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School's Out
The Strad
August, 2000

Does August find you grinding through studies or guiltily abandoning your instrument? Sarah Mnatzaganian looks at novel approaches to staying motivated during the summer.

For many professional string players August provides a much-needed break. But for others, such as students or amateurs, the prospect may be less inviting: how can you stay motivated without the stimulus of lessons or the regular meeting of chamber or orchestral groups? Some may also feel torn between the desire to take a break and the need to develop their solo career or refresh themselves musically. So how can you make the most of the summer weeks?

Having an attractive and realistic long-term goal for the summer is the secret of success for many. If your aim is to learn new repertoire it is important to choose music that you will really enjoy practising. It can be tempting to choose pieces which are simply too demanding; be honest with yourself and give yourself a challenge you know you can meet. Matthew Lee, a violist who teaches over 200 pupils in King's Lynn, Norfolk, fills his summer mornings with solo practice.

"The summer is the one time each year when I have time to be a "real musician", he says. "I always set myself a specific goal for the holiday, which is usually to learn four or five pieces I feel a strong affinity with and know are within my grasp."

Douglas Cummings, cello professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, believes it can be equally rewarding to work on old repertoire. "You could go away and learn a new piece but I would suggest going back to something you've played in the past and found too difficult to master. You may find yourself able to play it perfectly well, which would be extremely satisfying."

Whether you decide to study old or new repertoire, an excellent incentive for practice is to arrange a performance or recording of your chosen works towards the end of the summer. Hannah Roberts, who teaches cello at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, encourages her students to give a recital at their local church or school: "Not only does it give them a real goal to work towards, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with some of the organizational and interpersonal skills needed to arrange concerts," she says.

As well as learning repertoire, you may want to improve your technique. Before each summer vacation Victoria Chiang, violist and teacher at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, asks her students what they most dislike about their playing and what they would like to have fixed by the end of the summer, then gives them appropriate studies and pieces to work on. Cummings advises his pupils to learn one scale up to speed. "It is tremendously satisfying to learn a scale thoroughly, but don't let it become a grind." He warns. "Only play when you want to play, and only for as long as it feels enjoyable."

Having decided on some long-term goals, what is the best way to structure your practice and, more importantly, to keep interested over such a long period? A useful method is to keep a practice journal. Lee sets himself specific targets for each week. Sevcik studies one movement of a piece and records his progress in a notebook, as if he were teaching himself.

Jennifer Drake, a violist in the Boise Philharmonic Society, Idaho, cheerfully admits that she finds it hard to concentrate while practicing: "I have virtually no attention span at all, so I have to alternate between different activities," she says. "If I am learning repertoire, I will concentrate on fingering, bowing and tricky passages for the first week or so, but then I'll spend a whole week listening to different recordings of the piece, trying to figure what the music is really about. Then I'll work for several weeks on interpretation and refining fingering and bowing, so that by the time I perform the piece I can really enjoy myself."

Chiang tries to make her practice sessions as varied as possible. "If I have three pieces to learn I will treat each one completely differently. I might memorize one, thoroughly research another and completely polish the third until it's ready to perform by the end of the vacation. It's much easier to practise if you are not doing the same thing every day."

Even with a well-planned and varied practice schedule, you may sometimes feel isolated or bogged down. One way to avoid this is to invite some fellow musicians round, play to each other and get some feedback. Record on video yourself practising to get a more objective view of your playing. Make sure you take one day off each week as a complete break from playing and a chance to reflect on your progress. And try to arrange to play with an accompanist as often as you can.

If you are feeling jaded, you could try an idea which Drake used while preparing orchestral extracts for an audition. "I have a big book of adjectives which I open, select an adjective at random and then try playing a short passage in that way ñ "militantly," "energetically," "foolishly," whatever comes up. It is a great cure for boredom and a good way to discover some new expressive ideas."

