The need to practise is fundamental to our human nature. Kinaesthetic memory, physical coordination and the ability to process all this quickly in the brain cannot be loaded instantly like flash memory into a computer. It all needs time to bed down and soak in and, once there, it needs to be maintained. Practising is a skill in itself which evolves as we grow and develop as people. Here are a few ideas you may find helpful.
- Understand your own learning pattern and work within it. Don’t expect too much. Most human beings concentrate well for around 20 minutes before ‘coming up for air’. Musicians who have learned to practise for several hours each day are often actually working in blocks of 20 minutes, one after the other. To practise well for 20 minutes is a real achievement and something to aim for.
- Concern yourself with only two things – how it feels and how it sounds. If something feels right then it will probably sound right and vice versa. If things feel soft, balanced, spongy and even, then you are doing well. Look after and cultivate the right physical sensations.
- Have a plan. The first step in structuring your practice is to separate it out into different types. To me technical exercises are like brushing your teeth. Do them once a day thoroughly, the very best you can and always with some musicality and lightness of spirit. Then move on to something else. Building practice is perhaps the main part of what you do. Take things apart so that you can work with a particular issue in isolation. Then put it back in context, always remembering what you have improved. Last but not least, when you are ready, take some time to play through and enjoy what you have done.
- If you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t practise them! When we practise we acquire habits but these can be good or bad. There is no point in practising something incorrectly 19 times to eventually get it right just once. What has been learned, the good or the bad? Mental focus and preparation is important. Pablo Casals used to say ‘Think 12 times and do once’.
- ‘Silent’ practice away from the instrument is a really useful way to learn. Find a quiet spot when you can be calm and relaxed and ‘play’ through your piece in your head in real time. Imaging everything – sound, colours, phrasing, right down to the smallest sensations in your fingers. You may want to focus on one particular aspect. Remain calm and relaxed throughout. This provides the perfect complement to physical routines. Playing can be seen as a conversation between mind and body. Sometimes the solutions are best accessed through the mind and the body should take a rest!
- Experiment with phrasing, left-hand fingering and bowing. Make up six ways of doing something and practise them all until you have decided on the right one for you. This is a wonderful way to learn.
- Some practice can lead to instant improvement and satisfaction while other practice works away in the background at a lower level. Some improvements take time to show through in your playing, often months and even years. The benefit of good practice done as a child can last a lifetime.
- Lead yourself as you would lead a child, using imagery whenever possible. Allow yourself time to learn and never set yourself up to fail by asking too much of yourself. Remember, we play the cello; we don’t work it, fight it or bully it!
The great American golfer Arnold Palmer had just won a tournament. At the press conference a journalist said to him ‘People say you’re lucky, Mr Palmer.’ He replied – ‘Sure I’m lucky and, the more I practise, the luckier I get!’