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  • Emily Wolfram

Practice Tips

Do your homework before you play

1. Measure numbers. If the measure numbers are not printed, add them. Count the measures and add the number at the beginning of each line.

2. Label big sections. Label each section of the piece. A section has a distinct melody or theme that returns. Label the section with a capital letter (A, B, C, etc.). If two sections are identical, use the same letter. If two sections are close to exact copies, but not quite, you can label one A1 and the other, A2.

3. Identical sections. Make note of the identical measures. This is where you know practicing will give you a bigger bang for your buck! You won't have to practice both of identical sections until you are ready to put the whole piece together and play it completely through.

4. Almost identical sections. If two sections are not quite exactly the same but almost, you'll still need to practice both parts. Find the measure or exact place in the second phrase where it changes and circle it so you do not accidentally play the original phrase out of habit.

5. Melodic elements. Note where the melody uses scales or arpeggios. Can you name the scale or chord?

6. Rhythm. Are there rhythm patterns which repeat frequently? Are there rhythms that look difficult? Are there rhythms you cannot sight-read perfectly on the first try? For the difficult rhythms, write out the beats and play them slowly for yourself in your head or tapping with a metronome.

7. Vocabulary. Are there new terms or phrases? Look these up. Write down definitions if you need to.

8. Fingerings. If your music provides specific fingerings, see if they make sense to you. Do air-cello (like air-guitar) to check. Student repertoire will specify fingerings, especially if you need to shift out of 1st position.

Practicing Strategies

1. Play backwards. Spend some time starting at the end:

(a) Play the last measure perfectly 4 times.

(b) Play the second to last measure perfectly 4 times.

(c) Play those 2 measures or phrases together until they feel easy.

(d) Add one measure or phrase at a time until you reach the beginning of the piece, and then play it from beginning to end.

2. Dynamics. Circle all dynamic markings (including crescendos and decrescendos.) Play from 2 measures before to 2 measures after the dynamic change and rehearse those volume changes.

3. Break it down. For difficult sections, break down your challenges into manageable tasks. First clap the rhythm with a metronome (or while tapping your foot at a steady pulse.) Second, sing the rhythm. Third, sing the pitches with the note names. Fourth, sing the finger numbers.

4. Put things together. Play the rhythm with your bow on one open string. If the passage involves a string change, play the rhythm with your bow on the open strings that correspond to the music. Next, play the section with only the left hand, no bow. Finally, play with left hand and bow at a slow tempo.

5. Target practice for shifting. Is there 1 single note or note grouping that is always out of tune? Does it happen right after you change to a different position, or string? Here is a strategy for shifting in tune:

(a) Play the note in tune, with the correct finger. Find that sweet spot. If the next beat or 2 of the melody stays in the same position, play that sequence in tune. Go slow if you need to. For example, if the problem starts as soon as you shift to 2nd position: go to 2nd position and play the note or sequence of notes in that position and do it perfectly several times, starting slowly if that is what it takes. Play this sequence perfectly 5 times in a row or more.

(b) Go to the beat before or a few beats before and play those notes slowly, thinking about the preparation you need to do to arrive on the problem note with accuracy. Aim for that target note, land on it, then STOP. Do not go on! Did you get there successfully? Were you flat or sharp? Try again slowly until you successfully land on the target. Play this sequence 5 times in a row perfectly before adding 1-2 clicks to your metronome speed.

(c) Rehearse the shift. Play the 2 note sequences together. Play under tempo at first. Get 5 perfect repetitions in a row before adding 1-2 clicks to your metronome speed.

6. Your metronome is your best friend. No matter how slow you have to play to get the notes and rhythm right, your metronome will not judge you. And it will be completely honest with you when you get off the pulse. Here's another strategy for an overall tricky section:

(a) Find a tempo that is slow enough that you can play the passage perfectly. With the metronome on, play it 3 times.

(b) Increase speed 1 or 2 clicks and play it again. If you played correctly, do 4 perfect repetitions in a row. If you played it incorrectly on the first try, go back to step a and repeat.

(c) After 4 perfect repetitions in a row, increase the speed by 1 or 2 clicks and repeat step (b) until you can't go any faster without errors.

(d) Write your final speed in your music or notebook.

(e) The next day, repeat this process starting from yesterday's final speed. Or start from step (a) and see if your "perfect tempo is any faster.

7. Play from memory. Pick 1 measure or phrase to memorize. Chose a goal or technique to focus on. Play from memory. Observe if you reached your goal or executed the technique. If you did not, note why. Below are some examples of observations and problems to identify. You can definitely come up with others on your own. Students, if you try this and you are having trouble identifying the problem or solution to help fix the mistake you observe, that is perfect material for our lessons! Write down your observation and the things you have tried so we can work on it together!

Observation: Playing out of tune. Problem: Left thumb is in wrong place.

Observation: Tone is not right. Problem: Contact point is too close to fingerboard or too close to bridge.

Observation: Issues 3rd or 4th finger intonation. Problem: left elbow needs to move with string changes, especially to low strings.

Observation: A note in a fast passage does not speak or sound good. Problem: Bow is playing the string before the left finger has moved to correct tape or position and pulled the string down completely to the fingerboard.

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