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500 Days of Practice

Last week, I completed my 5th round of “100 Days of Practice”. For those who don’t know, the “100 Days of Practice” hashtag was originated on Instagram by the violinist Hilary Hahn, who is one of my very favorite human beings in the entire world, and who helped create a really wonderful and supportive community around practice on that platform. The idea is that you commit to 100 days of intentional practice, and you document that practice and share a snippet of it each day with another person or community. This gives you a chance to be reflective about your practice, and also gives you accountability and community support. And the consistency over 100 days gives you a chance to actually see growth in your skills. It doesn’t have to be a musical instrument, by the way – you could practice drawing or painting, or a new language or craft, or gardening, or writing, or dancing, or any kind of spiritual practice. But since I am a violinist, my 100 Days of Practice have been centered around violin, just like Ms. Hahn. And also centered around the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for unaccompanied violin, because y’all, I love Bach. (And it’s great to have the unaccompanied pieces to work on during a pandemic that keeps you isolated from other musicians.)

My friend @mgarvz got to see @violincase (aka Hilary Hahn, my favorite violinist/person) perform yesterday and she brought me back a present! I had hoped to do 100 days (in a row) of practicing over the summer but we were out of town for 3 weeks without m

My very first round of 100 Days of Practice was actually started somewhat by accident, prior to the pandemic; I’d told my friend and fellow adorer of Hilary Hahn that I was thinking about doing a 100 Days challenge, and then this friend got to see Hilary Hahn perform and stayed afterwards to get an autograph, and decided to also ask Ms. Hahn for an autograph for her friend (that’s me!) who was “doing a 100 Days of Practice”. On the card that Hilary signed for me, she wrote “Happy 100!” and, well…I wasn’t going to have lied to Hilary Hahn, even inadvertently, so I started my first 100 Days the day my friend brought me that autograph. My project for that first round was to try to learn the Chaconne, the only part of Bach’s Partita 2 that I hadn’t learned as a high schooler. The Chaconne is an incredible piece of music, and it runs about 14 minutes straight without any breaks for the violinist, so it was quite a challenge, and I truly wasn’t sure I’d get there. But guess what? It turns out that practicing actually works! I know, such a shocking insight. But I really did get to a point where I could play through the entire Chaconne, from memory, at the end of those 100 days. Not especially well, mind you! But just as practice can enable me to learn to play at 14-minute long piece, it can also help me learn to play it better, and that will be an ongoing project for as long as I’m able to play.

My next round of 100 Days of Practice involved learning the entire Partita 3. Well, that’s not quite true: I had played the Preludio in high school, but not any of the other pieces. I fell particularly in love with the Loure, and ended up recording it to share as part of an online service at my church during the pandemic. I like to play the Gavotte en Rondeau when I’m feeling especially celebratory, and the Bouree and Gigue are quite fun, too. Menuets I and II were more challenging to learn, especially Menuet II, because of the trickiness of some of the double stops and chords, but it was so thrilling to get to where I could really play it. Hilariously, the piece I improved on the least was the one I already knew: turns out that my ability to play very fast perpetual-motion type pieces has gone quite a bit downhill since my high school years, and it’s been harder to bring that back than it has been to further develop my skills with double stops and chords and musical expression in general.

My third round of 100 Days of Practice, I decided to tackle Sonata 1. I’d learned the opening Adagio in high school, and had started trying to learn the Fuga around the time we moved into our new house, but hadn’t looked at the other two pieces at all. I definitely got better at the Adagio, and feel really confident playing it now. The Fuga is still a tough one for me, but I definitely understand it much better as a fugue than I did before those 100 days, in part thanks to finding Rachel Barton Pine’s series of videos about every single movement of each Sonata and Partita. I learned SO MUCH from those videos! I actually ended up purchasing her edition of the Sonatas and Partitas so that I could compare it with the Galamian edition I started learning from in high school; I’ve ended up doing a little bit of a mix of the two in terms of my choices about bowings and fingerings. The piece I fell most in love with in Sonata 1 was the Siciliana, which definitely forced me to get better at double stops. The final Presto…well, “presto” means fast, and it was yet another “perpetual motion” sort of piece, so it was definitely a struggle for my 39 year old fingers, but it’s fun when I can manage to get through it without falling off my violin. 

My fourth round of 100 Days of Practice was my most ambitious: I decided to try to learn the entirety of Partita 1, which I had played literally NONE of before. The thing to know about Partita 1 is that each piece in it has a “double” in which the same melodic and chordal progressions are followed, but in more of “perpetual motion” kind of way (all 16th notes, or 8th notes, depending). So instead of “just” learning four completely new-to-me pieces, I was actually learning eight. That turned out to be a little too ambitious, and I definitely didn’t end up feeling solid on all eight pieces. The two that I got best at were the Allemanda (which has an especially gnarly chord in the beginning that requires all four fingers, and results in a 2nd between E and F# at the very top) and the double for the Sarabande, though I did get to where I could at least play all of the notes in the other pieces, too. I actually kept working on the Allemanda in particular after this round of practice, and performed it last week at the memorial service for a friend’s mother to whom music, and violin in particular, was important. That was my first time performing in front of people by myself in a whole lot of years, and I definitely have all of these rounds of 100 days to thank for preparing me for that. 

