The best way to practice

Possibly the second most frequently asked question I hear from young string players is “what is the best way to practice this passage/piece/technical problem.”

(The most often asked question is “Can I have a concerto with one of your orchestras, and the most often given answer is “no.”)

Over the years one learns a variety of strategies and tactics for dealing specific problems, and undoubtedly there are passages that need to be practiced in a certain way every time you prepare the piece in which they appear.

However, even though certain practice techniques are mandatory for certain problems, there is a universal answer which I think applies to any passage, any problem or any piece…

The best way to practice is always the way you haven’t practiced yet.

This sounds simple and self-evident, but I think it is the hardest strategy for most of us to put into practice. However, when you do find the practice method you’ve never used, the effect can be really transformative. Finding the way you haven’t practiced yet is always useful, but becomes more and more empowering the longer you work on a piece because it is often the thing that takes all the work you’ve done to date and brings it together.

Why is it so hard to practice the way you haven’t practiced yet? Perhaps one is reluctant to leave one’s comfort zone. It feels good to sound good. The best way to practice is probably to leave your comfort zone behind.

Conversely, a perfectionistic streak might make it hard to move on from a practice methodology without having flawlessly mastered it. Of course, sticking with only one way of practicing never leads to flawless mastery, so perfectionism becomes a trap you can’t escape from. Some perfectionists can only allow themselves to practice in the most taxing, self-eviscerating way. The best way to practice might be to give yourself a break, and go back to your comfort zone.

Everyone who has ever taught knows the frustration of waiting weeks, months or years for your student to take to heart specific suggestions about how to practice (how many students have wasted whole years of their studies promising their teachers that next week, they’re really, honestly going to record themselves, or practice in rhythms with a metronome?).  The best way to practice might be to finally listen to your teacher, or to remember a teacher’s advice from back in your school days.

Yet the best way to practice is even more likely to be the way your teacher never taught you. Teachers are only human; no one teacher is going to have the time or creativity to give you every possible way of tackling a piece. Try to think beyond your training- come up with your own strategies, or, better yet, try strategies used by your teacher’s rival or arch-nemesis. Then you get the dual reward of undermining authority while improving your playing (best not to tell your teacher, though).

Know your tendencies, because they’re probably limiting you, either technically or psychologically. Perhaps you think of yourself as someone who excels at fast playing but struggles with double-stops. Spend a few days practicing like someone who struggles with fast playing and excels at double stops. Do you think of yourself as having a big sound? Practice like someone with a small sound. If you think of yourself as struggling with intonation, practice like someone for whom it comes easily. Let yourself wear the persona of another player- spend a day playing like a friend or a famous soloist who plays totally differently than you. If you are a structured practicer who works with lists and schedules, try to fee things up and make your practice more spontaneous. If you’re chaotic or intuitive by nature, give yourself a firm structure and an exact schedule to stick to.

Whatever approach you take, take it seriously, push yourself hard (unless you always do so, then try giving yourself a break), allow it enough time to bring some benefit, then move on- don’t wait for perfection.

And remember- sometimes instead of asking yourself why you’re still missing that shift, ask yourself how you haven’t practiced it.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “The best way to practice”

  1. Peter

    Practice is certainly an inner game. This sounds a lot like the meditation techniques of Arnold Mindell who is always suggesting adopting the persona of your opposite and seeing what it feels like, because chances are it is a part of you that wants to get out, but you don’t normally allow it. It also seems to be that the most creative parts of us exist in the fringes, outside the old comfort zone, which is why routines and habits are so destructive of creative energy. Mindell is strong on that too. Correcting exaggerated tendencies is often the fruit of taking a look at ourselves from a new perspective. If you rush, play slow – to put it most simply. Imagining what it would be like to play like Casals or Rostropovich would never beat the real thing, but to know that confidence, that connection with the instrument and to feel all that experience coursing through your fingers, could surely only make you a better player.

  2. Georgeanne

    I love this! It is applicable to musicians of all genres and instruments. As a vocalist, finding new ways to practice technically difficult passages is always a bug-a-boo.

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