Growing up as a classical violinist, I was taught there were only two reasons to pick up my instrument; practicing or performing. Nobody said it outright. But that’s what one did. I hated practicing. To me, practicing was defined as “the absence of going to the mall with one’s friends.” For that matter, in my young mind, “performing” meant one or two hours of stomach flutters and sweating palms, followed by 5 minutes of terror, trying to play a piece I suddenly couldn’t remember, for either a panel of judges or an audience of parents who were probably squirming and uncomfortable, sensing my nervousness. Those two activities summed up about a third of my week for 12 years.
Through fiddling and my natural tendency to question conventional wisdom, I found a new reason to pick up my violin. It’s a third category called “playing.” It seems so obvious. That’s what it’s called, right?! Playing an instrument. Yet, like most classically trained instrumentalists and singers I encounter, I had extraordinary technical ability, especially after two years of a university music program. But I had no idea how to kick back and really enjoy playing my violin.
The breakdown goes like this: Practicing is the ironing out of trouble spots in a piece you would like to play. Performing is the symbiotic gift of sharing that piece with others. Playing is the learning, discovery and enjoyment process of that piece of music. It’s like three different mind sets for each process.
The following is the method of practicing I have honed over 33 years of violin study. I teach it to all of my students because it’s the most efficient ninja-like approach to ironing out the spots you trip over every time. Then you can get back to playing, enjoying, fiddling around, creating, messing about, and all manor of ballyhoo and monkey business.
The Fiddle Ninja Practice Method
(for any instrument, really)
1) Play through your piece of music slowly and, hopefully, poorly.
2) Make a mental note about the two or three most tricky spots.
3) Return to each spot, and follow the next five steps.
4) Get out your mental magnifying glass and find the EXACT reason you keep tripping up that particular set of notes. Ex: Is it a tricky finger pattern on two or three notes? Is it a weird string crossing? Is it a boring part you can’t make yourself pay attention to?
5) Practice ONLY those two or three notes until they become muscle memory- till you can play it 4 or 5 times correctly.
6) Add a note or two before and a note or two after till you can do that 3 or 4 times correctly.
7) Add to that a few notes more before and after till you can play 2 or 3 times correctly
8) Add a measure or so before and after until you can play 2 or 3 times correctly
9) Repeat steps 4-8 for each trouble spot. It should take up to 5 minutes per spot.
10) Play the piece again, now with the metronome at a mellow speed, to see if you can play through all the trouble spots at the same tempo then gradually speed up the metronome.
That whole process should take about 15 – 20 minutes, with a few minutes of touch-up over the following week.
That’s it. That’s all the practicing you do. The rest is all about just playing music. Imagine if you could do that simple process for other parts of your life. How much playing could you add to
your life, relationships, work, etc…if you only relegated a small percentage of your time to the little things that trip you up every time? What if all the rest of the time you could play, play play?