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Posts tagged ‘practise’

Practice: Walking Through Daisies or ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’?

There is something romantic about playing a musical instrument, but practice? The emotion, getting caught up in the moment, it looks so graceful and can touch people’s lives – but that’s the finished product, what happens at the moment of performance. What about getting there? Is it all that rosey? Do people wake up and pull back the curtains to the sun streaming in and think – Oh yes! I get to practise for 4-6 hours today! La la la! and then twirl their fluffy skirts as they dance to the music room, humming and skipping with the music already singing in their minds. (featured image CC BY-NC-SA by Rachel Patterson)

Well… there are moments of bliss in any discipline when the learning moves from being an unfamiliar skill to being a known competence. The thing is that even when this happens, it isn’t over. In music it is not like creating a typed script that you can print out and look at. Live performance involves our bodies, which are changing, growing, and decaying every day and without upkeep and use, even after achieving something, it fades.

Practising is one of those ‘how’ questions that is sometimes not so explicitly taught. It involves so many different aspects of the self: musical mind, analytical mind, physical coordination (and that’s very specific to each instrument), and the motivation – to listen, to persevere, to assess, to pursue goals. It can be exhausting. With experience and the different hurdles life has thrown at me, I have learned to practice differently and hopefully better.

How much?

I used to while away the days at university just  practising all day and that was wonderful. There were certain factors in that environment that made it work there, that are not necessarily present outside the uni environment. I was a part of a wonderful cello studio and had THE most inspiring and motivating teacher that ever walked (still walks, well actually he runs- no time for walking) the planet. We also supported one another. There was competition, but each person was allowed and encouraged to become whatever they were going to be.

One of the things time taught me is that when the factors (in life, in music, in you) change, so does practising. Learning music is not something that can be distilled onto a recipe card. After university, for example, when living in a new place where I practised alone for the entire day, the motivation, recognition of progress, and general stamina that was easy to maintain in a community became tricky to maintain on my own.

Commitments and other constraints on my time taught me to organise, learning to focus, in order to accomplish in one hour what I might have done in three. Listening, analysis, careful repetition as opposed to less focused playing or even indulging in …just going on to that nice bit one more time.

Goals. Attention.

  • I now set the clock when I practise and do bursts of concentrated practise for 25 minutes at a time with dedicated goals and then

I GET UP AND MOVE AROUND. BREATHE FRESH AIR. DRINK WATER. 

It is important to remember we are more than machines. Our minds, muscles, and whole selves need recharging from time to time.

Without remembering how delicate we are, practising certainly can be a bear hunt. …Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it…. (Image CC BY-NC by Phil Rogers) Perseverance is important. -Musicians should not play through pain or for hours on end for the sake of it. That is unhealthy. There are however some aspects of physical learning that do take time to learn in the muscles and the brain. Yes, there might well be moments of discomfort while you get your thumb callous into shape (I’ve had a blister or two over the years), but nothing should ever ‘hurt’ from normal playing. The nightmare of the bear is quickly dissolved when planned small goals are integrated into a healthy schedule.

If you have a teacher to motivate you – that is great! If you don’t, that is more of a challenge. Being accountable is a useful tool.

  • You can be accountable to yourself, or to someone else who is not a musician, but is a friend.
  • Sometimes telling someone what your aims are, or making a chart can help.
  • Recording practise allows you to look back and see the progress – step-by-step is good.
  • Bite-sized is manageable, whereas demanding all at once is just not realistic.

I’m off to practice, as my concert is Sunday! I’ve been recording myself to listen and learn, and the other day, while rehearsing with my accompanist, I caught an oops. I forgot the thing that keeps my cello spike from slipping, and well… you can hear my surprise at what happened for yourself. 🙂

It’s not all daisies, but practising does pay off. Keep at it. (I’m talking to you as well as to me!)

Shuffle the deck: Scales becoming tunes #MUS654

Listening, and thinking on the way music creeps under your skin to make you move… I spent this week thinking on scales and their relationships as part of #MUS654 – of notes to notes, and yes, the relationships of the notes to people. Context can be everything and it can change so much. The way things are ordered, presented, and the way we look at them is important for how people attribute meaning.

