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Wisdom on Efficient Practice from Four Top Violists and Teachers

January 4, 2022, 1:32 PM · The practice room is where violinists and violists make many of their most important discoveries, where motions become muscle memory, where musical concepts come to life as sound.

Examining how we spend our practice time can be crucially important in creating a formula for success, and the topic of "Efficient Practice" made for a lively panel discussion in December at the American Viola Society's Mini-Festival at the Primrose International Viola Competition at The Colburn School. The discussion featured four prominent violists and professors: Victoria Chiang of the Peabody Institute; Paul Coletti of Colburn; Ames Asbell of Texas State University; and Mai Motobuchi, violist in the Borromeo Quartet (which is in residence at the New England Conservatory of Music).

Paul Coletti, Vicki Chiang, Ames Asbell and Mai Motobuchi
L-R: Violists Paul Coletti, Victoria Chiang, Ames Asbell and Mai Motobuchi.

Each violist had their own take on how to approach practice.

"It has to be joyful and exciting," Coletti said. "If it is too dry, if it starts to feel like drudgery - then go to where the joy is."

And that joy has to be present in the sound - "I never practiced anywhere except the bathroom or places with glorious acoustics," Coletti said, "I learned to look for a magical tone."

Asbell advised beginning 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 motions as well as your emotional state, this has to start in the practice room. "Success builds on success," she said. "If you want success on stage, you have to choreograph that journey in the practice room."

Motobuchi pointed out the importance of carving out the right time of day for peak focus. "Everyone is very different," she said. "You have to know your focus level and use the best time of the day for your brain." For her, it's first thing in the morning, and she advises the same thing for most students. Waiting until the end of the day is no good -- you just wind up spending the entire day feeling bad about not practicing yet!

"The process of practicing is what you have to embrace," Chiang said. "There is always a musical context, keep the context guiding you."

Most of us need to warm up when practicing - what is the best way? Is it scales?

Coletti recommends using the scales and arpeggios that are part of the repertoire, rather than completely decontextualizing them.

"I've never taught them the way they are in the books," Coletti said. "You have to practice the repertoire and see what it requires." What piece are you playing right now? Are there tritones? Thirds? Then incorporate those into your practice.

Of course, many teachers, students and professionals do practice scales on a regular basis, and not necessarily attached to specific repertoire.

"At my school there is an emphasis on three-octave scales," Asbell said. One can also warm up on one-position scales, or even certain opera excerpts. Whatever your warmup routine, "You have to have the tools in your toolbox."

Motobuchi actually carries scales to a very detailed level of pitch-precision - not only does she ask students to play scales in various keys, but she also assigns chromatic (12-tone) scales as well as 24-tone scales. That means playing a scale with 24 tones between each octave, including all microtones such as quarter- and middle-tones.

"To be able to hear that in your ear is crucial," Motobuchi said. When she hears people play works that include micro-tones, such as works by György Ligeti, she has noticed that "a lot of those quarter-tones sound very approximate - you need to know that difference in your ear." In order to play those 24-tone scales she has students start by working with a chromatic tuner to measure and learn to hear the in-between tones.

She tells students to "have your finger guided by your ear - don't listen with your finger!"

Chiang pointed out that "some people play in tune in a mechanical way," but it's important to learn to have intonation within a key.

They talked about "salt and pepper" - those small adjustments one makes to bend the notes so they "taste right" in context -- when playing within a key, or when matching the piano.

"I tell my students, if you play with piano, then play exactly what the piano plays," when it comes to intonation. "Too much to the left, and it's too much salt. Too much to the right, and it's too much pepper."

Several of the panelists (Motobuchi and Chiang) were jury members in this year's Primrose competition, and they noted that a competitor can make a bad impression on the jury by walking out and tuning to the piano - and getting it wrong. "They don't realize, the judging is already happening at that point," Motobuchi said.

Back to the topic of practice: How do you go about learning a new piece?

In her first year as a member of the Borromeo Quartet, Motobuchi learned a staggering number of new pieces - 76 new pieces! To do so, she did her best to make the daily allotment of 24 hours feel like 36 hours. How? By slicing her practice session in two, and also by looking at the score as much as possible, without the instrument.

"So many pieces, I learned on the airplane, before I even went to my instrument," Motobuchi said. She intentionally did not listen to recordings of the new pieces she was learning, as she felt it was important to have her own fresh, first taste of each piece. "It is crucial to taste it on your own," she said.

Motobuchi's literal view on scores shifted when the quartet made a major change in 2007 - they were among the first to start reading their music completely on computer tablets. Together with the pedal for turning pages, this technology enabled every member of the quartet to read from the full score. Suddenly, everyone was looking at the whole picture.

"It gives you the composer's perspective - it is like a drawing, where you can see the discrepancies between the first idea, the second idea...." Motobuchi said.

At first, it seemed like too much information, but now it feels essential to her, to see all four parts. "Now I can't just look at one part," Motobuchi said. "It's like the spicy food you never had before - at first you don't like it, but then you grow to love it."

