Book Review by Sally Christmas

I started reading Phillip Johnston’s book with the intention of providing a book review, but instead, found myself writing more of a summary of the many ideas that I found interesting and helpful. This book is jam-packed on how to practise, strategies, tips, tricks and traps! All the things you need to be aware of when performing music.

I liked the book for its simple ideas and many pictures to illustrate them. Also its focus on helping you to get better results in less time by working smarter…making every minute count. This is a very appealing idea as I often wish I had more time for practising. But this book says that you don’t have to figure out how to do twice as much practice. Instead, learn to practice twice as effectively.

How to practice efficiently?

Focus on the parts of the music you want to practice…no need to repeatedly play the whole piece through, for example:

  • Make a cutout to put over your music so that you can only see the parts you want to practice? (as suggested on page 39 – make blinkers)
  • Take the passages that have been giving you a hard time…and give those passages a hard time (page 45 called bootcamping the music)
  • Keep a diary of your progress. Record your practice goals…e.g: Play until no mistakes (page 2)…next practice do such and such (page 3).

Other examples of these diary entries could be:

  • Rondo measure 24-35 now 120bpm.
  • Etude: page 1, row 3, no mistakes.
  • Scales: added Ab flat major to my familiar list
  • Divide piece of music up into sections From A into B. From B into C.
  • From C into D and when practicing each section ensure that the bumps between sections are smooth. Focus on the tricky bits in between sections (Bridging – page 50)

What are your targets for the next week, next month, in 3 months, with the aim to be concert ready?!  Remember to:

  • Connect your practice to the bigger picture…
  • Set yourself the target of improving…
  • Trial alternate fingering until you find what is best
  • Write in the best fingering
  • Highlight on the sheet music
  • Rehearse new fingering slowly
  • Memorise the new parts
  • Practice with a metronome and gradually increase speed
  • Rewrite on a fresh photocopy.

Week one (example):

  • Session 1: encore piece
  • Session 2 : sonata
  • Session 3: scales for both pieces in above

Don’t confuse cementing with practicing! You don’t want to cement in the wrong notes and you don’t want to lock it in with incorrect bowing and fingering. So look closely through the passage and note the rhythm, the dynamics, the notes, the fingering. Then aim for the final cemented version. Be consistent and try to cement the passage. Go slowly and if you’re not confident of what the note is, then go over it until you are confident and it is cemented clearly.

Page 70 talks about “Chaining” the music, dividing it into links and then playing one chain at a time until you can play at full speed… Grab your metronome for this one…

  • Start at full speed for the piece… but instead of slowing down, the idea is to reduce the chain of notes until can play this fragment and gradually increase the number of notes played in the chain.
  • Don’t increase the chain of notes until you can play chain with dynamics of the music and not just tripping through it.
  • Focus on these chains…lengthen and join together.
  • Colour coding your music…use highlighters and have different colours for tempo, dynamics, sharps etc.
  • Circling every rest or sharp can get music cluttered and sometimes you’re not always sure what each circle was for?
  • Once learnt then update the music and only keep highlights that you still actually need…

Page 120 -Don’t watch the clock:

  • Work to targets, not times.
  • Set tasks to complete rather than a set time of practise. (Time is not a measure of progress)

Page 123 – Stop yourself and ask yourself:

  • Exactly what you’re trying to fix right now?
  • How are you going about it?

Page 124 – Exaggerating imprints important bits by overstating them…

  • Write reminders on music, down bows, pp very quiet here, breath here….
  • Make it weird and you will remember it more.

Read through the musical score, notice details, highlight details.

Practicing scales?

  • Choose scales relevant to your pieces.
  • If two of your current pieces are in E major, then just concentrate on practising that scale – you’ll see improvement in your piece straight away!

If you just played music but have no memory of what you actually did…it is not really practising, you are on autopilot. It is filling a half hour with sounds but not really improving any problems or improving that tricky bit. You are probably reinforcing mistakes and making new ones!

So the concert is tomorrow

You still have parts of passages that haven’t been fixed (sounds familiar to me!), some ideas are to:

  • Mask the problem.
  • Make small changes to the score to make it achievable, omit some notes.
  • Keep tempo and just keep up.
  • Omit a passage if need be and jump back into the passage where you can play it.
  • Note these are not designed to be your automatic solution to difficult sections, only use as an optional last resort.

“Remember that your job is to perform music is not to make the piece perfect. It is to give the best music performance you possibly can. Playing 98% of what is there, but playing it 100%, well almost, produces a more satisfying performance than the reverse” (page 98).

Have a dress rehearsal? Make it feel as real as you can…

  • Get an audience (even if it’s just one person).
  • Once start there’s no stops…no matter what happens, keep going as if it is a performance.
  • What were the problems?
  • Are there new issues?

Music Performance Tips

Train to cope gracefully with onstage mistakes; look as “normal” as possible and just keep playing…

  • Be convincing and wrap those wrong notes in compelling dynamics, sensitive phrasing and deliberate articulation.
  • Keep your poker face on and smile with confidence at the end of the performance.
  • Use a metronome. Start slower at a speed can play the music confidently and then increase.
  • Practice the “bookends” of the music…focus on the beginning and ends
  • Dynamics: practice conducting the music to get a feel for the dynamics in music.

Paint the scene in your mind “if this music were a movie scene what would be happening in the scene?” Use your imagination to bring the scene alive as you play the music, the movie in your head is going to change how you play the music…try it!

Find a practice buddy:

  • Pair up with someone to play music together and share goals.
  • Record yourself.
  • Create a practice area or space: equip it with highlighters, pencils, metronome, instrument etc.

So in conclusion, as you can see this book really has lots of ideas to try. This is only just a few. Hope something is helpful to you in your own music practice.

Thank you to Sally Christmas from the Innominato-Strings second violins for this book review. You can read more about these music performance and practicing hints and tips in Practiceopedia. The ultimate guide to practicing – a massive 376 colour illustrated pages published in 2007.