Practice Ethics: Part 2


by Betse Ellis


*Article Updated: 6/30/05


Now that we've looked at these elements of practice ethics, consider how you can put them to use in your own musical growth. One thing I require my students to do, especially in the first couple of months of lessons, is to create a "practice checklist". This checklist should identify elements the student is currently working to improve. The checklist will change as the student effectively gains control of their challenges. It is a tool to develop the ethics we've described, especially the first two. Examples of checklist items might include:

Relax *
Bow straight
Left hand/wrist
Intonation
Rhythm

* I used to have a teacher who would tell me, "Force yourself to relax!" But I don't believe in forcing anything on the fiddle. Instead, I tell myself and my students to "let yourself relax". This one aspect of playing alone can make a huge difference in your playing. Listen to your body and let yourself relax!

If you have a teacher, you can ask them to help identify items for your checklist. But you can easily create one, as long as you are honest with yourself. I recommend you keep the items brief. And write them very large on a single sheet of paper that you can keep on a music stand. Every few minutes during your practice session, glance at the list and choose one item to focus on for the next segment. At some point in your practicing, make a choice to utilize the "who cares" attitude and play through a tune without stopping, and while working on building your focus/awareness.

If you utilize these ideas, you will see and hear a difference in your playing. So will others. And if they don't? Who cares! As long as you enjoy the challenges and rewards of fiddling, that's all you need.

For my full explanation of the concepts of practice ethics, please see the previous issue. But as a quick review, here are the three main elements:

I.  Consistency
II.  Focus and Awareness
III.  Positive Attitude

Now it's time to consider how you can put practice ethics to use in your own musical growth. One thing I help my students to create, early on in our lessons, is a "practice checklist". This checklist should identify elements the student is currently working to improve. The checklist will change as the student effectively gains control of their challenges.

I will share several common checklist items, with a bit of explanation. Most items relate to building your consistency and focus/awareness. All of them will come easier with your positive attitude.


Relax

I used to have a teacher who would tell me, "Force yourself to relax!" That was always hard to swallow. Nowadays, I don't believe in forcing anything on the fiddle. Instead, I tell myself and my students to "let yourself relax". This one aspect of playing alone can make a huge difference in your playing. Listen to your body and let yourself relax! Try playing as lightly as you possibly can while still getting some sound. You simply can't be tight and do that. Use this technique on scales, arpeggios, tunes, etc. Do it regularly for a while then you'll be able to relax naturally.


Bow straight

In order to produce an even tone on the fiddle, you need to draw your bow straight. But this is hard to see from your perspective. If you practice in front of a mirror, from the side, you can accurately observe whether your bow is being drawn parallel to the bridge and end of the fingerboard. Give yourself time to get used to that perspective. Look back and forth between the mirror and directly at your fiddle. You may notice you need to think about drawing your hand away from your body as you do a down stroke. Soon you will get used to what is straight from your playing perspective.


Left hand/wrist

It is true there are many great fiddlers who play with a "collapsed" left (or right, if they are left handed) wrist, one that is touching the neck of the fiddle. And there are successful fiddlers who play with flattened fingers and a thumb that "crowds the neck" by letting the neck of the fiddle rest between the thumb and first finger. However, for most beginning fiddlers, encouraging a neutral wrist (one that is mostly straight and not twisted under the neck) will allow for a much higher level of control (and consistency of approach!). Same with the fingers - you may do best with fingers that arch over the strings, and if your thumb rides "lower" on the neck, not sticking up too high from the top of the fingerboard, and you will have more freedom of movement. Especially helpful in preparing for double stops!


Intonation

This, of course, is whether or not you are in tune. Strive for consistency! A digital tuner that recognizes specific notes can be helpful, but don't drive yourself crazy. There is a relativity of fingered note tuning for stringed instruments - I say this with some caution, because it touches on a much higher level of music study. If you have a teacher who went to music school, they may be willing to discuss this more in depth. But as long as your open strings are in tune, you can use them as reference points.


Rhythm

My best advice is to work with a metronome. If you have never worked with one before, start out with scales or simple exercises before you launch into tunes. Work with a metronome at different settings: quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenths, etc. What this means is you will experience subdividing the beat; for example, if you are playing quarter notes, and have the metronome set to beat twice as often, you are subdividing with eighth notes. This will tell you a lot about how accurate your timing is! And when you use it this way on tunes, it can really show you where you might have a tendency to rush.

If you have a teacher, you can ask them to help identify items for your checklist. But you can easily create one, as long as you are honest with yourself (sometimes easier said than done, I know!). I recommend you keep the items brief - one or two words. And write them in very large print on a single sheet of paper that you can keep on a music stand or on the wall. Every few minutes during your practice session, glance at the list and choose one item to focus on for the next segment. After a couple months or so, revisit the items on your checklist new, more challenging ideas.

And, at some point in your practicing, make a choice to utilize the "who cares" attitude and play through a tune without stopping, and while working on building your focus/awareness. ("Who cares" is covered in Part I of this article, in the previous issue.) This leads to my next topic…


Two Kinds of Practice: Grow and Flow

Grow Practice = Building skills through repetition, concentrating on one area at a time. Includes technique work such as scales, arpeggios, double stops, shifting, etc. Also can be applied to isolating parts of tunes; for example, working on a section of a tune at a slow, controlled tempo and gradually building the tempo to desired speed. After isolating a section, make sure you step back a phrase and play from there through the isolated segment. Build on this to gradually play the whole section.

Flow Practice = Utilizing the "who cares" attitude by practicing playing through any piece without stopping (with consistent timing). Use this on technique work and, of course, tunes.

I believe it is important to build your ability by using both of these practice techniques. It stands to reason that the more you accomplish with grow practice, the more able you will be to apply the flow practice. Yet it's a great experience to put yourself in the position of having to play without stopping, even when you are alone at home. This will better prepare you for jam sessions and performances.

When you are practicing your flow, make a mental note when things don't go quite right in a specific spot in your tune. The next time you get to that spot, plan ahead for a different approach to overcome the obstacle. (If you repeatedly miss a spot, it's a sure sign you need to spend more grow practice on that area. Just do it, and then get back in the flow!)

Here's another idea for building your flow. At a certain point in a student's development, I start bringing in the idea of randomizing technique practice. What this means is to take any element of your technique - scale, arpeggio, double stop sequence - and play it out of its original order. Play it as slowly as you need to in order to keep track and make sure you only play notes in the key signature. As you become more comfortable with this technique, work in elements of all three technique exercises to create a fuller sound with more options. An advanced use of this practice could include blues notes, chromatic sequences, and chord progressions.

The more creatively you approach your practice sessions, the more fully prepared you will be to play music with others. And your practice ethics can expand to suit your needs and playing ability. After putting your own ethics to use in your practice sessions, you will find the concepts become internalized. Then you will truly be ready to go with the flow! Happy fiddling!

If you have any questions about these ideas, please feel free to contact me at be@wilderscountry.com.



Bio:

Betse Ellis has 30 years of playing experience. She started on classical violin at age 6 and after 15 years of study and graduating from the Conservatory of Music at University of Missouri - Kansas City, she began performing in rock bands, improvisational duets, at bar blues jams, and eventually fell in love with old time fiddling. She is a founding member of old time country band The Wilders, which is a full-time touring band as of 2005.





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