Practicing the Violin

Recovering from a Long Practice Absence

A recent hiking accident left me reeling in pain on the ground. My broken ankle took a deep toll on my violin practice. For many weeks I was basically horizontal; for several months following standing (and even sitting) was uncomfortable at best and often very painful. Any protracted violin practice sessions were impossible. The psychological toll is not to be underestimated. Incapacitation and pain combine to sap your energy, your motivation and any sustainable interest in picking up your instrument.

My recovery has been slow and steady and has afforded me the opportunity to rethink and remake my playing. At this point I can sustain about 30 minutes of practice. That’s basically a warmup plus a few carefully chosen minutes. In a perverse way, it’s a blessing in disguise as my natural tendency is to work and rework endlessly. It’s a common problem; the overly developed work ethic.

The Benefits of a Short Practice Session.

I’ve discovered that less can be more. In a way, the limitations of time can somehow be freeing. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned:

  • Limit yourself to “micro passages.” Discover what you can improve within just a few notes or beats before tackling an entire phrase or passage.
  • Ration your attention. You’ll find that its far easier to stay razor focussed when you can limit your attention to seconds and minutes instead of unabated hours.
  • Allow yourself noticeably more time around and between phrases, tricky string changes and anything that leaves you unsatisfied. We tend to push too hard across what can be natural and comfortable spaces in our playing.
  • Constantly reflect on the object of your attention. Does it feel poised? How can I perform this with greater ease? What happens when I don’t try so hard.
  • Be satisfied with solving or improving one or two problems. The rest can wait for next time.
  • Clarify your artistic intentions. Use bold contrasts to clarify your choices to yourself and your listener.
  • Recognize your biases of interpretation. Are your assumptions based on someone else’s performance? Are you playing on autopilot?

All of these tips come back to the attitude of working patiently, mindfully and with curiosity. It’s about letting go of preconceptions and releasing the grip of your ego. Rethinking your practice is never easy, but in a sense it’s the easiest thing you can do.

The bottom line: you’ve got just a few minutes to “be in the room” with your practice. So why not really be there to enjoy it? I’ll gladly take the beauty of those fully present moments, just for now. That’s all I’ve got. That’s all any musician has.