Ten Tips For Practicing

The beginning of a new year is a great time to evaluate our practicing and to reaffirm our commitment to consistent, thoughtful practicing.  How we practice is as important as how much we practice.  Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Practice Every Day

In some ways, practicing is like exercise.  If it’s sporadic you won’t see progress and you’ll be constantly frustrated.   When practicing becomes a part of your daily routine, your practice sessions become easier. You begin to develop muscle memory and one skill builds on another.  Progress and momentum follow.  Dr. Suzuki said that for every day you don’t practice you need to practice two days to catch up.  “Only  practice on the days that you eat.” was his famous advice.

2. Organize Your Time

Understand each component of your practice session and its purpose.  In the first Suzuki books a typical practice session should include Suzuki’s Tonalization exercises, your new piece and review.  More advanced students might similarly divide their time between scales, etudes, unaccompanied Bach, concerto, sonata, show pieces and orchestra music.  Each component helps your playing in a different way.

As you become more comfortable with a new piece, continue to practice small sections of the piece slowly, but also spend some time “performing” the piece by playing through from beginning to end without stopping.

3. Identify Your Objective 

Make sure you always understand specifically what you’re trying to accomplish.  Be goal oriented and focus on only one point at a time.

4. Use Your Time Efficiently and Intelligently 

Practicing almost always involves problem solving.  Identify the problem and then consider the most efficient and effective way to solve it.  If you have difficulty with a musical passage, don’t immediately play it again.  Instead, stop and ask yourself why it isn’t working.  It may involve a string crossing, a shift or questionable intonation. After you have identified the problem, focus only on its solution.  This usually involves starting in the middle of the piece and only repeating a small group of notes.  Stop and isolate each action, whether it be a string crossing or setting fingers on the fingerboard.  After repeating it correctly many times, back up and play the passage again in context.  It’s important to be able to start anywhere in a given piece.

5. Stay Mentally Alert 

Listen carefully and evaluate your playing throughout your practice session. Be as tough on yourself as your teacher is at your lesson.  Every time you go on autopilot and allow a sloppy string crossing or out of tune note to pass you are ingraining that habit.  By listening and solving the problem quickly, you save yourself time in end.

6. Imagine What You Want It To Sound Like

Let the piece play in your mind like a recording.  How do you want it sound?  Put the bow on the string and play.  Then evaluate what you played, making adjustments if necessary.  Always stay positive and evaluate after you have played.

7. Stay Relaxed

Relaxation is the key to all technique.  Focus on four points of relaxation, isolating each separately before you play: the right shoulder, right elbow, right hand and the knuckles of the left hand.

For less advanced students, always go through a posture checklist before starting to play.  Place the bow on the string and take a moment to feel the connection and relaxed arm weight.

Throughout your practice session, keep renewing a soft, springy feeling in your left hand and bow arm.

8. Slow Down

This is especially true when learning a new piece.  Find the tempo where it feels easy and focus on your most full, beautiful tone.  Stay calm and relaxed.  If you find yourself scrambling for notes, evaluate what is happening.  Usually, this is a sign that you are not making the most efficient physical motions possible.  This, in turn makes it harder and you risk building a habit of tension.  Think about a relaxed “roof” over the fingerboard and fingertips that stay close to the strings and try again.

Dr. Suzuki asks beginners learning a new piece to use short, small bow strokes and to stop between each note to prepare the left hand.  Practicing this way reinforces the appropriate coordination (the left hand preparing first).  It also ensures that mind and muscles have time to learn and remember the correct finger patterns.  Students who try to go too fast and skip this step often end up ingraining wrong notes that have to be unlearned later. There is also a danger of sloppy coordination between the right and left hands.

There are times when it can be beneficial to play a piece at full tempo (or even faster than the performance tempo) before you are ready.  However, as a general rule slow practice is essential.

9. Do Many Correct Repetitions

Whatever we repeat becomes a habit.  To improve we must replace old, inhibiting habits with new and correct ones.  Dr. Suzuki said, “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions creates skill.”  Those who worked with Suzuki have suggested that he intended this not as hyperbole, but rather quite literally!  In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests something similar.

10. Always Play Your Best

Because what you repeat becomes a habit, it is essential that you never let down. Don’t settle for anything less than your best.  Always turn the energy switch on and practice with your best tone and most inspired musicianship.

Join The Listeners’ Club, Part 2

Last month I invited you to Join The Listeners’ Club and explore some of my favorite music.  Now, in Part 2, we’ll examine these pieces more closely.  Here are some of my thoughts about what makes this music so great.  Enjoy the discussion and then go back and listen again.  Use the comment thread below to tell me what you hear. What inspires you?  What are your favorite parts and why?


Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

La Rejouissance

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What words come to mind as you listen to this music?  Noble, majestic, joyous, triumphant…maybe even euphoric?

In 1749 George II of England commissioned Handel to write this piece to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession.  A public rehearsal held a week before the performance attracted 12,000 people but the performance became a minor disaster when a pavilion in London’s Green Park caught fire.*  You can learn more about the background of the piece here.  Even more extraordinary than its history is the way this music continues to speak to us almost 300 years later, long after the political currents of its day have been forgotten.

Handel’s use of trumpets and drums evokes images of the battlefield.  Did you hear the heroic trumpet fanfares in the Overture, starting at 2:29?  Listen to the back and forth dialogue between groups of instruments.  First, the trumpets and drums make a statement and then the horns and reed instruments (oboes, bassoons and contrabassoons) answer.

Can you feel the excitement build as the music unfolds?  At 3:31 listen to the way the trumpets soar to their highest and most heroic statements and pay attention to the fast, vigorous running notes in the reeds (starting at 3:47).  Keep in mind that trumpets in Handel’s time had no valves.  Only certain pitches could be played.  In order to change pitch the player had to make small lip adjustments.

Listen to this exhilarating music again.  What new details do you hear?


Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)


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Much of Mozart’s music is deeply tied to his operas which include The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.  Did you hear a conversation between the solo violin and viola that reminded you of a duet between two characters in an opera?  There are no words to be sung here, but you probably still had some idea of what was being said.  Maybe you would describe the music as beautiful, passionate, eerie, mysterious and even hinting at the supernatural?

Still, if you honestly evaluate your experience you’ll probably realize that the feelings the music evokes cannot easily be put into words.  These feelings are often complicated, ambiguous and go beyond literal description.  This is key to understanding the unique power of music.

In addition to the excellent Perlman-Zuckerman recording I recommended last month, I’ll add a 2005 recording featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, violist Yuri Bashmet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.


William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Why do you think William Tell is so much fun to listen to?  One dramatic trick up Rossini’s sleeve is the long, gradual crescendo.  He is able to create a breathless sense of anticipation by starting out softly and gradually letting the music build.  We know what’s coming, but the journey is still always exciting.

Here is a live performance by Sir Mark Elder and Britain’s Halle Orchestra:

Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Kathryn commented on Laurel and Hardy style humor in this overture, written in 1956 for the Broadway operetta, Candide.   Indeed, this exciting four minute romp is packed with comedy and witty musical jokes.  Bernstein even adds a Rossini style crescendo in the coda (3:20).

Timing and surprise are essential elements of comedy.  Notice how the rhythm in this piece is constantly keeping you off balance, setting up your expectations and at the last minute giving you something completely unexpected, the musical equivalent of a sight gag.  Listen closely to the complex two against three rhythm starting at 3:39.

While Candide was initially a flop on Broadway, this overture has become one of the most beloved pieces of American twentieth century music.


Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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Do you remember the iconic moment in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E.T., when the bicycle begins to soar into the air?  Can you imagine this scene without John Williams’s score?  More than anything else, it’s the music that gives us the feeling of flying.

Unlike the other composers on our list, Williams is almost exclusively concerned with creating music that serves and enhances what is happening on the screen.  But even if we took this music out of the movie most of us would still agree that it feels expansive.

To understand why the music gives us this feeling, listen again from the beginning, and pay attention to the melody in the strings which begins 13 seconds in.  Do you notice how each phrase of the melody includes a wider jump between notes?  The melody climbs, each time ending in a slightly higher place.  Bird chirps from the woodwinds, and splashes of color from the harp and bells add a magical shimmer and sparkle to the sound.  Just when we think we can’t climb any higher, the music modulates up a key to C Major (1:58) and then climaxes at 2:17 when the horns soar above the entire orchestra.

(*Handel and Occasional Music by Roger Hamilton, pg. 4)


Join The Listeners' Club

Welcome to The Listeners’ Club!  This month I’m excited to launch the first installment of what will become a regular feature of this blog.  My goal is to help you develop a fun, meaningful, life long relationship with some great music that you might not otherwise get to know.  We’ll explore music that people of all ages will enjoy.  Along the way I’ll share some of my thoughts on what makes this music so inspiring.  I’ll also ask you to tell me what you heard in the form of a comment in the thread below.

Listen to these short selections a few times.  If you’re like me, a certain piece will grab you and you’ll want to keep hearing it.  If you are interested, I encourage you to find more information about the composers.  Also, for an even more powerful and authentic experience, never pass up an opportunity to hear a live performance.

