The Science of Practicing Effectively

Annie Bosler and Don Greene’s TED-Ed talk “How to Practice Effectively” provides a great summary of how to get the most from your practice sessions.

Here are the tips given for more effective practice:

  1. Focus on the task on hand. Minimize distractions (turn off screens and phones!).
  2. Start slowly or in slow motion. Coordination is built with repetitions. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions you have a better chance of doing them correctly.
  3. Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers. Many divide their time for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions.
  4. Practice in your brain in vivid detail. Visualize everything. Once a physical motion has been established it can be reinforced just by imagining it.

 

Artist Profile and Interview: Celil Refik Kaya

celil_refik_kaya_june_2013_photo_orhancemcetin_5534Young Turkish guitarist, Celil Refik Kaya, is taking the guitar world by storm. He has won numerous victories in some of the most important international guitar and concerto competitions with displays of stunning musicianship and brilliant technique.

In addition to playing some of the most demanding repertoire with what seems like a magical touch, Celil is a prolific and gifted composer as well, and equally at ease playing with top notch orchestras as he is playing solo.

In the interview below he shares some insight and tips with Six String Journal readers about his musical journey so far…

 

When did you start playing and why? What drew you to the guitar initially?

I started playing guitar when I was six years old because my father used to play classical guitar and many other instruments. He has been professionally playing Rebab which is a traditional Turkish bow instrument. My father was my first teacher and when I heard him play, the sound of the guitar was magical to me and not comparable to any other instrument. The year that I started playing guitar I wanted to be like Andres Segovia and John Williams who were my childhood idols. Besides playing classical guitar, I play many other traditional Turkish instruments such as Rebab and Oud which I learned from my father.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing 20th and 21st century South American composers as well as 20th century Spanish composers. Besides those, I enjoy playing my own compositions.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I have guitars made by Garreth Lee and Glenn Canin. Both are phenomenal guitar makers. I play both of my guitars depending on the setting of the concert. In fact I recorded my first album Jorge Morel Guitar Music from Naxos, with Gary’s double top guitar which has incredibly beautiful warm sound. I recorded my second album with Glenn’s guitar and it features the music of Carlo Domeniconi which will be released by Naxos. For both of my guitars I use D’Addario EJ46.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

As a performer I was influenced by Andres Segovia, John Williams, Alicia de la Rocha, Maria Callas, Itzhak Perlman.  As a composer I admire Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Ponce and Tedesco.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

To me every recording has its own unique quality.

Which recordings do you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?

Recordings that I have done with producer and guitarist Norbert Kraft were the finest I would say. When we listen to all of the Naxos guitar recordings that Norbert recorded, they all sound phenomenal.

What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

I will be recording the last two volumes of Agustin Barrios Mangoré which I am very much looking forward to. Starting from September 2017, I will be a fellow of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. I was recently invited for this prestigious fellowship program and I am looking forward to my performances in D.C. as part of my fellowship program.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

How much I practice really depends on my schedule and what is coming up. I practice as much as I need to which can really change according to the importance of the concert or difficulty of the new piece that I include in the program. When I competed in competitions, I practiced about 8 hours a day which I divided as 2 hours arpeggios and scales and 6 hours repertoire. For concerts I practice 2 to 3 hours a day.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

Not in terms of technique. In terms of musicality every dedicated musician grows musically until the end of their lives.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

I memorize the pieces naturally very quickly. Therefore I don’t have a specific method that I use for myself. For my students I recommend them to read the music from the end to the beginning or sometimes making them play specific passages of the piece only. Because most of the time, guitar players play with the muscle memory rather than really knowing what notes or fingering they play and this can cause many problems such as memory slip and lack of control.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

My transcription of Valses Poéticos by Enrique Granados was published by FDP publications in Austin and my original works such as Sonatina, Longing, Suite of the Witches and Dream were published by d’Oz publications in Canada. I am working on the next projects for publishing including some of my solo guitar pieces and chamber works.

Do you have a favorite drill/routine you use to warm up?

