How to make your practicing effective

Effective practicing

We spent the day looking at how to make the most of the time you have to practice playing your fiddle. If you want to make noticeable improvements in your playing, you need to start to become your own teacher. You’re the only person who knows exactly what sound you want to achieve from your instrument.

We started off by looking at our current practice habits. For many people this will involve playing through tunes that we know well, and trying to play them better. Some people might practice scales, or try adding specific bits of new technique into tunes they’re learning.

What else can you do, if you want to improve your fiddle playing, or to learn new techniques and bed them into your playing? There are a number of general points about practicing that can help, methods to help you to become more analytical about your playing, and ways you can structure your practice to help you work on the aspects that you identify you want to improve.

General tips:

  • Try leaving your fiddle out of its case – you’re more likely to pick it up and play it if you see it. Practicing for 10 minutes a couple of times a day often seems less daunting than having one big long practice session at the end of the working week.
  • Aim to practice at the times of day when you’re most alert. If you don’t know when this is, try keeping note every hour over 2 or 3 days of how alert you feel. You could do this using a scale of 1 (almost asleep) to 10 (fully alert).
  • Practice by focusing on any one thing for small chunks of time, then move on to something new. Our brains stay more alert when presented with new things regularly. Endlessly repeating the same thing will probably result in some improvement by the time you reach the nth repetition. But practicing by repeating the same thing endlessly isn’t teaching you to get it right the first time. If you’re practicing for a performance (using that term loosely – it may be that you’d like to be able to start a tune in the session with confidence, or play ‘Happy Birthday’ for your best pal) the best way to do this is to play the tune once, then do something else, and come back and play the tune once. If you want to learn to play it at your best the first time through, that’s just what you should practice doing.So you might identify 4 things you want to work on in a 2 hour practice session. Perhaps you want to A: perfect that performance piece, B: work on your tone, C: learn to play grace notes better, and D: learn a new bowing pattern. You could divide your practice hour into 4 x 30 minute chunks, and devote each chunk to one of these topics. Or you could spend 5 minutes on A, 5 minutes on B, 5 minutes on C and 5 minutes on D, then repeat this cycle several times. Doing it the second way will help avoid your brain becoming bored and switching off. It will keep you much more engaged in what you’re doing.
  • Get yourself a ‘practice notebook’. Use it for jotting down your observations from your practice sessions. You can start to create a list of things you notice that you would like to improve on
  • Try practicing something in the evening before you go to bed, and then practice the same thing first thing the following morning. Learning in the evening, then recapping in the morning after you’ve slept results in dramatic improvement of recall compared to learning for 2 sessions without sleep in between. It also results in better recall of memorised items over time.
  • Visualising yourself practicing (if it’s done mindfully) is as effective as actually practicing.
  • Mindless practicing can embed bad habits, and undermine your confidence, because you don’t understand the mechanics of playing well, and are therefore not confident you can reproduce them reliably.

Choosing your state

Our mental processes while we are playing will have a big impact on what we can achieve. When you pick up your fiddle it’s important to be aware of what your aim is, and choose the state you need to achieve that aim. We need to learn to choose the state we need for practicing, and become analytical, (rather than the creative state we need for performing). We also need to learn to be able to flip from one state to another, depending on what we’re doing.

When you’re learning a brand new technique, you need to be accessing a ‘thinking state’. Suppose you want to learn how to play chords on the fiddle. You’ll need to be actively thinking about how your bow is positioned, and how you move it, to hit the chord at exactly the time you want. Your brain is pretty much focused on your physical movements, and how those work with the bow to create the chord.

Once you’ve become familiar with the movements, you can move in to a ‘listening state’, where your focus is on listening to the sound you’re making as you execute the technique, and analysing what is happening. Being able to flip between the thinking and listening state easily is an immensely useful skill to help your learning.

Once you’ve embedded the new technique into your playing, and you want to play the tune with chords in a session, or on stage, you need to access a ‘creative state’ where your focus is purely on creating the music. As you play, you hear the music in your head in a certain way, with your own interpretation. Because through mindful practice you’ve been building the pathways connecting sound and action, you can hear the tune in your head, and it comes out of the instrument without your conscious brain needing to be involved. You can be completely relaxed, knowing that your subconscious will direct your movements without your ‘thinking’ brain needing to be involved.

