Every Second Counts: Practicing is as Simple as 1-2-3

When I was a beginning violin student, my teacher said to practice 30 minutes a day. So, I practiced 30 minutes a day. By the time I hit junior high, he said I should be practicing 90 minutes to two hours a day. And I did, without question.  I came back  able to play what was assigned (for the most part), so I guess all my string teachers assumed that I must be working diligently at home and doing something right. I don’t believe it ever occurred to them that I didn’t really understand what they were asking me to work on. And it never, in all that time and for decades afterward, occurred to me that I could do it differently. All I cared about was getting to the next piece; I paid little attention to tone or musicality. As long as it was in tune, bowed correctly and memorized, it was good enough for me. Until grad school. My teachers in college had different ideas about what constituted acceptable performance. And so,  I reassessed a few things, including my practice routine. Considering that teaching excellent practice technique and habits is the primary job of a violin teacher, it has taken me a ridiculously long time to learn to practice. In the end I have concluded that practicing is as simple as 1-2-3: one point, two minutes, three times.

If you want to solve an algebraic equation, you use a formula that breaks down the problem into tiny pieces that are, by themselves, easy to solve. After you solve the little parts, you can plug all the parts back into the formula, do the appropriate operations to come up with an answer. If you’ve followed the order of the formula and shown your work, your answer will either be correct or you’ll have enough information to figure out where the mistake is.  A good practice “formula” is very similar to a math formula. It can be broken down into very small parts, each of which contains enough information to determine if you’re on the right track, or you need to try something different to get the result you’re looking for.

“One point practice” means that you can reduce a tricky spot to its smallest possible components. Then choose one of those things, decide what you want to do with it and work only on that one thing. Be very specific and detailed about what you are working on. Even the most difficult music can be learned this way, so can you imagine what this kind of practice can do for beginner music? I’ll expand on this in a future post.

Take that one point and work on it with complete focus two minutes. Then stop for a few seconds and rest. If you can’t quite do two minutes, try one minute, or ninety seconds. Run a stopwatch to find the baseline for your natural attention span, and go from there. It might only be ten seconds, and that is perfectly OK. You work with what you have, and train it. Two minutes can be a goal to reach, or a starting point for developing superior concentration skills.

The ideal way to accomplish your goal for that one point is to do it three times. This is how the brain is programmed, how we teach it to remember all the details and minutiae of excellent playing. The short periods of intense focus give your brain and muscles “data” to use. The rest periods allow your brain to process what you just worked on and permanently encode it in your muscle memory.

If the goal of practicing is to play something better than when you started, this is a good method for getting some serious work done in a short period of time. It can be rigged to work over an entire practice session, whether you practice fifteen minutes or two hours a day.  The 1-2-3 practice formula – one point, two minutes, three times – may bring the results you’ve been after.

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