Arkansas Traveler

Lesson for the week The only (and easiest) way to get better at something is to practice deliberately what you find difficult. Set the timer so that you don't over-practice, but above all make yourself work through the difficult bits over and over again until you can play them. Then, lo and behold, everything else becomes even easier than it was before--and you can play the difficult bits, too!

Too paradoxical to be true? Well, it's working, even if I was skeptical at first. Last week we had our first fiddle class since before Christmas. I had been practicing hard (or so I thought) all through the break, doing my scales and playing over and over again the songs that we learned in Fiddle 1. On Saturday, therefore, I was ready to show off how much better my playing was; maybe (I flattered myself) I would even be the best in the class since I knew that one of the women who had been in the class the first session and who had played violin for five years when she was younger was moving onto Fiddle 2, without taking the intermediate class. You know where this is going, don't you? Well, I wasn't the best, not by a long shot. In fact, I was so nervous (I realized afterwards) that I could barely play. Cats screeching had nothing on my bowing, and my fingering was a mess. Why? Clearly, I was trying too hard (you need to bow firmly but gently to get rid of the cats), but I was also, you guessed it, impatient, once again more focussed on results than process, so convinced was I that the point was not to practice, but play.

What is the difference? Playing means running through the songs from beginning to end, expecting every note simply to come and stressing out over the hard bits because they won't flow as easily as the easy ones. Practicing means not worrying about playing the song all the way through, but settling down with the hard bits and working through them slowly, with full attention, over and over and over again. I read an article somewhere this week (I think it was in Visual Thesaurus) that made this distinction. There is a world of difference between playing what you find easy over and over again and deliberately practicing what you don't. You can play the same song until the cows come home and you will never get any better, but spend ten or fifteen minutes a day (my practice this week after ten minutes of scales and warm-up on the easy songs) working on the hard bits deliberately with attention, and by the end of the week, you will have improved more than you ever thought possible the first time you tried to play the particular song.

Skeptical? Well, as I said, I was. But a week later, not only am I starting to get the hang of playing two notes on one bow stroke (is that the right term? I am still not clear about how to talk fiddling), but I have the first part of the song memorized and I can almost play those last two measures to tempo. Which seemed, frankly, impossible when our teacher played it for us the first time last week.

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