Revisiting repertoire: clean score or old score?

I began working on the Franck Violin Sonata this week after a 15 year hiatus. I performed it several times in grad school with my husband/cellist, Erik Anderson, and then played it with my violin colleague at Minot State University, Dr. Jon Rumney, shortly after moving to Minot. The score I’m using now is the one I played from in grad school: bright yellow International Edition. For academic and aesthetic reasons, I will definitely pony up for a new Henle score soon, but this old score has caused me to ponder my learning process in my early 20’s vs. now, and wonder why I was so stingy with markings in the score.

The Franck Violin Sonata has a reputation for having a very difficult piano part. It has a thick texture, heavy chromaticism, extended octave passages, and must be balanced with the single line of the violin (or cello in this case). The interpretation also requires much expression and rubato. One would think that in learning it for the first time, I would have marked up the score quite a lot, but I barely put any fingerings in, and very little interpretive information. I remember having intense interpretive discussions and agonizing over decision making in the rehearsal process, and also many hours of coaching with faculty, where I would have gleaned valuable wisdom; but sadly there are almost no markings in the score to indicate any of this. I also remember performing it well and with convincing interpretation. How did I do this while leaving no evidence of the process?

How a musician marks the score is deeply personal. I have seen preferences ranging from a completely pristine score, to every single fingering marked in, to so many layers of markings that the score is nearly illegible. For me, it depends on the scope of preparation. If I’m memorizing the music, I will work from a photocopy so that I can use colored pens to assist the memorization process. These scores are filled with information: analysis, fingerings, choreography, pedaling, interpretation, information from research, images, basically anything that might create a neural pathway and secure memorization.

Beethoven Sonata Op. 54, mvmt I with abundant markings

If I’m using the score for a performance, I like playing from a bound original rather than a photocopy for aesthetic reasons. In this case, I mark with pencil, mostly notes to myself that I can use while reading the score. I have learned over the years that I won’t remember all of the details, so it is safer to notate anything technical or interpretive. Markings save time and stress, and I use them generously, but never in a way that obstructs the score.

Mendelssohn C Minor Piano Trio with judicious markings

I wonder if my past self was able to practice enough to internalize decisions effectively without the visual reminder of score markings? I simply don’t have the time or patience to practice in that way anymore, and will always choose a more practical and time-saving method over mass repetition.

Another question is what happens when I revisit repertoire. Do I use a clean score to avoid falling into the same patterns, or do I use a marked score so that I don’t have to solve all of the same problems again? I am a very different player from the time when I learned the Franck Violin Sonata for the first time. Would I benefit from having all of the markings there in the score from my 20-something self, or would I just confirm that I make better decisions now as a more mature player?

The act of marking the score is important for internalizing the decision. I feel strongly about this in my daily life as well, and use this method for my practice journal. Writing it down is always more meaningful than typing or highlighting digital text. I think for this reason alone, I will probably never convert to using a tablet, as convenient as it may be. Perhaps beginning the learning or re-learning process with a completely clean score is best, and in the best case scenario, reference scores from past preparation periods can be mined for any ideas that might be missed.

One thing is for sure: I will be marking the Franck much more this time around. Whether or not my future self appreciates the leg up on learning it again remains to be seen.

My favorite tips for taking practice breaks

When I was 18, it seemed like I could practice piano for hours without needing a break. Who knows how effective that kind of practice actually was (probably less than I thought at the time). As a more mature, and hopefully smarter practicer now, I find that scheduling breaks into my practice helps refocus, reenergize, and most importantly gives my body and brain a needed respite from solving problems. Here are some suggestions for how to spend this valuable time so you can optimize the time spent devoted to music:

  1. Take a total break. Set an alarm, find a cozy and warm place to doze off, and close your eyes. I find this kind of break to be most effective in the late afternoon when I am already getting a bit tired. Just a tiny cat-nap can be exactly the right thing for regaining focus.
  2. Take a walking break. A brisk 5-10 minute walk outside is especially refreshing if I’ve been stuck inside my windowless office for too long. If it’s cold outside, I heat up water for tea before I bundle up.
  3. Take a stretching break. I take multiple short stretch breaks during most practice sessions. Depending on how my body is feeling, I will focus on full body, shoulders and neck, arms and wrists, or hips. A couple of minutes doing a sun salutation series, or even just resting in wide-leg child’s pose does wonders. This routine from Yoga With Adrienne is great for shoulder and neck tension:
  4. Take a breathing break. Close your eyes and breath slowly for 2-3 minutes if you are feeling anxious. For reenergizing, breath quickly in and out of your nose for 10 seconds, relax for 10 seconds, and repeat a few times.
  5. Take a mind-emptying break. Take a few minutes and write down all of the great ideas, questions, discoveries, tasks to do, or anything else that popped up during the practice session.
  6. Take a humor break. This is especially helpful if I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed during practice. Humor has been proven to heighten persistence! My go-to humor sources are The Onion, or videos of cats in compromising situations. If I can laugh out loud I feel even more refreshed.

