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Monday, April 04, 2016

Practise that piano/violin/ukelele/recorder/drum/noseflute already! [originally written 13th Feb]

One of my resolutions for this year (and the year before, before, and before...) is to practice a musical instrument. I have had varying success with this on my violin and it's a great week if I managed 1 practice session before my Thursday lesson.

On top of this, I also had this bright/lame/whatwasithinking idea to restart my piano and get my diploma. After almost 20 years away from a keyboard. 

Fortunately a friend living nearby generously allowed me access to her house and piano, so that I didn't have to buy a piano of my own. If I ever get my diploma in the end, I think I should inscribe her name on the back. 

So now I have instrument and book. How to practice? Where to start? Ah ha, here's my...

Idiot's Guide to Practicing an Instrument: 

Round 1: Dexterity 
In this round, I intend to improve finger dexterity for better playing. On recommendation, I bought a book by Hanon. Hanon's book is full of finger exercises designed to train flexibility of finger and improve dexterity. I start off with 2 pages of this to loosen up fingers. This is boring playing but really helps when playing nice music later. 

Round 2: Exam pieces
Many shudder at the sight of the ABRSM books which brings bad memories. However, for anyone who wants to test their proficiency, they are a good guide. I found a best-of collection of grade 5-6 pieces, so I will play one piece from this book next. This is so that I know the standard of playing to reach. 

Round 3: Play for Pleasure
Music after all is meant to be enjoyed so I will finish off the practice with some music I like. I have been playing songs from the Les Miserables collection. I first played this book more than 20 years ago and it's amazing to see that while not perfect, my fingers still remember a lot of what they are supposed to do. Next project for pleasure: A Piano Guys collection.

This may seem like it takes a lot of time, but remember my other keyword for language learning: Keep it Easy. So I would do just 1-2 pages of dexterity practice, and play an exam piece 1 or 2 times, which is easy to do. This is the advantage that adult learners have over students. I no longer have to quickly pass my exam in a year in order to save my parents the extra lesson fees (!!) so I will aim for a standard of playing first. Then when I am able to play at least 5 exam pieces easily, I might consider going for an exam.

So my goals:
Be able to play 3 Grade 5 pieces
Be able to play 3 Grade 6 pieces
Be able to play 3 Grade 7 pieces ( Yes, I know this is getting predictable )
Be able to play 3 Grade 8 pieces and score a pass on the diploma

Will I be able to do it in a year, 2 years or will I even be able to reach my final goal before 40? Nobody knows this, not even me. But it's not just about the destination, it's also about the journey you take. So let's just see how the journey goes along and what I pick up along the way. It might just be more interesting than the destination I had in mind. ;)  

Updates: (4th April)

It's been about 2 months now since I first wrote this post so how am I doing? Is my method working for me? 

It has certainly helped in piano playing. I've almost reached my first goal of being able to play 3 Grade 5 pieces on the piano and I have one more piece to reach Grade 5. 

Having a structure in the form of the 3 rounds certainly worked. It became a routine for me and now whenever I practise, I do so knowing that there are good stuffs waiting for me at the end. The weird thing is that the pieces I play for pleasure are actually harder than the Grade 5 exam pieces I'm playing! Yet I'm willing to do so for the love of the music. 

I had some extra help along the way. I managed to show my friend what I had been doing so far and got some valuable pointers from her to improve my practices. Those I have to remember the next time I practise at her place.

Another thing that helps for instrument playing is reflective practice. I first learned this word as a policy at work, which sucked, but later I read an article that made me realize how it could improve parts of my personal life. 

When applying it to practising an instrument, I apply it in a few ways. Before I start playing, I might go over the piece to see which were the parts I had the most problems with and practise those parts first. As I play, I record the music occasionally to keep a track of my playing. I also actively think as I play, am I playing this smoothly enough? Is there enough expression? Did the volume enhance the music?

It's hard but well, thinking is free, so it certainly saves on a lot of fees.

But I could only do this on the piano, because I had already attained a certain level of proficiency. With the violin, it's an utter disaster! My sense of pitch is not good enough to tell whether I was playing off or on key so while I could finish a piece, I had this sense of stumbling through! To make it worse, my arms became tired if I practised too long and as they strained, I would unknowingly go off key and I would only find this out when I went for my next lesson!

I knew that my main problem with the violin was my sense of pitch so I needed a different strategy. I could not just play more and more and more. I had to aim for a level of accuracy instead. Instead of the practices I did with the piano, I downloaded an app that allowed me to record the music by tapping keyboard notes and then changing it to violin-like sounds. Then as I listened to it, I had a more accurate idea of what the music was supposed to sound like. 

It also helped to combat the tired arms, since now I was focusing on quality of note rather than quantity played. 

A goal for the violin then? Haha, lemme complete one more book of technique playing and then I'll decide... Maybe not all things require goals... :p 

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