The “Brussels sprouts” of practicing music

There are certain dishes that bring to mind childhood memories of battles the dinner table: liver, Brussels sprouts, peas, spinach, broccoli. Honestly, I was never sure if they actually did make you grow taller, but for some odd reason I love them all.

As musicians, we are encouraged to put up with other kinds of nastiness that is supposedly “good” for us: etudes, scales, arpeggios, sight singing, and sometimes even music theory, to name a few. I would be lying if I said I loved them unconditionally, yet I do have quite a bit of faith in the amount of growth that they stimulate musically. The more I realize I don’t know as a college musician, the more I wish I would’ve spent more time on them in the past. Thankfully, I don’t think it’s too late. Seeing room for improvement is always a good sign. At the least it means my tuition is being put to good use.

Exercises and practice techniques, such as etudes, help build specific skills. They often include ways to give variety to the exercises in order to keep things fresh and challenging, such as the various bowings/articulations, rhythms, fingerings, and accents seen in the Kreutzer etudes or the Flesch scales book.

A few weeks ago in my lesson with Kira, she reminded me that even when you aren’t practicing etudes, one way to become more confident in your repertoire is by applying the same approaches to difficult passages. I had learned some of these approaches with Mr. Braunstein as well, but for some reason I seemed to forget about the “broccoli” for a bit.

At the least, making it more difficult for a moment makes it seem significantly easier when you return to playing it normally. At best, you train yourself to process the passage more deeply, which is especially helpful for memorization. Here are some ways to “power lift” your normal practicing:

  • In fast technical passages, such as the third movement of Schumann’s Marchenbilder:
    • change up accentuation patterns. For example, accent the first of every four notes over a triplet note passage.
    • reverse bowings
    • change the rhythms. For example, change triplets to one eight note and two sixteenths, or the reverse, or into a sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth pattern.
    • hold the bow upside down (by the tip)
  • transpose the passage
  • play it in a different position or on a different string (Don’t practice this enough to make it permanent–try it a few times and drop it! It is only a mental test.)

Any other ideas? Of course, this strategy doesn’t have to be limited to playing stringed instruments.

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