Things I try to avoid doing during a practice break:

  1. Checking email and social media accounts. This will only serve to knock me out of the practice zone and make me feel anxious. Unless I am expecting a life or death message, I keep my phone on airplane mode throughout the practice and break.
  2. Continuing to practice by using the time to analyze, do mental practice, or read. My brain and eyes need a true break.
  3. Talking with colleagues, students, or family members. Sometimes this is difficult to avoid, but often these conversations derail the practice session by initiating some new urgent to-do.
  4. Using my computer, phone, or anything that will tax my neck, shoulders, and arms.
  5. Listening to music. My ears need a break as well.

What types of practice breaks work best for you? Do you schedule breaks, or do you wait until you receive signals from your body and brain that you need one? Do you have favorite stretches, meditations, or other routines?

I hope you find this helpful, and Happy Practicing!

New Year, New Practice Journal

I have kept a practice journal ever since I made the realization that practicing was a serious pursuit. I must have been 15 or 16 at the time, and just beginning to self-guide my musical development. I think that all successful musicians reach a point where they realize that they can’t rely on their teacher to solve all of their problems, and that nobody is going to make sure they achieve their goals except themselves. At this point, they become their own teacher and now have the responsibility of goal setting, problem solving, and assessing growth. A practice journal is a natural tool for this, and in my experience, improves creativity, productivity, focus, and most importantly ownership of the learning process.

I love the possibilities that arise with beginning a new journal at the new year. Not only does it feel fresh and new, but there is some time before the semester starts to implement good habits and try out some new ways of thinking. As 2020 came to an end, I spent some time reading through my practice journal, noting the highs and lows, keeping routines that work effectively, and discarding those that don’t.

Through the years, I have tried many different formats for my practice journal, and have made the following conclusions:

  • A handwritten format is best for creating meaningful journal entries. While electronic formats are convenient and come with built in practice trackers and metronomes, etc., they feel too transitory.
  • A less-fancy notebook is better than a fancy one. I like a notebook that looks nice, but that I wouldn’t feel terrible if I spilled coffee on it.
  • Less structure is better than more. A great practice should feel like it builds on established habits while giving free rein to exploration. If the journal is too prescriptive, creativity can be stifled.
  • Tracking, while satisfying in its way, is not the point of a practice journal. The journal should focus much more on discovery and reflection than on achievement.
  • The journal should induce a sense of calm curiosity. Different colored pens and chaotic entry styles distract from the content.
  • Practice time is precious. The journal should not take up so much time that actual practice is compromised. If the journal isn’t saving time by making you more productive, it is convoluted.

For this year’s journal, I have elected to use a sketchbook format. This is a happy accident, as I meant to pick out a lined notebook, but neglected to pay attention at the store and ended up with a sketchbook. I nearly returned it, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the malleability of a completely blank page.

While I have used aspects of bullet journaling for years in my personal journal, I have never incorporated these into my practice journal. The flexibility of this organizational system is ideal for what I have in mind for this year’s practice journal. Here is how I set it up:

  • Number the pages
  • Designate the first few pages for a Table of Contents
  • Create a “Future Log”- space for each month (I used a quarter page), space for next year divided into quarters, and space for as many years as I want to plan ahead. (I went up to 2026.) These pages are used to track calendar items and benchmarks.
  • 1 page for 2020 Review
  • 1 page for 2021 Goals- I keep these pretty broad, with a mix of specific performance goals, and more growth based goals. I expect to add more as the year progresses.
  • 1 page for 1st Quarter Goals (January 1-March 31)
  • 1 page for January Goals
  • 1 page for Week 1 Goals
  • At this point, I use a template for each practice session.
    • Date, time, and how long I intend to practice.
    • 3 questions or problems I will explore during this session.
    • 3 specific goals for repertoire, technique, or musicianship. This might be more or less depending on how long the session is. 3 is a good number for me given 2 hours to work.
    • A description of the process. This is usually a warm-up, followed by 15-20 minute segments of practice alternating between the questions/goals, interspersed with 3-5 minute active breaks. I usually designate a cool-down activity like improvisation, sight-reading, or revisiting a favorite piece. Ending with positivity is important!
    • Space for noting discoveries. I try to fill this up during the session.
    • Space for questions. I write these down as soon as they pop into my head. If this space isn’t full by the end of the session, I spend some time coming up with more questions. I can then use these questions to help form the next practice session.
    • Space for capturing negative thoughts. This might be self-talk, excuses, egotistic bs, etc.