For Coletti, his inspiration for learning new pieces came from his teachers - Yehudi Menuhin and Alberto Lysy. Both, incidentally, were violinists - "I always played viola, never violin; but I always studied with violinists," he said. "I had wonderful teachers and they believed in glorious things. If you see gold in front of you, it makes you go for the gold."

Asbell said that listening to recordings is certainly part of learning new pieces for her students, with the caveat that they should listen to more than one recording and avoid getting stuck in any one interpretation.

When practicing, it's also important to target those specific places in the music that require more attention, evaluation and repetition. "Students don't always realize how much more time you need to spend on the hard stuff than on the other stuff," Asbell said.

And how important is slow practice?

Slow practice is valuable, but it has to remain within the overall context of the music, Asbell said. "Be sure to practice at a tempo where you can play every note in tune, and with the right approach," she said.

"The purpose of practicing slow is so that you can hear more," Chiang said. And that applies not only to pitch, but also to dynamics, musical ideas and rhythm.

Coletti pointed out that it's also important to practice at tempo - and perhaps beyond.

For example, the typical speedometer for a car goes up to at least 120 mph.

"I may never actually go 120 mph," Coletti said, "but I would never buy a car where 70 mph is the top speed!"

How do you practice for getting up on the stage? How do you deal with performance anxiety?

Coletti said that you have to accept that it's going to be hard sometimes to get on stage. In the practice room "you have to set your goals high," in terms of technique, tone and achieving the physical freedom. Then when it comes to performing, you have to key into a kind of "God-force" in the music. "If I get nervous, that's my ego. My ego does not belong to this story."

Asbell said it's important to prepare yourself for the stage environment: manage self-talk, don't look in the rear-view mirror when performing, and find things to look forward to in the music. You have to practice performing - do it a lot - in order to get better at it.

Motobuchi related a story about her sister, who was a three-time Olympic diver. Since she had limited time on the actual diving board, she spent a lot of time visualizing and listening to recordings of her coach talking through the process. If you can visualize with concentration and precision, then by the time you get on stage, "you've been there so many times in your mind that you feel secure in what to do."

Coletti said that as a child, he would get up early in the morning, dress in his tails, and practice all the difficult passages in front of the mirror. Chiang pointed out that even Itzhak Perlman has described lining up chairs, to practice as if performing in front of people.

What do you do when you are practicing, and something is just not working?

"Life is full of blockages - at times you think, 'I can't get from here to there,'" Coletti said. When that happens, you need to either stop and come back to it later; or change your thinking. Coletti has learned from experience, "it's not a matter of 'I'll never get over this,' it's just a matter of when."

Chiang said that getting beyond those blockages is a little like solving a puzzle: it takes creativity and cleverness. "Patience is big, and so is not being in a hurry," Chiang said. "Give yourself time to think."

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January 5, 2022 at 05:27 AM · Thank you Laurie for such a wonderful interview piece I'll share it with Dr. Lynn Kuo's winter bootcamp. We're going to learn Bach Chaconne, and I'm sure these tips on how to practice will be of great help.

January 5, 2022 at 02:22 PM · Excellent article. For me, the profound revelation of taking up the Violin was when I realized and deeply understood that the overwhelming majority of my time with the instrument would be alone time - just me and the violin. The greatest musicians spend minutes on stage, supported by hours, days, weeks, months and years alone in the studio with their instrument just to share those minutes on stage. Shades of Glenn Gould alone in his studio, perfecting his craft and never performing for a live audience.

I try to find music that the children I teach want to play. No it isn't part of the cannon or the pedagogy but it can be used to teach a particular skill or set of skills. At the same time to build a bridge between the music we like to the pedagogical standards. I also tell them that most of the time they play will be alone with their instrument.

January 5, 2022 at 06:40 PM · Thank you for such an engaging and informative article! I'm actually conducting a study at university about hiring Practice Buddies - older music students who help younger students find joy and achieve their practice goals more effectively. If there are any parents of music students here I would be really grateful if you shared your thoughts in this form!

January 8, 2022 at 05:39 PM · "Most of us need to warm up when practicing - what is the best way? Is it scales?"

Warm-ups are crucial to me. Before I do any scales, though, I go through basic warm-up exercises covering all four strings and multiple fingerboard positions -- e.g., Schradieck. This routine takes about 20 minutes -- bow arm first; then left had finger gymnastics interspersed with vibrato exercises. After 20 minutes or so, I get into scales and then the rest of what I have planned for the session.

On “carving out the right time” -- it helps to be very intentional. I pick a start time, one that will allow me to cover the material I have picked for the day and then wrap up after 90 minutes or a little longer. My days begin at 4:30 AM; but since my early hours are prep for running the biz, practice works best for me in late afternoon through early evening. My ideal start time is 5:30 PM, with a wrap up by 7 or 7:30. I can manage up to 3 hours a day, but the third hour is recreational playing, not hard-core practice. A few short breaks during the day's practice help a lot.

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