Practice Makes Permanent

December 27, 2009

Many years ago, when I was actively in karate-do, we had a saying that went like this:

Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice make perfect.
It doesn't take a big stretch to see that the same holds true in the study of music. Most nights when I practice I can see some improvement over where I was, say, three weeks ago. But on any given night one or more pieces sounds much worse than they did just the day before.

I've now been playing the Twinkle, Twinkle variations for close to two months now, and there are still occasional squeaks and squawks in the notes. The trick, it seems, is not to become too comfortable with the playing of a piece just because "I know it now." Sure, I understand the tune and I know which fingers go where when (usually), but that's only the barest beginning. Am I using the right amount of bow pressure? Am I up-bowing when I'm supposed to be up-bowing, and vice-versa? Am I fully stopping the string, producing a clear, resonate tone, or only half stopping it, giving off a weak tone? Am I stopping the string in the "sweet" spot for the note, i.e., F# and not a little bit sharp or a bit flat?

Playing even the simplest pieces in my repertoire consistently is my greatest challenge. It helps that the pieces are relatively short, and can be further broken down into sections. Many follow an A-B-A pattern allowing me to practice the A bit and then the B bit and then put the whole thing together. Of course it isn't as much fun to play the same four measures over and over ignoring the rest of the piece.

Lately I've been trying to set a goal for each practice session. Focusing on a goal, or maybe two complimentary goals, makes it possible to achieve something within a practice. There is simply too much to learn, to many nuances to fingering and bowing, to try and play everything correctly every practice.

The past couple of sessions I've been focused on my left-hand thumb. In 1st position (which is the only one I know so far) the left-hand thumb provides opposing pressure to the left-hand fingers stopping the strings. My teacher would like me to use the tip of my thumb against the neck of the cello rather than the pad of the final joint. It is easy to let the thumb slip until the pad is doing all the work. Only I've discovered it required more effort to properly stop a string when the pad of the left-hand thumb is used against the next. And, generating enough pressure in this position actually makes my thumb sore.

Using the tip of the thumb helps to keep a good curved hand and finger shape, and allows for better application of pressure to the finger doing the stopping. All of that results in a clearer note. The complimentary goal I've had the past few sessions has been to use enough bow pressure. My teacher pointed out to me that using more bow length allows for more pressure with less chance of getting a crunchy sound. Using more bow length forces the bow to move faster in order to play the notes the correct duration, which has the effect of spreading the pressure out over a greater amount of bow hair, eight inches instead of three.

The trick to perfect practice is to be mindful of everything you are doing, pausing frequently to assess and evaluate. Mindful practice brings everything along together, whereas mindless practice simply cements everything into place. And once a technique is incorrectly cemented into place it will take far more work to relearn it correctly.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.