[EN] Guest post: Practicing off-scores

For some of you, the idea of practicing without actually touching your instrument may seem weird. Every teacher in the world (well, at least 98% of them) will tell you – the more you practice, the better. And I can’t disagree with that. But here’s what I have problem with: when you practice only by playing, you teach your muscles simultaneously with your brain. It’s a fairly good method, but not the best. When you truly understand a piece, it’s excessively easier to teach it to your muscles. That’s why if you’ve heard the piece thousands of times it’s a lot easier to sightread it. And that’s why I’m in love in the idea of practicing before actually playing.

This is something I’ve discovered in a fairly young age, but I’ve never realized it until I had a major contusion that stopped me from playing for half a year. I didn’t know if I’ll ever be able to play again, so I’ve decided to make one last effort and take my bachelor exam. The program was unprepared, I couldn’t play it by memory and I knew this is one of the most important things in my life. Two months till an exam and I still couldn’t practice more than 15 minutes. Once a day.

At first I started to listen – and I mean, really listen – at any free time that I had. I run listening to Prokofiev, I woke up listening to Gershwin and I ate, took showers, read, walk – listening to the pieces I had to prepare. Sometimes it felt like my head was going to explode. I was sick of every note in Prokofiev’s excellent First Violin Concerto. Then I started practicing a little bit more. And I really mean a little – it was still up to an half an hour a day. Normally I wouldn’t even call it practicing.
After couple of weeks I started panicking. When I wasn’t able to listen to my concerto I tried to play it in my mind, wondering if I remember what comes after what. Three days later I was able to imagine myself playing first page of the concerto, two weeks later – a whole first movement. I still wasn’t able to play more than half an hour a day, but I was surprised by the fact that I could play Prokofiev’s first movement by memory, even though I practiced it only in my imagination. Later I’ve discovered that it’s scientifically proven: during visualization there are real (subtle, but real) movements similar to the movements muscles would actually make while performing the activity.

A lot of my peers asked me how I’ve prepared for my exam not being able to practice and telling this story a thousands of times made me shorten it to some advice that anyone can apply to their daily practice routine.

I highly recommend practicing without an instrument to anyone and everyone. It’s  got many advantages: you can do it everywhere, you don’t need anything except your mind; once you’ve learned something this way it’s understood better and therefore will stay in your brain fairly longer. And lastly: you can give your sore muscles a break and strengthen the most important muscle in your body – your brain. I found out that something  that’s learnt playing you’ll remember for couple of days and something that’s learnt in your mind you’ll remember for years.

It may not be easy at the beginning, but as always, you’ll do better with time. You can start doing this just before you go to sleep: lying in your bed, relaxed, eyes closed. Try imagining your instrument as you would see it while playing. First time you do that it can be few bars of your piece. Second time - one line. Two lines. Eventually you’ll be able to “play” a whole piece in your mind. Imagine it with the most detailed way possible – the way you hold your bow (I’m referring to violin for obvious reasons but you can map this for every instrument you want), the way you place your fingers, every little crescendo and various articulations. Practice this both looking at scores and by memory, practice while listening to someone playing and in complete silence. You can sing your pieces out loud or just in your head. You can just imagine placing your fingers on the fingerboard or actually move them. You can imagine playing difficult places starting from a slower pace to the faster and basically do everything that you’re used to do during your daily practice. This advice applies to everything in the world: everyone is different, so try what works best for you and keep doing that!

I go around practicing something in my head all the time. Usually I don’t stop until I figure out how do I play some difficult moment, then I repeat the final version to make sure I got it right and only then I take my instrument and actually play it. After an intensive session of “mind-practice”, you may find that even the most difficult moments can be memorized and you don’t have to play through it over and over again.

Of course, I’m not trying to say that you should stop practicing. Practice makes perfect and we all want to be perfect to some extent. But adding even half an hour of “mind-practice” to your daily routine can work miracles!

Guest post written by:

Kinga Sobecka - 16 years of violin playing, in pursuit of master's degree in musical arts. Passionate chamber player. Taught by the greatest: Baranowski, Nizioł, Tomaszewski, Pikajzen. 


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