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Summer Practice

We all know that practicing is important when learning music. Some days that is easier than others. Motivation can be scarce during different times of year. Summer can be particularly trying when it comes to finding reasons to practice. In my experience teaching private lessons since 1996, I have come to firmly believe that summer practice, while elusive at times, is pivotal in making progress.

When students are self-motivated life is easy for parents and teachers alike. I have personally been a parent since 2010, and during the summer it’s almost impossible to get my children to participate in anything other than screentime. But if armed with enough motivators (new video game? Ice cream for dinner? Going to the splash pad? Etc) the sky is the limit.

Of course, those of us who are adults might not respond to incentives like children will. If we are responsible and mature, the benefit of improved skills is enough to motivate us. I’m saying “us”, because I have a confession to make. I HATE practicing.

I’ve been playing viola since 1987. And, if you must know, I was 9 that summer. I started playing in my school’s program, which allowed students to start orchestra instruments the summer before 4th grade. At first, I was completely in love with learning as much as possible. That faded greatly once school started. I had moved light years ahead of my peers (mainly because I’m the daughter of music teachers), and orchestra was super boring. I did not have to practice in order to keep up with what was going on in orchestra, so I completely lost interest.

Eventually, that caught up to me, and near the end of 6th grade my teacher discovered I couldn’t really read music. I was super embarrassed by this. Fortunately, my parents literally knew all of the music teachers in my town in northern North Dakota (literally the middle of nowhere) and I started private lessons.

My mother started literally sitting with me while I practiced. She had played a little viola in school, but since she was a vocal major in college, I never knew she had played before I chose my instrument. I still hated practicing, but I could no longer avoid it since my parents were now paying for private lessons. I will also say here that I never wanted to quit playing the viola – I just hated practicing. Sound familiar, parents?

I managed to make good progress despite my minimal practice. I attribute this mainly to my “talent.” Music talent is not inborn. I wasn’t born able to play music. However, my learning style and the structure of my brain make it easier for me to learn certain aspects of music easier than some other people.

I decided when I was 14 to pursue music as my career. There was never any other option for me. Music was part of my literal identity. I went to university to study music. I was able to practice some as an undergrad. I even added violin because I was a bit bored playing viola (orchestra viola parts are BORING). I now know that was more a symptom of having undiagnosed ADHD, but it turned out great in the end. I was a double major in viola and violin. I think my teacher would agree with me that I definitely didn’t practice as much as I could have. But I did work hard enough to get into graduate school.

That’s how I ended up in Iowa. I graduated with my Master’s from the University of Iowa in 2004, and then completed my coursework and comps for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree there as well. One thing I finally had to learn to do in graduate school was to actually and systematically practice. My “talent” couldn’t take me any further. I had to fully learn how to practice.

Because I still didn’t enjoy the process of learning difficult music I became efficient at practicing. I learned to break things down into the very bare bones to find out what exactly I was struggling to understand. This made it possible to practice in fits and spurts without losing momentum.

So, what I propose is to help your student (or yourself) find ways to break down tricky passages to their bare bones. We do this work in lessons very often. My goal this summer is to help each of my students to start to look at their time practicing as solving puzzles rather than just playing for a certain amount of time.

Some puzzles will take a lifetime to perfect (intonation!!!!!), but others we can fix in just a few minutes.

Now, I want each of you to talk to your teachers about best practice suggestions. We can make the process of learning our instruments less daunting and more fun because if you have more skills you get to learn the fun pieces.

Blog by Christina Mixemong, viola/violin faculty and co-owner at Dynamic Music Studios in Coralville, IA. Photo is by CliftonMarie Photography.

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