As of my 4th round of 100 days, I had at least learned (whether or not I could confidently perform) all of Sonata 1, and Partitas 1, 2, and 3. But for my just-completed 5th round of 100 Days of Practice, I decided that instead of trying to tackle either of the remaining Sonatas, I would focus on technique. I also got a few friends from church to join me, as well as my own kid! The technique focus turned out to be wonderful for my kid. Over the summers, she doesn’t have lessons with her regular teacher, so I become her teacher; at her final lesson before summer, her teacher and I talk about some of the technique stuff she could work on with me. Turns out that trying to teach your kid technique really forces you to think about your own technique in a whole new way. As a kid, I learned violin really fast, much faster than my kid is learning it (I also started at 10, which is entirely different from starting at 3.75 in terms of maturity, etc.), and things tended to come to me really “naturally”. The downside to being a really fast learner to whom things come naturally is that you don’t necessarily spend a whole lot of time actually paying close attention to technique, which means that you don’t have a lot to say when your kid asks you “but HOW?”. I ended up making slow-motion videos of my vibrato to see what the heck I was actually doing to produce it, which helped my kid figure out how to produce her own vibrato that is much more of an arm-vibrato than I do, but gets a nice sound that’s all hers. I broke down a lot of the strategies I use for getting my fingers in the right place when I shift or have to use an unexpected finger to play a note, and for getting the sound I want from the bow, and while that was mostly in service of helping my kid, I learned a lot from it, too. I felt a little lost without a teacher in terms of trying to decide what to work on if it wasn’t learning a new bit of Bach, but I went back to some of my old scale and etude books (it was a delight to see my former teacher’s handwriting there from over two decades ago!), especially Kreutzer. I worked quite a lot on Kreutzer 2 (general handshape and shifting, plus all of the bowing variations), 3 (more shifting), and 4 (upbow staccato). I can definitely see the impact of that practice on my playing now, especially in the pieces we’re learning right now in chamber orchestra. My fingers feel a little more “organized” when I shift up high now.

So what do I see as the biggest lessons learned from 500 days of this kind of practice?

Practice works. I know, this is not a shocking insight, but it’s true. I thought the Chaconne was just plain beyond what I could learn, and perhaps it is in the sense of playing it well enough to perform, but I went from absolutely butchering the opening chords to being able to fairly competently play the entire piece, and I did that bit by bit, day by day, which adds up when you have 100 (or 500) of those days. It can be painful to watch and listen to the videos in which you sound like garbage, but it’s pretty delightful when it starts to sound less like garbage and more like music. And if you can get over the embarrassment, watching and listening to yourself play badly can actually help you quite a bit in terms of figuring out what’s not working. Which leads me to my next point…

Teachers are everywhere, including your own self. As a 39 year old violinist who started playing at age 10 and hasn’t had a teacher since age 19, I’ve been “on my own” as a violinist for MUCH longer than I actually had a teacher. When I first started seeing Hilary Hahn posting her 100 Days of Practice videos, I noticed that she would often reflect on a problem she was noticing in one video, and then the next day there would be a new video trying some new approach to the problem, and it was really interesting to learn from that. I jokingly say that Hilary Hahn and Rachel Barton Pine are my teachers now, thanks to all that I’ve learned from the videos they share. But learning from my OWN videos has been fruitful, too. Since I don’t have a teacher, I don’t have any other more knowledgeable person to listen to my playing while I’m practicing, and while I do try to be attentive to things while I’m playing, there’s some stuff that’s easier to see and hear from an angle that isn’t the one I have while playing. And that’s where the videos come in. They let me become my own teacher, to some extent, and if I can avoid sinking into nasty comparison traps (I have a terrible habit of comparing my playing to that of Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman or Rachel Barton Pine or others whose Bach performances I enjoy. Of course I don’t sound like them – I’m not an internationally-recognized soloist! And no one expects me to sound like them!), then I can start identifying problem areas and make plans for how I might solve them the next time I play. That kind of deliberative practice is so valuable.

Community keeps you going. There is something very special about joining into a shared commitment to practice, and having people cheer you on as you cheer them on. As I’ve said, I’ve learned SO much from watching other violinists’ practice videos, especially Ms. Hahn’s. She’s so incredibly generous in terms of what she shares from her own practice in terms of tips and tricks, but also the very real challenges that we all face as human beings trying to use our minds and bodies to create something beautiful and meaningful. I’ve made friends with other violinists (and a harpist, too!) on Instagram through sharing our daily practice videos, and knowing that those people are there, waiting to hear whatever snippet of practice I share that day just like I am waiting to hear theirs, learning from each other each day…it’s just such a wonderful source of accountability and support.