Next month, after we’ve all had a chance to listen, I’ll follow up with a slightly more detailed discussion.  At that point we’ll listen again one final time with a broadened perspective.  For now we will allow the music to stand on its own.

So join the club, invite your friends to join, listen, and don’t forget to leave a comment!

"Music for the Royal Fireworks"








Music for the Royal Fireworks (HWV 351)…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

La Rejouissance

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We’ll start off with a bang.  This music was written for a celebration.  The recording I recommend features period instruments to give us an idea of what this would have sounded like in Handel’s time.  The instruments have evolved over time, so you may hear some unusual sounds.  Let’s start with the first, fourth and fifth movements. What words would you use to describe this music?  What gives the music its character?  Pay attention to how combinations of instruments are grouped together to achieve certain sounds.  Why do you think Handel did this?


Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (K. 364)…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)


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Listen to the second of the three movements.  Can you hear a musical conversation between the solo violin and solo viola?  What do you think they are saying?


William Tell Overture (Finale)…Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

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Rossini was an Italian opera composer.  His operas would have been considered popular entertainment in their time.  You may know this as the theme to the old TV show, The Lone Ranger.  What words come to mind as you listen to this music?


Overture to Candide…Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

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Can you hear any “characters” in this music?  Are they serious or comic characters? Are there any jokes in the music?  Did Bernstein make any references to Rossini’s William Tell Overture?


Flying Theme from “E.T”…John Williams (b. 1932)

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What mood does this music evoke?  If you’ve seen the movie, how does the music correspond with what is happening on the screen?  Imagine the same scene without any music…just picture and dialogue.  How would the overall effect be different?

Insights of a Great Humanitarian


Quotations from Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki:

About Children:

They have no thought of self-deception.

They trust people and do not doubt at all.

They know only how to love, and not how to hate.

They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.

They seek joy, live cheerfully, and are full of life.

They know no fear and live in security.

About Education:

Any child is able to display highly superior abilities if correct methods of training are used.

Ability breeds ability…Ability grows as it is trained.  Experience and repetition improve talent or ability.

A true artist is a person with beautiful and fine feelings, thoughts, and action. Character first…Ability second.

However wonderful the other person may be, it depends on us alone whether we have the capacity to absorb their greatness.

One has to educate oneself from within to benefit from the greatness of others.

Improvement in ability depends on action and attention.  Life’s success or failure depends on the habit of action.

Thought, to be profitable, must immediately be followed by correct action in order to acquire a better habit to replace the present poor habit.

Any skill can be acquired by constant repetition.  Progress is the acquisition of new skills.  One of the most vital skills is the ability to memorize.

Practicing according to the correct method and practicing as much as possible is the way to acquire ability.

Suzuki's Vital Points

Dr. Suzuki listed ten Vital Points for violin playing.  He used these points to develop a weekly progress report that allowed students and parents to chart improvement over time.*  Suzuki’s emphasis on Vital Points suggests that the important question to ask is not “How quickly can I move from one piece to another?” but instead, “How beautifully can I play?”  Suzuki acknowledged that each student develops at their own pace.  He patiently enjoyed this process with the conviction that, given the correct environment, all students can learn.

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Test Your Practice Skills

Anastasia Jempelis with a student
Anastasia Jempelis with a student

Dr. Suzuki told his students: “Only practice on the days that you eat.”  This is good advice, but it’s also important to evaluate the quality of your practicing.  It’s not just about the hours you put in, but what you put in the hours!  Suzuki’s triangle (student, parent, teacher) gives parents the vital role of guiding their child’s practice sessions at home.  Practicing correctly helps students develop self discipline, perseverance, and an increased ability to concentrate.  Years of parent led practice sessions prepare students to work effectively on their own as teenagers.  Most importantly, through practicing we develop and maintain the skills that allow us to connect freely and meaningfully with the music.  I’ll have a few more thoughts on practicing in future posts, but for now here are some helpful points that my former teacher Anastasia Jempelis put together many years ago.  Miss Jempelis asks that you “please answer this form as honestly as you would your Federal Income tax return.  Then, keep the form and test yourself again in a couple of months.”

Do you and your child
1.  understand the definition of practice?
2.  practice every day?
3.  understand exactly what your teacher wants you to practice?
4.  keep one goal in mind as you practice?

Do you
5.  keep a notebook?
6.  praise your child for a job well done so that their motivation will stay high?
7.  practice only as long as your child’s concentration is of a high quality?
8.  very gradually lengthen practice sessions if your child’s concentration is good?
9.  ask your teacher questions, so that you will be a good teacher at home?
10.  know when to stop a practice?
11.  use variety and creativity to make repetitions fun?
12.  do many repetitions so that the practice session is productive?