For each type of musician, there are different physical parameters that influence the mechanical logistics of how we paint our sounds. Let me explain… in my last post I talked about how singers don’t use ‘fingerings’ for their notes. They have intense links between the conceptual understanding of what needs to be done to achieve a certain pitch and then they make the sound. There is no looking (down the throat!) to check they have the right positioning. Yes there are physical aspects of singing that can be seen – like mouth shape and torso placement/use, but there are unseen aspects and somehow there is a strong connection between the mind and the outcome.

Likewise for other instruments the mind is very important, but there is this pesky other bit that cannot be ignored… As a cellist, I work with my hands Read more

Time to practice

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That’s where my brain is at the moment. Every year I do a recital at the University and every year there is a moment when I wonder why why why?  I don’t have to. Nobody requires me to, it’s not part of my job. But somehow I need to. It is very important to me to put myself through the paces, to learn and do the same as I require the students to do, but it’s a balancing act and it’s no more easy for me than it is for them or anyone. It takes time. I’ve started waking up early, going to bed late, even waking up after everyone else has gone to bed. I think the music just creeps into your blood.

So

Practise practise practise! (or practice in ‘Americanish’ as my children used to say)

I very much enjoy the process, the sound, and having something to say – a voice – where I don’t have to have words. If you asked me what the music means, I wouldn’t have words, but it is full of meaning. I’m happy to talk about that, but maybe another time. Read more

My scales story #MUS654

(2 min read) As a student I was a latecomers to seriously studying music, and as we know it takes a lot of practice to be excellent at any instrument (yes, voice is an instrument). As a first year undergraduate I had a great friend who gave me a present to help with my practising. It was a pink mini-Fender Amp that had a slot in the back for a 9v battery, an input and an output. I used it for years until it finally went to live with the other amps in the sky.  (Photo CC-BY by S.Su)

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What was it for? Scales and intonation. That’s right, my little pink Fender amp was a drone machine for me and it would be hooked up to my digital tuner and blast out sine tones (like these) so I could have a solid, fixed reference pitch as I practiced. I used it religiously everyday – and I needed to! There was no quick fix for developing an inner ear or learning the placement of fingers on a fretless instrument. I quickly realised that as a cello player, I thought about notes, and scales, mainly in a melodic context. What I mean, is that I didn’t have that key harmonic reference in my head like another musician might. (Photo CC-BY-NC by Bill Selak)

The amp was a stepping stone for me. As I plugged away learning the patterns for my scales and solidifying the geography of the fingerboard it helped to keep me on track. The next step was to create that drone myself, with my voice. The magic of this (once you get over the fact that you are not supposed to sound like a diva holding a low G -or whatever note- for a minute or more) was that the combination of the voice and the cello notes interacted in a very physical way. I could FEEL the vibrations of the different intervals. So an octave really felt smooth as glass, whereas the major 7th had a sawtooth edge that produced very tangible harmonic beats. These were different from the more textured velour of a 3rd. It is a real challenge to hold a pitch steady when the interval is moving, and not to waver. Really, give it a go – even if you sing against that sine wave generator I linked to – play a note on it (turn it up so the volume matches your voice) and sing a scale. You’ll feel those intervals too.

It is a practice that taught me to tune in, literally, as well as to get into the mental space where I could really listen. Scales became more than rushing through the Galamian finger pattern of ‘stretch-stretch-squash-squash-squash’ (which is how to play a major scale on a violin/viola/cello staring on any note) and moved into a real tool for teaching me about relationships of notes and balance within my hand and the sound.

Do I still do it? Yes.

Do I make my students do it? Yes.

Do they think it’s silly? Yes, and I volunteer to sing the first drone – and we all laugh. It is very good to laugh. …and then to practise some more!

Don’t forget this week’s #MUS654 Hangout/Webinar happening on Wed. 30th September at 6pm BST. We’ll be talking about scales and the relationship of notes, and I look forward to welcoming Roozbeh Golpaygani روزبه گلپايگانى who will be sharing his knowledge of Persian music. You are more than welcome to join in the conversation in person or via Twitter.