I generally warm up with playing passages slowly from the pieces that I am going to play in my concerts.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals? 

I usually eat a banana and chocolate before performing. It significantly helps the energy and concentration.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

Practicing consciously and slowly. Whatever they are practicing, awareness of every single note and its quality should be the goal. Sometimes when a young player practices, they continue playing even if the passage is not perfect. It is very beneficial to have a self critical mind in that sense.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I am always a fan of traditional classical guitar repertoire rather than only new works. There are many composers that young players don’t play anymore and I consider them the core of the guitar repertoire. Turina, Tedesco, Ponce, Torroba and many others are fantastic composers who wrote the skeleton of the guitar repertoire. Their works are not only challenging both musically and technically but they are also audience favorites. If a person hears classical guitar for the first time, it is very likely that they will like 20th century Spanish composers. What these composers achieved with the emotional expressivity of their works is not replicable.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

Every young guitarist should be familiar with the recordings of Andrés Segovia, John Williams, and Julian Bream. Today, the level of guitar playing is so much higher than before, but the foundation of the guitar technique and soul is hidden in those recordings. To understand rhythmic stability and inner pulse they should listen Williams. Although the aesthetic of musical interpretation has changed significantly, Segovia’s playing conveys great musical expressivity. Listening to these artists provides a great foundation. Besides listening to other great guitar players, learning harmony, counterpoint, music analysis, listening to orchestral recordings, chamber works, and great instrumentalists (non- guitarists) will transport young players to another level. After a certain point it is important to listen to more non-guitar recordings.

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? 

The last book I have read was “A Composer’s World” by Paul Hindemith.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 

I don’t follow a particular diet but I am trying to eat everything in balance. Since I am Turkish, the majority of the time I eat Turkish food and my wife loves it, too. Before concerts, I don’t have a particular pre-concert food as long as it is not too heavy.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I like to spend my time in coffee shops with my wife reading books and sometimes composing. Besides that, I also practice Wing Chun which is a branch of Kung Fu.

Want Speedy Scales?

Want to feel more accurate when playing through your pieces? Want speedy scales? Want fluid arpeggios? Want to be a guitar superhero? Work on basic movements. Hard work on the very basic movements of technique allows an inner exploration of our limits and abilities while giving us a bit of a roadmap for quantifiable and steady improvement.

Below are some very basic right hand drills that find their way back into my warm-up and finger routines often. It’s not that I need to practice them much anymore but rather they allow me to continually refine the most important movements necessary for pleasurable music making. They also allow me to set both short and long term tempo and endurance goals.

Try going through each of these three drills with the suggested fingerings. If you are more of a beginner, spend time on the bold faced fingerings, if you are more advanced, go through all fingerings in search for what does not work well, then focus your energy there. Don’t neglect the basics, though!

Follow these guidelines:

  1. Use a metronome and start slowly (quarter = 50-60).
  2. Go through each drill at least 3 times (I do 5 if I have time) with each fingering. Increase tempo slightly for each one.
  3. Do not sacrifice clarity and movement efficiency.
  4. Focus on the quality of the movements and the sound.

Fingerings

Rest-stroke fingerings: immi, amma, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam

Free-stroke fingerings: immi, ammapipm, ai, ia, ami, ima, imam, pa, pami, pmi

For patterns involving three fingers play three repeats to hit all permutations.

Exercise 1

Technique Cheat Sheet 1.jpg

Exercise 2

Technique Cheat Sheet 2.jpg

Fingerings

Play the following drills using free-stroke and by relegating each right hand finger group across the three strings (for example, with ima, place i on string 3, m on string 2, and a on string 1).

Play each of the seven movements for at least 4+ repetitions or set a timer for 30-45 seconds.

All free-stroke: ima, pim, pma, pia

Exercise 3

Technique Cheat Sheet 3.jpg

Try dedicating 60 days in a row (or with as much consistency as possible) to these movements and you will see results. Also, if you want a simple goal. Try to get each movement up to quarter = 126 over the course of the 60 days. Or, shoot higher! Why not?

