awesome posts on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MusicCanBeEasy/), and most definitely try to catch one of his concerts if you’re nearby! More information on him and his career below. And now, on to Steve!
Practice - that often dreaded word. We love to PLAY. We love to PERFORM. But the process of actually learning and preparing music is, in fact, work. Does it need to be unpleasant? Tedious? No to both questions. Does it need to be exacting, engaging, and sometimes exhausting? Yes.
The key to effective practice is organisation, and a sense of purpose. And, of course, a fundamental understanding of how we learn and retain information, and how we train our brains, nerves, reflexes and muscles to function precisely and reliably.
For professional musicians, and in most cases amateurs as well, there is no escaping some system of practice. Like a golfer - pro or not - the driving range and putting green are essential to the maintenance, improvement, and ultimate enjoyment of the game. You can watch videos, read books and take seminars from experts, but at some point you will need to teach your mind and body how to properly swing a club, how to gauge which club to use in different situations, and how to adjust to unforseen variables such as weather or golfing partners(!).
So, why is there typically a stigma surrounding practicing? When we are students, we are constantly buzzing around each other, saying, "I really have to practice - I have a lesson/masterclass/recital coming up...". "I'm learning the Kreutzer - that's going to be a lot of work...". " If I don't have that piece memorized for my next lesson, my teacher is going to kill me!"
Some players are gifted with an uncanny ability to sight-read music, even difficult pieces, but this skill will never replace solid practicing. And the more talented players can 'get away with' less work, but again, this advantage will not automatically launch someone into a professional career.
Okay, okay - we get it already! There is no substitute for practicing. But HOW should one practice? And for how LONG?
First of all, quantity does not equate quality. 8 hours of poor work does much more harm than good. It is better to use only one hour wisely. Do not be impressed with the braggart who claims to have banged away for 10 hours. Artur Rubinstein stated that 4 hours per day is the maximum that one can productively concentrate. Any more than that is usually wasted time, and could indeed be more disadvantageous.
Often it is easier to plan a whole week of practice than starting from scratch each day. If you are learning a whole recital program, it is neither practical nor recommended to attempt to cover all of the pieces every day. By spreading the music over a whole week's worth of practice, one can keep track of everything and spend an appropriate amount of time on each piece. As you become more familiar with each work, eventually you will be able to touch on all of the music in a single day.
In front of you is a music stand holding a page of music. It could be an etude, solo concerto, sonata or other chamber music, an orchestral part, an audition excerpt. etc.
Before you greedily jump into trying to execute it immediately at full performance tempo, there are a few things that are worth considering. If this is a known piece, perhaps a little research is helpful so that you will approach learning it in an informed fashion. Is it Baroque or from some other musical period? Is it a dance movement, is it in Sonata form, Rondo form, is ornamentation appropriate? Is the music revolutionary, or simply for entertainment? Was the composer young or old when s/he wrote it? What other works were written around that time? What about the art, architecture, and literature of that same period? The politics? Economics? What language(s) did the composer speak? Family life? Was the composer employed by a court, church, or did s/he make a living from only their compositions? Who did they study with, and who were their students, if any?
Is there a recording of the piece? If so, is it a credible one with a responsible player (i.e. someone who follows a composer's intentions)? Maybe there are several recordings, or even dozens. Perhaps do a little research on which ones are the 'standards' or 'authoritative' ones. If the performer knew the composer personally, or maybe the piece was written for that player, that recording will have extra significance. That said, no recording should be copied! No one is interested in your quasi-Heifetz mimicry of the Sibelius concerto - you'll never be as good, and you will waste an opportunity to express your own unique voice.
If this isn't a solo work, then it is essential to have a piano score (in the case of a sonata), or a full score showing whichever other instruments are involved and how they interact with your part. This is especially critical with orchestral audition excerpts - you must perform your part knowing what else is sounding in the orchestra at that time. The audition panel will know the difference if you don't...
Assuming you've done some (if not all) of this preperatory work, you are now ready to begin to physically learn this music. At this point it is good to be reminded HOW we actually learn. In short, if your brain cannot properly process information, it cannot properly instruct your body to execute accurately or reliably. Since you read the music either from a page or a screen, make sure that your eyesight is clear and healthy, and suitable clarity and lighting is present. In the case of music being printed extremely small, you may wish to enlarge it. If you are working from a page full of messy markings, it is often worth the time and effort to erase everything simply in order to read the actual print underneath.