At the end of the week, I take time to read and reflect on the week’s entries. I review the week, month, quarter, and year goals to make sure I’m on track, and to adjust as necessary. Next I set goals for the next week, and the process repeats itself. Once the month is at an end, I will reflect on January and create goals for February. At the end of March, I will reflect on the 1st Quarter and create goals for the 2nd Quarter.

Other tasks I use my journal for:

  • Taking notes on performances, lectures, masterclasses, books, or articles.
  • Creating templates or workflows for analysis, practice structure, or performance routines.
  • Lists: quotations, music I want to learn, books I want to read.
  • Creative distractions like poetry or sketches.

If you keep a practice journal, I would be curious to know how you use it. Have you found that your process has evolved as you have matured? How has journaling effected your practice habits?

How does vulnerability figure into effective practice?

Thanks to BrenĂ© Brown, it seems like the word “vulnerability” is everywhere. I am a recent convert to her podcast “Dare to Lead,” and find much there that applies to my life as a teacher in higher ed, but also so much that relates to life as a female professional. If you haven’t checked it out yet, do it now!

This emphasis on vulnerability leads me to question what this could mean in the practice room. Can the practice of vulnerability make us more courageous and less vulnerable to mishaps on stage? If cultivating vulnerability helps people to be better leaders, can it help a person lead themself more effectively in the practice room?

Why is Vulnerability Difficult to Cultivate for Musicians?

Musicians spend most of their time in the practice room trying to eliminate vulnerability. The goal is to make difficult things look easy so that an audience member can gain optimal communication from the stage, while experiencing awe in the face of flawless execution. Having experienced enough criticism, some well-meant, and much of it mean-spirited, musicians know better than to allow themselves to appear as anything other than perfect. We equip ourselves with layer upon layer of armor to achieve this end, but in the process we risk becoming inauthentic and mechanical. In really free, open-hearted moments, we may give our most honest selves to the audience, but in my experience, this is a rarity. How can we practice so that these moments occur more frequently, and how can we incorporate the practice of vulnerability into our routines?

This might be a dumb question, but…

This is a phrase I have real difficulty with, in fact I’m pretty sure I have never had the nerve to utter it. Taking the risk of asking a question that might expose ones ignorance is a raw display of vulnerability. Admitting that you don’t already know something, or that you are unsure of the next step is hard, especially if you are a seasoned professional. We live in a culture where “fake it until you make it” is an accepted adage. It’s not really effective in the practice room, as it results in a scaffolding of dishonesty of the worst kind- the kind where you lie to yourself. Yes, we have to exhibit some confidence in order to move forward, but we would be better off asking more questions rather than confirming our knowledge (especially when that knowledge may be incorrect). A veneer of confidence with little to back it up betrays us on stage when we confront the fact that we didn’t ask enough questions in the preparation stage.

In the lesson setting, I give my students many opportunities to ask questions. I encourage them to write down their questions before they come to the lesson, and I always end the session with one more chance to ask questions. With few exceptions, students rarely come to the lesson with prepared questions. When they do, there is a flip from a teacher-driven session, to a student-driven session. This is always more productive. Rather than guessing what the problems are, I can target them easily. The last-chance question session rarely gets any response. Usually the student will cop out, and say something like ” I just need to practice it more.” I think that if students honed their question asking skills more in the practice room, they would ask more meaningful questions in the lesson, and would be more willing to display vulnerability in front of their teachers.

Things I’m going to try:

  • Begin the practice session by writing down 3 things I don’t know, or 3 problems I haven’t solved.
  • Keep track of self-armoring thoughts during the practice session, especially excuses and confirmation bias.
  • Write down at least 3 discoveries I make during the practice.
  • End the practice session by writing down 3 questions I have for tomorrow.
  • At least once per week, ask a colleague a “dumb” question.

If you feel moved to try some of these ideas, I would love to know how they affected your practice. Happy Practicing!