Cross-Rhythms and Tremolo

One of the practice techniques I write about in Mastering Tremolo is practicing your preferred four-note tremolo pattern (or a variety of them) with the following two cross-rhythmic manipulations as another great method for developing evenness because the finger performing the main beat is always rotating.

When practicing the following four exercises try the following practice approaches:

  1. Use the metronome and start very slowly. Set the metronome to one click per note but try to retain the feel of the overall beat as you play.
  2. When playing slowly focus on the quality of the space between the notes. Is it even or erratic? Are you consciously planting to prepare and thus silencing the note? If so, make sure that the plant is timed evenly for each space.
  3. Try spending an intense 2 minutes on one exercise and then deliberately resting your mind (take some deep breaths, look out a window for a change in scenery, stand up, etc…) for 30 seconds before moving on to the next exercise. Focus for 2 minutes, rest for 30 seconds. Move on in this fashion until you’ve completed all 4 exercises. Then push the metronome beat up a few clicks, and go for another set. Complete 3 more sets for a total of 4, each with a slightly higher click rate on the metronome.

Exercise 1

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 2.jpg

Exercise 2

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 3.jpg

Exercise 3

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 1.jpg

Exercise 4

Rhythm 2 Tremolo 4.jpg

 

 

Slow Practice

I often try to convince students to practice ultra slowly by using various metaphors. How much more would you notice if you were to admire a great piece of art for an hour instead of a minute? How would your thoughts change if you read a complex paragraph quickly versus reading it slowly and contemplating the meaning of each word and sentence as it related to the whole? If metaphors don’t convince them they can go read this fabulous article for pianists written by pianist Graham Fitch about the slow practice that I think is spot on!

Enjoying Ultra Slow Practice

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

 

Technical Workout for Classical Guitar – Level 1 – Base Building, Part 1 (video)

Here is the first of Six String Journal’s series of technique videos to accompany my recent workbook, A Technical Workout for Classical Guitar, Level 1 – Base Building. This video corresponds to Left Hand Movements, Part 1.

This workbook is designed to help late beginners and intermediate guitarists develop a daily routine of movements to strengthen their technical base so that fingers can do their job properly when assimilating new repertoire (that was wordy!). Always go slowly with the most control possible. Think of it as writing a program for your brain with no bugs.

 

 

Artist Profile and Interview: Piotr Pakhomkin

Six String Journal Artist Profile and Interview

From practice and listening advice to pre-concert rituals, competition-winning guitar powerhouse Piotr Pakhomkin provides a wealth of valuable insight to both beginning and advanced guitarists. Hope you enjoy reading this one!

Hailed by Classical Guitar Magazine as “one of the bright lights of the younger generation of classical musicians, a player of tremendous skill and sensitivity,” Russian-American guitarist, Piotr Pakhomkin has extensively performed and given masterclasses in Europe, Central America, and the U.S.   Based in Washington, D.C., he was the only guitarist to be featured at Strathmore, Kennedy Center, and Phillips Collection series in the span of a single concert season in 2014.

After finishing his studies with Manuel Barrueco at Peabody, Piotr became the First Prize winner of the 2012 Mexican International Guitar Competition in Culiacan and has taken top prizes at the 2012 Boston GuitarFest International Guitar Competition, Great Lakes Guitar Competition, Montreal International Guitar Competition, and the European International Guitar Competition, “Enrico Mercatali,” in Italy. After finishing the prestigious Strathmore Artist-in-Residence program in 2014, he returned to serve as a faculty member and mentor in their Institute for Artistic Development.

As the winner of the 2016 Respighi International Soloist Competition, he will make his concerto and solo debut at Carnegie Hall in the Chamber Orchestra of New York’s “Masterwork Series” in June 2018. Piotr plays exclusively on a 2010 Ross Gutmeier Guitar using Oasis GPX strings.

Here are three links to Piotr’s website (lots of great videos, his recording, and an insightful left-hand workout routine).