Many publishers are now printing original unedited copies of music, and some also include a version that has added fingerings, bowings, and expressive markings by some kind of 'expert'. Always start with the original part, and then if you need help or are curious, you may consult someone else's solution.
Start reading through the music slowly and as accurately as possible. Take note of the technical and musical choices that you are faced with - some decisions will be instantaneous and obvious, and others will need further thought and experimentation, and/or a mentor's suggestion. Once you have gone through the piece or section, then begin to assess how much of the information has been absorbed by your brain. Every individual will have different results.
The sooner you have ascertained how you have effectively processed each note of the music, your practicing process has begun. In the case of nearly indecypherable technical passages, it may be necessary to learn them 'one note at a time'. Each individual note is playable. The trick is to stitch each note to the others around it. Look for patterns. Look for fingerings and bowings that allow your brain to read the music more easily. Do not attempt to perform all of the notes in a passage before your brain has had a chance to process them! Don't always start at the beginning of the passage and play it to the end. Begin at the end with the final note. Play it brilliantly. Only then add the preceding note. Play them both brilliantly. And then work backwards - but don't add a preceding note or notes until you have brilliantly played the ones that you have practiced.
For difficult left hand passages, I find it extremely helpful to find out what the bow arm is doing. Play the passage without the left hand, but place the bow on the correct strings. Most of the time you will discover that what the bow arm is doing is quite simple. Play a few times without the left hand - confidently and relaxed. Then add the left hand, but try not to change your bow arm. You will notice how your bow arm will partially revert back to being subbordinate to the left hand and its difficulties.
Another trick when learning difficult left hand passages, is to practice them without using the original performance bowings. The idea here is that as your brain grapples with the complexities of the left hand, the bow arm will naturally become 'defensive' to help negotiate the left hand issue. So, for example, if the passage is all slurred bowing, I would practice the notes all separate with confidant rhythm and sound. Or conversely, if the passage is all separate notes, I would slur them in groups in order to hear smooth and even left finger execution. Only when very assured in the left hand would I then incorporate the original bowing.
These practice methods will take a bit more patience and discipline at the beginning of the learning process, but I guarantee that the long term benefits are huge and long lasting. And you will have tangible markers to measure your progress.
That's enough for now.
All is possible - One Note At A Time.
I wish you much success!
“Sitarski performed with intensity and gravitas, conveying both delicacy and power in his playing.”
Kitchener Record 2009 (R. Murray Schafer’s The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller)
Stephen Sitarski enjoys a varied career as a violinist and musician. During the 12/13 season, he will conduct both the Mississauga and Georgian Bay Symphonies.
Recently named in 2012 the Concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen holds the same position with the Esprit Orchestra, and held the same position with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS) for 15 seasons (1997 – 2012). During his tenure in K-W, Mr. Sitarski became Artistic Director of the KWS Baroque and Beyond. Stephen has also been guest concertmaster across Canada and the United States, working with many distinguished conductors including Mstislav Rostropovich, Philippe Entremont, Raymond Leppard, Bramwell Tovey, and James Judd. He has served as Associate Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and was guest concertmaster and featured soloist with the National Ballet Orchestra for Eugene Onegin and Russian Seasons in March 2011.
Stephen frequently appears as soloist with many concertos in the standard repertoire as well as concertos written especially for him by Canadian composers such as Kelly-Marie Murphy (Blood Upon the Body, Ice Upon the Soul, 2006 premiere with Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) and Glenn Buhr (Violin Concerto, 2000 premiere with Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony). Stephen is a founding member of Trio Laurier, formed in 2007 with cellist Paul Pulford and pianist Leslie De’Ath, and is a regular participant in diverse chamber groups and festival events nationally and internationally with many of Canada’s finest musicians. He is also a frequent performer with Toronto’s acclaimed the Art of Time Ensemble and Soundstreams, with which Stephen completed a tour in May 2012 to Taiwan and China, performing works by Tan Dun and R. Murray Schafer.
Stephen was just awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, a nomination submitted by the National Yourth Orchestra, where he is a faculty member. Stephen is also on the faculty of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Toronto’s Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, and is a frequent mentor for Hamilton’s National Academy Orchestra. He has taught at the Banff Centre for the Arts, was an instructor at the University of Manitoba, and has maintained an active private studio.