Shinichi Suzuki

The Suzuki Experienece

From one Suzuki parent to another

Quarantine practice: making the most of it.

While most of the world is (or should be) under stay-at-home orders in the wake of a viral pandemic, there's no need for practice to suffer

Alan Duncan

6 minutes read

Where we live, everyone is under stay-at-home orders - a prudent measure to slow the spread of a highly contageous virus. Children haven't attended school for weeks. Concerts, recitals and festivals have all been canceled. The immediate future is uncertain.

But making the best of a difficult situation is something that not even a coronarvirus can stop.

We've thought a lot about how to make the most of our time in isolation. After a couple weeks of uncertainty and anxiety, we were ready to press on and make lots of progress!

1. Practice more

Look, we've all said: "There just wasn't enough time to practice..." Guess what? You have time to practice now.1

2. Divide practice into manageable portions

If you're going to use the time to practice more, stamina and scheduling constraints may still be a limiting factor. Personally, I can practice my own instrument for two or more hours; but supervising my daughter's practice is much much harder. After 90 minutes or less, I'm done and I need a break.

Some kids have school meetings by Zoom or Skype. In my experience, most are relatively short - thirty minutes or less; and working around those work schedules is not too difficult.

3. Focus on fundamentals

Depending on your child's level of advancement, learning new repertoire may be challenging. If she's at an early phase of training, where so much of the teacher's work is hands-on, it may be difficult to fully grasp the mechanics of learning a new piece.

But, we all have fundamentals that never seem to get quite enough attention while we're deeply immersed in repertoire. Now the coronavirus has robbed you of your last excuse for not addressing this fundamentals. How's your bow hold? How well are you controlling the contact point? How's the posture?

We've been working on maintaining a consistent hand frame up and down the fingerboard. Of course, nothing responds overnight; but using the lock-down time to cultivate the foundational layer of technique has been very productive for us.

4. Slow down and notice the details

Have you noticed that our perception of time has slowed dramatically during this isolation time? Most days, I don't quite know what day of the week it is; everything blends together. On the one hand, it's disorienting. But the slowing of time can help us, too!

With no immediate goals to prepare for, it's a wonderful time to take this slow time to look carefully at the music. Do you really observe everything the composer has written? People say "The devil is in the details." I understand the meaning there; but for us, how about "Artistry is in the details."

Take this unusual time to pause and look carefully at the little details - not only what's written on the page, but how you execute them, why it's this way, what is the larger intent?

5. Think about long term goals

Yes, the future is uncertain. We don't know what will happen with summer camps and festivals. Some have already been canceled.

That's OK; we simply have to set our sights on what lies beyond. We will perform for one another again. We will see our musical friends and collaborators. How do we want the next year to go? What do you want to learn? What can we learn from the last year's experiences?

6. Develop your technique

This is an ideal time to devote more attention to developing and maintaining technical skills. Straight bow, contact point control, hand frame, double stops, intonation. This is list is almost endless.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone emerged from isolation with more fully-developed technique than when this all began?

7. Create your own challenges

Start a 100-day practice challenge. Challenge yourself to memorize a piece that has been lagging. Learn a new scale.

8. Listen more

How could any list be complete with the advice to listen more?!

Seriously, listen more to your repertoire. But don't stop there. Explore way beyond the borders of the core repertoire. Start with the familiar composers and listen to more or their works. Listen to less familiar composers of the same period. Listen to composers and periods that are poorly-represented in the core repertoire.

9. Have more fun

A lot of anxiety surrounds us right now. Anxiety, like a virus, is infectious. But so is fun. Play more games, tell more jokes, be a little silly.

10. When in doubt, organize!

Do you have lots of music strewn about? I always find that organizing things - music, schedules, notes, ideas, goals - gives me a boost of positivity and energy. So much of this is beyond our control right now. Exercising a little control over our own little dominion can reduce some of this nagging helplessness.

How do we do it? We keep everything needed for practice in a binder because I don't like to sort through fifteen books to find what we need. It's all in order, starting with scales, then etudes, then solo repertoire, then chamber repertoire. This is roughly how we practice; so it's just turning pages in the binder, no searching. I try to scan everything before marking it up. Then I print a copy for the binder. That way, I always have a clean copy and a working copy. If you don't have a document scanner, the document scanning functionality built-in to the iOS Notes application works fairly well.

11. Use the time to progress faster

Not only can you conceivably practice more. But more importantly, you can practice better.

What distinguishes musicians-in-training who progress more effectively? Consistency is certainly one key. So is practicing effectively and efficiently. Just a few simple changes in your quarantine practice can make an enormous difference:

a) Practice slower

Can you sort-of play a passage at 70 to a quarter note? OK, well then practice it at 70 to an eighth note for a while. Slower practice ingrains a deliberate character to all of the mechanics of playing a passage. It gives your brain time to absorb the details. The pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff reportedly had awe-inspiring technique but practiced at glacial tempos.

The violin pedagogue Simon Fischer has written about a technique for developing velocity that might be worth a try. His approach, simply, is slow > fast > slow > fast, etc. It's a staircase that goes up two steps, down one step, up two steps, etc. It's worth a try.

b) Go straight to what you're avoiding

Learn the scary bits first. You're future self will thank your quarantined current self.

c) Divide and conquer

For example, with extended passagework, Galamian recommended focusing only on two-note segments. Then stitch those together into longer strings.

12. Take care of yourself

If you're like my wife and I, you're probably sleeping less. You're undoutedly moving around less. But you're of little use to your young artists if you don't take care of your fundamentals.

This is an arduous time. What follows will be difficult, too. But music is more important than ever in sustaining the emotional lives of the frightened and grieving. It may not be visibly impactful, but it is needed.

Practice well, stay healthy and stay at home!

  1. Understandly, lots of families are struggling to balance work, life, childcare and other demands right now. But all other things being equal, there's at least hopefully more flexibility around practice time. [return]
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The Suzuki Experienece is a weblog focused on helping parents practice more effectively and joyfully with their children. It traces the progress of our experience from beginner to budding young artist.