Another way to refresh yourself is to change your practice environment. John Dipper, a student of audio music technology at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, UK, plays his violin in as many different locations as he can. "Different acoustics seem to bring out different aspects in my playing and in the way I respond to the music."

Look objectively at the room in which you are normally practise. Could you make it a more comfortable or attractive place? Are you feeling cramped by the furniture? If you apply few feng shui principles to your practice space, you could find yourself enjoying your practice much more. Or for a complete change you could take advantage of good summer weather and try playing outside. Drake plays for an hour a day in her shady backyard; if she's lucky, the sound of her viola attracts the humming birds!

Solving the problem of how to get some serious practice done over the summer may help some but others have more modest aims. Amateurs may simply want to relax and enjoy themselves with friends. Andrew Watts, a PR consultant and amateur violinist, is a great believer in treading water musically over the summer: "I take out a book of jigs and reels from time to time and play through my favorites. Simple dance tunes are really good for intonation and bowing, but they're tasty, enjoyable musical snacks, unlike the dry studies I feel I should play but find unappetizing."

A good way to keep both your instrument and your musical friendships warm during a summer break is to play some chamber music. Even if your own quartet is not meeting, you may be able to contact other players in your area and put together a group. Lee plays regularly with music teacher friends during the summer: "We once spent a whole day under a shady tree in a Norfolk field, picnicking and playing Mozart sting quartets," he remembers.

Amateurs can also make progress on their own over the summer. Beth Splendove teaches the violin in Colchester, UK, and has a large number of enthusiastic adult pupils. She encourages them to develop their musical independence during the break form lessons. "Listen to recordings, discover a new piece to play which you really love and have a go at fingering it by yourself. Use your imagination and, if you want to, make exercises out of the piece as well as enjoying it musically. The more you like the piece, the harder you will work at it."

When he's at a loose end Dipper works on his aural skills. "I keep my violin next to me as I watch television and try to echo the advertising jingles or the incidental music for soap operas; it's a good way to develop the ear." Another approach is to try something completely new. Rachel Stott, viola player, teacher and composer, performs in a number of Baroque and Classical ensembles: "I don't force myself to practise through the long, hot summer days as I believe holiday should be a time for more broadening experiences. Instead, I will spend time playing the instruments I don't have enough time to practise during the rest of the year: one summer I concentrated on learning to play the viola d'amore."

If you have not been practising hard all summer you might consider taking your instrument with you on holidays. Amateur violinist Richard Williamson admits that he rarely practices unless he has a difficult orchestral part to play. One year, however, he was learning a particularly enjoyable piece and decided to take his violin on holiday with him to the mountains. It was the perfect practice setting. "Every evening I used to go outside, stand on the hillside and play a violin for an hour. It was an unforgettable experience."

Your holiday may, of course, involve escorting children around Disneyland Paris or going on safari, but it's still possible to develop musically, even without playing your instrument. Chiang actively encourages her students to build their strength and fitness over the summer: "Playing is taxing on the body so it's good to get some extra exercise. When you feel good about yourself, your mind is more clear and you concentrate better."

One of the most thorny questions about summer practice is how long a break you should take from playing if you are a professional, student or amateur. Most teachers would advise having at least a week away from your instrument. This break from playing can provide the chance to tackle other projects. You might decide to read a biography of favorite composer, research the pieces you have been playing recently or listen critically to recordings of music you have played before or would like to play in the future. Bryan Austin, an amateur cellist, uses the summer to come to grips with complicated musical passages ñ without his cello. "I sit down with the score, working through everything I found too difficult to sight-read, breaking it down note by note and beat by beat."

Violinist and teacher Jane Foottit recommends having a complete rest from practice for the whole of August. "It's tremendously hard to take a break from playing if you are a professional, but if you make a positive decision not to practise for a month, you can use the time very productively in other areas," she says. "You can reflect on how you communicate as a musician or listen to live music of all styles and periods and think about what sound you want to make. When you come back to playing after your break, your view of everything, including your technique, should be much clearer.

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