I taught myself fiddle for 10 years before I started violin lessons. (Never mind the change from fiddle to violin – that’s another story – I play both styles now.) During that time, what I suffered from the most was not the fact that I didn’t have a teacher (although that would have helped a lot), my biggest problem was I didn’t know how to practice.
So, I am going to pass along to you what I have learned in the last couple years about how to practice. There’s a method to the madness, or at least there should be.
Make it a habit
For me, if I miss even a day or two my playing will suffer quite noticeably. Making sure to get in a minimum of ½ hour/ day, of practice every day is essential, and an hour per day or more is much better. Setting aside a certain time slot in your daily routine that you dedicate to practice can help a lot toward making it happen.
Listen to the song first
No, this is not cheating. It is very helpful to listen to a recording of a good musician playing the song you are learning 30 times before ever trying to play the song. This pounds the song in its correct form into your head and makes it much easier to play without mistakes when you go to actually play it.
Section your song
After listening to the song, don’t dive into the whole song. Start with a small section, maybe 15-20 measures long, and practice that over and over before going on to the next small section. Set a goal such as memorizing the first page that week. If it’s a two page song, you might memorize the second page while at the same time going back over the first page a couple times each day to keep improving on it.
The third and probably forth week, unless the song is coming really easy, should be spent fine tuning the song, improving tone, and working on overall dynamics – how loud or soft you play it, and varying tempo a little.
Slow it down
My violin teacher thinks this is particularly true of guys, but it is so easy to want to play a song faster than what you are ready for. If the song is on the stretching side for you – which it should be if the purpose of the song is to improve your playing – slow it down to about half speed and play it through.
Once you can play it without flubbing up, speed it up a little. Play it at that speed until you again can play without messing up, and then speed it a little more… and a little more… and a little more, until you can play it relatively perfect at full tempo. A metronome is great for this as it will keep you consistent and makes it easy to keep moving up the tempo bit by bit. One of the things to watch for though is…
Don’t repeat your mistakes
Playing a piece 100 times and playing the same mistakes at the same places over and over is not only not helping, it teaches your fingers to play the wrong thing. When playing through a song you come to a rough spot, slow it down so slow that you can play it without mistakes, and then play it over and over as you slowly speed it up until you can play it at full tempo without mistakes.
If it is really bad it may help to only do a few measures or even a few notes at a time slowly and then speed up gradually. The point of the whole thing is to make the same mistake no more times than possible.
I have focused on practice in this post as it applies to learning an instrument, but really, it applies to anything in life that you want to learn. Regular repetition, concentrating on problem areas, and pounding the correct thing into your brain and muscle memory – they can be used in anything from learning to how to sing, to learning multiplication.
So, do I always practice like I should? No, not always. It takes a lot of will and determination to practice five measures of a song 30 times at half speed. And it is often easy to find other things that you need/ want to do more than daily practice – like writing a post for your blog… Gotta run!