Piotr’s Website

Piotr’s recording Virtuoso Guitar Collection 

Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics: 5 Day Workout for the Left Hand

Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

My high school music teacher, Matt Hartman played Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake (performed by Christopher Parkening) in a music appreciation class. The ability to play multiple voices on the guitar had me floored – a full ensemble was hiding inside this little instrument. I was about 16 at the time and I knew I had a ton of work ahead of me. My enjoyment of the challenge and the process was a deciding factor in pursuing the guitar full-time.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

I have the most fun venturing into new territory with arranging. After hearing Jordi Savall’s playing in the French movie, “All the Mornings of the World”, I fell in love with viola da gamba repertoire. I started with Marin Marais and then graduated to Carl Friedrich Abel. When working with single-line string music, I love the creative freedom involved in filling out the implied counterpoint. 

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a custom 2010 Cedar double-top by American luthier, Ross Gutmeier with Oasis GPX strings.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you? 

Teachers have had more influence on me than any single recording. I wouldn’t be a guitarist if it wasn’t for my first teacher, Paul Moeller. My current students will find it hard to believe but my first few lessons as a teenage novice were very difficult. Everything was a struggle– sight-reading, right hand patterns, accuracy, memory and rhythm. Despite my lack of training, Moeller was so encouraging. He built up my confidence in my own ability, and taught me the techniques for performing consistently under pressure (slow practice, visualization, left and right-hand separation training). His coaching brought me to a professional technical level in less than two years. 

When I started studying with Manuel Barrueco, his ear and meticulous labor over the meaning of every note was a huge source inspiration for me. I was so focused on playing with my hands but he was always teaching us to play with our ears. 

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?  

Manuel Barrueco’s 300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces for the Vox Label. I have those recordings in every format: CD, MP3 and vinyl. The warm sound, attention to detail in voice separation, and precision on those recordings shaped all of my values for learning, recording, and performing music. 

What are some up and coming projects you are excited about?

In March 2018 I’ll perform with the New York Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Playing in that venue is one of those goals that I set when I began, so it’s an honor to finally see it happen.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

I try to put in 5 hours on average. The quantity really depends on my workload and what stages my pieces are in.

Slow practice takes longer and the hands can withstand more of it. On the other hand, playing at faster tempos is more strenuous and too much repetition without pause can cause injury. 

My focus is higher earlier in the day so the earlier portion of the practice session revolves around isolated passages, very slow tempos (roughly one quarter of the concert tempo) and exercises derived from the most difficult aspects of the pieces. I’ll go through the music phrase-by-phrase between 1 and 3 times without errors. I never repeat anything more than that in a single sitting. I think that it’s potentially harmful because it leads to indefinitely long practice sessions, fatigue, more errors, and it wastes time. 

Later in the day, I’m working more on the entire performance of each piece at concert tempo. In other words, “work” in the morning and “play” at night. If the pieces aren’t ready to be played at tempo, I’ll spend more time working slowly. 

In terms of structure, I keep a list of the goals I have for the practice session with each piece. To maintain interest, I’ll change the order of the passages I’m practicing. If I went through it more chronologically one day, then the next time I’ll start at the end. Without some routine, we can get disorganized but too much routine can numb our focus.

Are there aspects of the guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on? 

One challenge is to consolidate your practice regimen to fit the needs of traveling, where you have so much less time. It’s a luxury to practice a lot so when that time isn’t available to you it’s a real test of efficiency, careful planning and time management. I usually plan my daily practice sessions on the airplane, preparing for a worse-case scenario. 

Another obstacle for many guitarists is breaking away from the bubble of your own instrument and exploring the much larger world of classical music. Intense focus is a wonderful thing but in this case it can harm you if it keeps you from being well-rounded. It’s important to attend symphonic and choral concerts, for instance. At the very least, you can hear new pieces of music and get new programming ideas from these experiences. I also get a lot of benefit from hearing young players in the Chopin or Van Cliburn competitions instead of just following guitar contests. Hearing an instrument different from the one you play at home with different repertoire allows you to be less judgmental and gives you more freedom in your listening experience.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?  