Rest is important, too. Accountability helps you be consistent, but it’s so important to remember that maintaining an unbroken “streak” is not the point of consistent practice: the practice is the point of consistent practice. And sometimes, the practice is to not practice, or at least, not practice in the way we think of as practice. When you’re sick or injured, trying to push yourself through practice is going to do more harm than good. And sometimes, shit happens. Just pick things back up when you’re ready and get back to the practice. Learning to listen to your body and your mind is such an important part of practice. This is something that Hilary Hahn models beautifully in her own videos on Instagram. This most recent round of 100 Days, I had to take a few days off right at the start because I came down with some sort of non-COVID but very debilitating respiratory crud. I didn’t have the energy to get my violin out…so I didn’t. I watched recordings of Jascha Heifetz master classes, and rewatched some of the RBP on JSB videos, and that was it. And it was ok, and I picked things back up a few days later. 

Sometimes you don’t need your instrument to practice. You can do meaningful practice by listening carefully to a piece that you’re learning while reading the sheet music. You can do meaningful practice by doing finger exercises against your own arm, or by practicing balancing a pencil as if it’s a bow. You can do meaningful practice by watching masterclass videos; I didn’t feel like I wasn’t practicing when I was sick, I was just practicing differently. Not all practice has to be “on the instrument”, and that’s something that applies to other practices too. My mindfulness practice, for example, is rooted in sitting meditation, but is also something that I can and do practice in contexts other than just sitting still on a cushion. In fact, I probably practice it MORE outside of that context than in it. And thinking about my mindfulness practice gets me thinking about how some of those mindfulness precepts show up in violin practice. Like…

Acceptance enables productive problem-solving. I’ve learned so much about acceptance in my mindfulness practice over the years, and I try to apply those same insights to my violin practice. When I suck at playing something, it does me no good to gloss over it or pretend it’s fine and rush past it; fighting reality doesn’t change it. It’s only when I accept that yes, I’m screwing something up that I can start to think about how I can do it better. Sometimes, I have to just accept that my fingers aren’t going to do the fingering that’s marked, and by doing that, I can start trying to figure out how I can make the notes in a way that works for my fingers. I did this quite a few times while learning the Sonatas and Partitas! 

Nothing is permanent. But, as much as I’m working to approach violin playing challenges with acceptance, I’m also staying open to the possibility that some of the things I can’t do are simply things I can’t do YET. They’re not ruled out forever. Acceptance isn’t giving up, it’s just about not fighting reality as it presents itself. And sometimes, the thing that feels impossible one day just snaps into place the next! This happened to me when I was figuring out fingerings for the Loure: I was avoiding certain fingerings because I just couldn’t figure out how to make them work, and then suddenly one day, I decided to give the marked fingering a try and it just…worked. Neat. And if there’s a fingering that I can’t currently play, but also can’t find a good replacement for, I know that it doesn’t have to stay unplayable…with dedicated effort, I can probably get there. That’s what it took to get that gnarly chord early in the Allemande. It felt like a “never” thing in the beginning, but it was just a “not yet” thing.

Curiosity is so much better than judgment. When I decided I wanted to practice scales, I got out my old Carl Flesch Scale System book and opened it up to the first page. Well, it turned out that the very first set of scales & arpeggios in that book was a 2-octave C-major scale, all on the G string. Shifting way up high on your thickest string is…not a very easy way to start your regular scale practice! I sounded terrible, and it was very tempting to just give up and get really down on myself for being so bad at it. But instead, I tried to get curious: WHY is it so hard to play in high positions on the G string? Some of it is just physics, but some of it had to do with the positioning of my hand. And while I ended up deciding that the way to set myself up for success in scale practice was to not start with that particular scale (it’s a bummer to sound terrible on the very first thing you play!), I think it’s so useful to break things down in the way I was forced to when grappling with that scale. 

I think of curiosity as going hand-in-hand with Beginner’s Mind: in essence, you’re trying to figure things out as if you don’t have experience with or preconceptions about them. And to some extent, that’s just reality when you’ve had as many years away from your scale and etude books as I have…but it’s also an approach worth cultivating in the material I’ve played so many times I can play it in my sleep, because in approaching it with a beginner’s mind, I can notice things I wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s what’s been so fun about mixing things up between the Galamian and the Rachel Barton Pine editions of the Sonatas & Partitas – there are still just so many new things to discover when I branch out from the way I learned things in the first place.

Well, that sure was a whole lot of words about practice! If you made it to the end, congratulations! Perhaps you’ve got it in you to do 100 Days of your own Practice?

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2 thoughts on “500 Days of Practice”

  1. I do love the concept, and as dumb and obvious as it sounds, “practice works” is something we all need to be reminded of — a lot — because it’s definitely something I think many people seem to resist, even if only subconsciously. I don’t know if I actually have it in me to do 100 days of it, though. We have a tin whistle kicking around somewhere, and I toyed with the idea of learning to play it for a while. Maybe I’ll let this float around in my brain for a while and see what happens…

    1. Go for it! The instrument I want to learn to play next is the piano (which I know is a BIG task, but really I just want to be able to do really basic chords + melody, nothing fancy!). 100 days seems like a lot, and it is, but if you give yourself space to take days away from the instrument and like, read about playing it or watch some videos or whatever, it’s really doable and you see such a big difference from start to end!

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