Quality versus Quantity of Practice

A common question I am faced with is, “Is it more important to get through a whole list of pieces each day, or to focus on a few pieces and really accomplish something?”

You might gather from my choice of words where my bias lies. I think it’s always a balance between covering enough ground to build the child’s repertoire, endurance, attention span, etc, and trying to get through too much, leading to lack of retention.

There’s no one correct answer, because each child will experience lulls and spurts in their ability to practice effectively, and the approach will evolve with each child’s development. However, in general, I believe that quality is more important than quantity during practice. I think it is more valuable to focus on doing one thing very well rather than many things at a mediocre or unsatisfactory level.

Some guidelines to keep in mind about practicing:

  • Practice makes permanent. Really reflecting on the meaning of this phrase will cause all of us to take pause at times. If “we are what we do repeatedly”, then wouldn’t we be much more thoughtful about what we allow ourselves to do?
  • When you start practicing, you are an observer of what is there that day. What was good (and to be repeated in the future)? What could be better (and to be done differently the next time)? HOW can you change what needs to be better? If you’re not able to observe and answer these questions, it is not likely to be an effective practice session, and you’re likely to be repeating things that will unconsciously become habit.
  • When in doubt, return to fundamentals….Start with concentration. Check the violin position and posture. Listen to the tone quality and intonation (do you know the determinants of each of these?). Look at the use of the bow and left hand technique and check it against the markings in the music. Step back and think of how you want the piece to sound. (Again, ask: What was good? What could be better? How could it be better?)
  • Practicing is not performing. The goal is not to see if you can play through every piece up to tempo all the way through. It is to have a mental, physical, and emotional plan for the piece that prepares you for eventual performance. Before you practice any piece, you should consciously know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what the goal is for practicing today. What are the difficult sections for you? What are your tendencies in this particular piece that need to be monitored or addressed (memory, intonation, bow technique, left hand technique)?
  • Don’t expect to play or perform above the level of your practicing every day. If something is not consistently reproducible at home, you are leaving it up to pure chance on performance (or lesson) day.
  • All of this means that you are training to become your own teacher through practicing. You are testing yourself every day, and seeing if you can be the critical eyes and ears you seek in a teacher, and strive for higher goals each day.

If you’ve really gone through the above steps consciously, you can realistically practice only a few pieces a day (it’s hard work!), and rotate them so that you cover all the current repertoire over the course of the week. As you revisit the review pieces in the detailed fashion above, it will give you fresh perspective, help alleviate the boredom of practicing, and make each minute more effective.

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