Some helpful “secrets” to remember:
1.  Be goal-oriented in practice.
2.  Keep motivation high.
3.  Lengthen and improve your child’s concentration.
4.  Try to be as good a teacher at home as your Suzuki teacher is at the lesson.
5.  Use repetitions to develop ability.  (The more good repetitions, the more ability).

Take A Friend To The Orchestra

In 2006 Drew McManus asked me to contribute an article to his annual Take A Friend To The Orchestra series. Widely regarded as an industry expert, Drew is a respected orchestra consultant and the author of the popular blog, Adaptistration. Soliciting ideas from a wide range of perspectives within the music business, Take A Friend To The Orchestra (TAFTO) tackles the challenge of introducing orchestral music to people who are not in the habit of regularly attending concerts. It’s easy to get inspired by the many great articles in this series.

[quote]A TAFTO initiative simply isn’t complete without a contribution from a real live, orchestra musician. This year’s contribution comes from Timothy Judd, a violinist in the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. If you’re interested in seeing the issues of audience development from the eyes of a professional orchestra musician and like straightforward, detailed ideas then this is your article…[/quote] Drew McManus

Timothy Judd, violinist
Photo: Michael G. Stewart

TAFTO 2006 Contribution
By: Timothy Judd

As an orchestral violinist, I follow a routine before concerts. I usually leave home about an hour before the downbeat and swing by Starbucks for my caffeine fix. Dressed in a penguin suit, violin case in hand, I quickly realize that I am a walking advertisement for my orchestra. Sometimes, it garners a number of unsolicited questions and interest. A woman stops to ask me what instrument is in the case. The man behind the counter enthusiastically tells me that he played the violin in his school orchestra.

These occasional conversations have led me to the conclusion that there are more people interested in classical music than we see in the concert hall. Live orchestral music is a great product, but it doesn’t sell itself. As a musician, I believe it is my responsibility to not only play great music but also to help others discover why it is so exciting. This includes fighting for high quality music education in all of our public schools so students can experience classical music at an early age.

Before taking friends to the orchestra for the first time, it might be interesting to find out if they have any perceptions of classical music. I’ve encountered people who assume classical music is stuffy, highbrow and hard to understand. Some even tell me that they see themselves more as a “NASCAR person” than a “symphony person.”

So how do you go about shattering these stereotypes? First, help your friends understand that classical music isn’t about dressing up and showing that you know when to clap at the right times. I go to concerts because listening to classical music is fun! This music has stood the test of time and it belongs to everyone.

Maybe you could show how music relates to other activities your friends enjoy. If they enjoy watching a NASCAR race because of the speed, power and excitement, try showing them how they might get the same feeling of excitement and motion by listening to “A Short Ride In A Fast Machine” by John Adams or “Pacific 231” by Arthur Honegger or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. There’s no reason why people can’t appreciate both sports and classical music. As a matter of fact, I even know some musicians in my orchestra who are NASCAR fans.

Before the concert, give your friends some insights into how you listen to music. If they try to approach an orchestra concert like they would a rock concert they may end up disappointed. Unlike a rock concert, which relies on spectacle and audience participation, an orchestra concert requires you to focus and really listen. Like looking at visual art in a museum, the more attention you give to the music, the more you will get out of it.

At the same time, don’t get upset if your friends enjoy aspects of the concert experience that you consider shallow. Audiences have always been captivated by flashy, charismatic soloists and daredevil displays of technique and the stories of women fainting at concerts given by virtuosos like Franz Liszt and Paganini (whether true or not) make today’s concerts seem tame.

In the end it is important to let the music stand on its own. However, don’t be afraid to share interesting facts about the composers with people who are new to classical music. These details may help them to pay more attention to the music. For example, Mozart’s First Symphony seems like just another symphony until you consider that he wrote it when he was eight years old. Beethoven’s music sounds even more shocking when you realize that the people first hearing it were expecting it to sound like Haydn.

Don’t expect your friends to be able to start out listening to a whole forty minute symphony with the same level of enthusiasm you experience. Instead, get a recording of the piece you will hear at the concert and play your favorite parts a few times. Tell your friends why you like these sections and see if they can find them in the live performance.

Most importantly, let your friends see your enthusiasm for the music and remember that sometimes one concert is all it take takes to hook someone on classical music. I still remember my parents taking me to David Zinman’s last concert as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra when I was around ten years old. The orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” For many Saturday mornings after that I awakened my parents with sounds of Mahler blasting from the stereo. I hope my friends at Starbucks are equally inspired.