“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi
Exams are over, library books have been returned, and summer is slowly making its way here. If you are a serious high school level violin student, you most likely will not take summer off from practicing. If you are a college music major, you most definitely should not.
Like the beginning of a new year, the end of the school year offers a lot of possibilities for fresh starts and reinventions. While having fewer deadlines and more independence can make it easy to slack off, it also allows you to slow down, re-think everything at a deep, personal level.
It lets you work at your own pace and in your own ways. With proper planning and the resolve to stick to your plan, summer can become a wonderful time of thoughtful exploration and strength building. It is the perfect time to take out your microscope and examine in depth aspects which might have been neglected in the midst of the school life bustle. In a previous post, I explain that it is up to each student to internalize the principles established by his/her teacher through diligent work and concentrated reflection. Summer gives you a great opportunity to do this.
Here are a few ways to make this summer effective/meaningful/fun.
1. Have a clear plan of your goals and a clear time frame in which to accomplish them
Put it in writing. Make it specific enough to keep you motivated, yet flexible enough to go with the flow of your progress and discoveries. Keep a practice journal with to-do lists and notes from your daily practice sessions.
2. Consider putting repertoire on hold for a few weeks and doing a “technique cleanse”
Review your lesson notes (you have notes from your lessons, right?) and think of a few aspects which need work. Together with your teacher, establish a summer cleaning regimen which includes general technical exercises and specific ones targeting your problem areas. This can be any mix of long tones, shifting exercises, scales, double-stops, and etudes. Keep it challenging but manageable, and avoid boredom by inserting variety in the mix. Aim for inner discoveries, staying mindful and focused at all times. Think: Mind Over Finger. Make sure your brain understands first and, then, leads the body. This is how you will internalize and fully integrate the proper movements. And use your metronome! Always!
3. Choose repertoire that is meaningful to you
Do you want to work on a specific ability? Or have you always dreamed of learning blue grass tunes? Or do you have an ambitious recital program in mind for next year? Summer is often a good time to do what you want! Whether you decide to work on more personal projects or get a head start on the upcoming semester’s repertoire, use this opportunity to go slowly and use proper practicing techniques, learning your new pieces/styles in a thoughtful and methodical way.
Read books and articles on violin playing and practicing. Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching by Ivan Galamian, The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein, and The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser are all great books. Buy a few editions of The Strad and Strings magazines, or consider subscribing. If you have access to a college database, you can browse several articles from professional journals published by music organizations such as ASTA.
Use the almighty web! It literally is overflowing with wonderful texts and videos on the subject of performing and practicing. Some of my favorite sites include Violinist.com, The Bulletproof Musician, and The Musician’s Way Blog. You’re wondering about shifting exercises? Vibrato? Ways to perform a specific orchestra excerpt? Do a search on YouTube and you will find a plentitude of tutorials, performances, and masterclasses on the subjects that interest you. Just make sure you can differentiate the crap from the quality. In doubt, consult your teacher.
6. Listen. Listen. Listen
Train your ear and cultivate your discernment by listening to classical music whenever possible. Nothing will help you improve your general knowledge of music and develop your own voice better than listening to a multitude of recordings. Have classical music on the radio when driving. Download playlists on your devices. Use Spotify and YouTube, sure, but also make the effort to support artists and the classical recording industry by purchasing albums as well. Sit down with your score (i.e. the part containing all the voices, not just the solo part!) and observe the overall structure, the interaction between the partners, and how you fit in the whole scheme. Pay attention to the sound quality of each artist you listen to. What do you think/like/dislike about it? Pay attention to the subtleties of their phrasing. Listen for colors in their sound. Can you “hear” the bowings and fingerings? You will see how much faster you learn a piece that has entered your mind deeply through repetitive and mindful listening.
7. Fully embrace technology
It can be a wonderful thing! Record yourself. Use a tuner. Play along with a drone/chord. Use a recording speed-modifying device. And use your what? Your metronome! Always!!! I prefer a stand-alone metronome with lots of (loud) bells and whistles but, when on the go, I use the Tunable app on my phone. It integrates full metronome, tuner, and recorder functions in one simple application.
UPDATE (8/29/18): Check out the Modacity app! Mindful practice on the go!
8. Remain disciplined by focusing on the most important thing: YOU
As I have written before, grit is great, and working hard can be extremely rewarding. Keep the long term outcome in mind, and understand that you are doing this for yourself! Be creative and find ways to keep it fun. What kind of learner are you? How do you like to work? Think hard and come up with strategies to make the practice session a gratifying experience which you can savor.