Practice makes better

Posted on 20. Feb, 2011 by admin in Music | No Comments

One thing I’ve learned in my – holy moly – 30 years of playing the bass is that there are good and bad ways of preparing and practicing.  In the Music column, I will be going over some tricks I’ve learned and some strategies I have proven to be detrimental to my progress and/or confidence.

The first detrimental approach to practicing was, and this lasted at least for 20 years in my career, repeat entire pages and sloooowly increase the tempo.  I would play entire passages at 65,then 67, 69, well you get the picture.  I’d get to the hard bits and very soon would be convincing myself slowly but surely that I was unable to play the hard bits and, more importantly, that without 18 hours of work, I’d be unable to perform well, so, naturally, I was a fraud.  It was a no win: the more I practiced, the more of a fraud I was, the less results I got.

One day, a dear friend I was on tour with – Helen Kwalwasser, violin teacher at Temple – came out of her hotel room and said, “so all that work you just did, you think it helped?”  I was nonplussed.  I mumbled something like “well I hope it didn’t hurt..” and we went off to the concert.  In the elevator she said, “there’s another way you know, ask me when you’re ready.”

A year later, hating playing the bass more and more and after having some hard concert situations that I’d barely survived (I thought), I went to her.  Here is her advice in point form.  I’m applying this as a string player, but I’m certain that winds or keyboardists would have use for this. I’ve never looked back and have enjoyed practicing and playing ever since:

1. the whole page you have to play isn’t usually all difficult.  You can resume difficulty to 2 or 3 spots.  Let’s call them Brown Spots.

2. the brown spot is composed of, if you really go micro, two notes.  The knot.  It may be a shift, a string change, a combination thereof,  but the passage is ruined by just a small element therein.

3. a) play the passage IN TEMPO.  Locate the Brown Spot.

b) using the bowing that has been predetermined and IN TEMPO or very close to TEMPO, play the two notes.  Sort them out until they’re clean. You can change the rhythm but not the bowing and not the fingering you’ve chosen, unless the fingering can be improved.  IMPORTANT: use the bowing that will be used in performance.

c) now add 1 note before the Brown Spot and 1 note after.  IN TEMPO, play the four notes using the performance bowing.  This is where the magic happens: use all rhythms you can think of to vary the four notes without changing the bowing.  Play around, in tempo with the four notes.  For example, if the Brown Spot was in a détaché arpeggio of eighths, now play it in a dotted rhythm.  Always close to tempo.

d) when you’ve played for a while and it’s becoming clearer, play the four notes as written.  You’ll already hear some improvement.

e) now add 1 note before and 1 note after, in tempo and with the concert bowing, and do the same.  Vary the rhythm, play around with the small passage, noodle and doodle until it’s cleaned up.  Do this in EVER INCREASING CIRCLES.

Very soon the passage is yours.  Onwards!!


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