Visualizing every single note of a concert program is essential for a performance free of memory slips. To maintain focus under pressure I sometimes play through my program with loud music playing in the background. If I can push through, even when I can’t hear myself, I know that my focus is strong. 

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

Admittedly, I haven’t had much time to do work in this direction. I’d like to expand our romantic repertoire to include transcriptions of works by Scriabin, Rubinstein, Glinka and Mussorgsky. I hope to publish these in the near future.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

I swap out my exercises on a weekly basis as they get easier. I like this linear chromatic scale exercise because it helps with precise shifting, which is needed in just about every piece. The aim is to make every fingering variation have the same legato quality, rather than broken groupings of four, three, two, and one. [Check out Piotr’s Guitar Gymnastics Publication for more like this. -L]

Piotr's Chromatic Linear Scale.jpg

Left hand fingerings to use:

0 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 etc.

0 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 4 2 3 4 2 3 etc.

0 1 2 1 2 etc.

0 2 3 2 3 etc.

0 3 4 3 4 etc.

0 1 1 1 1 etc.

0 2 2 2 2 etc.

0 3 3 3 3 etc.

0 4 4 4 4 etc.

Record them and work on making them all sound like the same fingering, ridding yourself of accents after every shift. This is a great time to work on getting rid of fret noise as well.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Before the concert, I try to meditate for at least 5 minutes to clear my head. I notice a big difference when I don’t get to do this so this is a priority. I use the Neurolinguistic Programming techniques for meditation. 

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

This is a simple piece of advice but it’s easier said than done. I would encourage young players to spend the most time working on their weakest qualities in the early stages of development. With a good teacher’s supervision, get out of your comfort zone and make a game out of the struggle. This is the only way to grow. 

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I think Bach’s Lute Suites (Frank Koonce edition) are a priority. Developing a singing quality with Bach’s long phrases is extremely demanding. Achieving clarity and balance in the counterpoint is an enormous technical feat. Another reason for working through this repertoire is that you can use a wide variety of non-guitar recordings to aid your interpretation. You can learn the the BWV 998 (Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro) along with Sviatoslav Richter or Gustav Leonhardt. You can approach it from opposing standpoints–the romantics as well as the period instrumentalists. 

For general technique, it’s important to go through the Villa-Lobos Etudes. They instantly reveal weaknesses and give you a concrete goal to master them when you finally perform each Etude in concert. Etude no. 1 is impossible to play smoothly with a weak m-a-m arpeggio combination. Etude no. 2 will fall apart with excessive left hand tension. 

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

I recommend:

300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces (Manuel Barrueco) for the clarity, consistency, and hierarchy in voice separation. 

Vivaldi Four Seasons (Venice Baroque Orchestra) for the energy and new life they pump into this very famous music. Some of the themes have been relegated to the “wedding-music” genre but with this recording, you completely forget that. 

Handel, Bach, Scarlatti (David Russell) for the creative and lyrical cross-string ornamentation. 

Chopin Nocturnes (Arthur Rubinstein) for the ability to play note-for-note with the light feeling of improvisation on every flourish.

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? 

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 

Absolutely. I think that performing music is so physical that you have to care for your body like an athlete. I get my protein from fish, vegetables and legumes. I stay away from starches and refined sugars. Healthy fats like avocados and coconut oil are fantastic for fingernail health – both topically and as part of your diet. 

Before a concert, I always eat a few bananas. They’re always safe to eat when you’re traveling because of the protective peel. Also bananas are calorie dense and rich in potassium, which I’ve always read is a natural beta-blocker. 

Musicians generally fear weigh-training but there are safe ways to approach it. I do do the eccentric portion of every lift very slowly, allowing lighter weights to feel much heavier. This puts less stress on my hands. I also jump rope to keep my heart healthy. With the jump-rope the exercise session will be much shorter and more intense than distance running. This is perfect for a musician’s busy schedule. 

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I love hiking and the outdoors. In the cold months, you’ll find me catching up on new independent films and documentaries.