Whipping up a Batch of Tasty Practice Sessions


from The String Teacher’s Cookbook: Creative Recipes for a Successful Program

by Rachel Barton Pine

1 string player (any size), 1 string player’s brain, 1 notebook, 1 pen or pencil

The string player, the string player’s teacher, and audiences everywhere

1. Choose a time commitment for daily practice.
Begin by thinking very carefully and realistically about all of your activities and commitments. Determine your priorities, and think creatively how you might organize your schedule to free up a little extra time. Based on this evaluation, decide how many hours you will commit to practicing every day.

2. List your assignments for the whole week.
List in your notebook everything you need to practice in the coming week. The list should include your new solo repertoire, your review pieces, your orchestra pieces, your chamber music, and your technical work (scales, etudes, and exercises).

3. Create a practice plan for the week.
Decide how often you need to practice each piece or exercise. Some items on your list will need work every day, while others can be rotated to alternate days or practiced twice a week. Then assign each piece to specific days of the week. When you have finished, check to be sure that your repertoire is distributed evenly throughout the week.

4. Create a plan for each day.
Next, decide how much time you need to spend on each piece each day, considering its level of difficulty and your priorities. Your brain and muscles will need to be refreshed every so often, so don’t forget to schedule breaks. At the end of your practice session, you may reward yourself with a little “free-choice time” by playing a favorite review piece, jamming on a fiddle tune, or experimenting with a rock improvisation.

For example, for a daily practice session of two hours, your notebook might look like this:

10 min. scales in key #1
45 min. new concerto
5 min. break
15 min. etudes
15 min. orchestra piece #1
25 min. chamber music movement #1
5 min. free choice

10 min. scales in key #2
45 min. new concerto
5 min. break
15 min. etudes
10 min. orchestra piece #2
20 min. chamber music movement #2
10 min. review piece
5 min. free choice


Remember that if you begin your practice session with your first piece and don’t assign any time limits, you may run out of time before you ever get to your last piece. Keep an eye on the clock!

5. Create a plan for each piece: time.
Depending on the length and difficulty of a particular piece, you might divide it into sections and plan how much time to spend on each section each day. For example:

Monday-45 min.-new concerto
25 min. page 1
15 min. page 2
5 min. super-hard spot

Tuesday-45 min.-new concerto
20 min. page 2
10 min. page 3
10 min. page 1
5 min. super-hard spot

Wednesday-45 min.-new concerto
20 min. page 3
10 min. page 1
10 min. page 2
5 min. super-hard spot


6. Create a plan for each piece: goals.
Trying to concentrate on too many goals at once will fragment your attention and prevent you from mastering any one of them. Here’s how to make your practicing more efficient and effective: Practice slowly (very slowly!). Become a “mistake detective” by listening to every note with suspicion. Focus on each side of the body separately before putting both together. (For instance, if you are thinking about intonation, ignore your bow distribution, but when you are concentrating on bow distribution, don’t worry about your vibrato.) These habits will maximize your results.

You might record your plans in your notebook like this:

Monday-45 min.-new concerto
25 min. page 1
1st step: perfect intonation
(1 measure at a time, no vibrato)
2nd step: clean shifts
(isolate each)
3rd step: beautiful vibrato (width, speed, don’t leave any notes bare)
4th step: straight bow, bow fingers, wrist, arm (clear tone, bow changes, string crosses)
5th step: bow distribution and weight
(dynamics and phrasing)
6th step: rhythm and articulation
7th step: up to tempo with emotion, 1 line at a time
8th step: perform the entire page without stopping

7. Confirm your plan with your teacher.
After you’ve finished writing down all of the details for this week’s practice sessions, ask your teacher to take a look at your notebook and make suggestions.

8. Adjust and evaluate.
Every layer of your practicing plan is a hypothesis. It might turn out that orchestra piece #1 took only 10 minutes, not 15. Your notebook plan is a just a guide, so you can revise it as you go along. Be sure to write down what you actually did, then use this information to create next week’s plan and make it even better. You’ll soon find that your practice sessions are better organized and more productive.

9. Keep your commitment.
Your muscles need consistent workouts in order to gain strength and improve coordination, and your brain needs consistent reinforcement to secure knowledge in your long-term memory. Skipping a few days and then cramming a week’s practicing into the hours before your lesson is no substitute for daily practice, even when the total hours spent are the same. By practicing every single day, you will progress more quickly and retain what you learn.

Intelligent practicing is a habit that will serve you well for the rest of your life!

Rachel will be soloing with us in February alongside rising superstar violinist Adé Williams!  Check our website for all details, times and locations.


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