Effective practicing
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Becoming aware of our own ‘self-talk

If you want to improve your fiddle playing, it’s easy to see the solution as being simply a matter of learning new techniques. There’s another side to creating the sounds we want, that is about understanding the inner dialogue that goes on while you’re practicing/playing. If you want to know more about this, the book ‘The Inner Game of Music‘ is a helpful place to start. Ultimately our ability to perform in the way we want to is a combination of our technical skill, and our ability to manage our own self doubts, and self-sabotaging talk.

The first step towards managing your inner dialogue is in recognising that it happens, and what your own habits and patterns are. from there you can start to work on more constructive thinking patterns that will support your playing rather than sabotage it.

Making it easy

When you’re learning a new technique you’re more likely to be able to ‘nail it’ if you simplify whatever you’re playing as far as you can while you learn the new physical movements you need to make. So if you wanted to add some chords you’d just been shown into say The Barrowburn Reel, you might start the process by learning to play one chord on 2 open strings.

You might start by choosing to play this on the 2 strings you generally feel most comfortable with, and where you create your best tone. Once you have a feel for this, you could move to different strings, or try a chord with an open string and the first finger on the string below. Once this skill has bedded in, you  might move on to chords where you have fingers down on both strings.

With most new skills it’s possible to find a simple place to start, and gradually layer up the complexity of what you’re doing. The aim is to bed in the basic skill to a point where you can play it in its simplest form without actively thinking about what you’re doing physically – your subconscious can take over at this point, freeing up your ‘thinking space’ for working on learning the next level of the new skill.

Learning to listen

We started off the workshop by playing an open D. Each person played and focused on listening to their own sound. We then each noted things about the sound we created that we wanted to work on. We aimed to phrase this in terms of a sound (a goal) that we wanted to achieve, rather than something we wanted to stop. So rather than “I’d like to stop it sounding wobbly” you might say “I’d like to create a smooth sound that’s controlled and even”. We tried to be as specific as possible about this goal.

We then repeated the exercise with our eyes shut. Doing this allows you to listen more closely to the sound of your fiddle, as you’re removing any visual distractions, which allows your brain to be much more focused on the sound. You can move on to a third step at this point, and record yourself and then listen back. This often reveals how little detail we hear when we’re involved in playing!

So the steps to developing your ability to listen are:

  • Play
  • Play and focus on listening
  • Play with your eyes shut, focusing more deeply on listening
  • Record your playing, and listen back with out distractions

Using recordings:

When you’re learning to play an instrument, it can be daunting to record yourself, and many people shy away from doing it. Feeling ‘under the spotlight’ can make us tense and nervous, resulting in not being able to play at our best. But recordings are a surprisingly useful tool. It allows you to carefully listen, without any distractions, to the sound you make. You can also listen as many times as you like, focusing on different aspects each time you listen. You might listen through once paying attention to the tone of your playing, then a second time listening to the tuning, and a third with your focus on tempo or rhythm, and so on. The important thing in using recordings to improve your playing is learning to listen with a view to diagnosing problems in your playing. You need to have an idea in your mind of the sound you’re aiming to make, and your listening is focused on any areas that you don’t feel are achieving that aim yet.

If you keep your recordings, you can also use them over time to get a sense of the progress you are making in different areas of your fiddle playing.

Structuring your practice:

Practicing mindfully involves several steps. The first stage is the analysis. We  start by analysing what’s happening, and identifying possible changes we want to try making.

  • be clear what sound you’re aiming for – be as specific and detailed as you can about exactly how you want your playing to sound. Think about tone, dynamics, precision, tempo, timing, tuning, bowing, energy etc
  • focus on listening to your own sound using the steps outlined above
  • analyse what you’re already achieving and what you feel you still need to work on
  • identify specific changes you could try to help achieve the goals
  • test the possible solutions – what works and helps towards achieving the sound you’re after?

Once you’ve identified the changes you want to introduce into your playing, your aim is to get to a point where you no longer need to consciously think about what you’re physically doing for that new technique to be used. It should be possible to use it purely because you hear the desired sound as you’re playing – your subconscious will make the link, and lets you execute the technique naturally.

You can bed new techniques into your playing through mindful repetition, using following steps –

  • Break any changes you want to make down into the simplest possible manageable chunks.
  • Focus on one area of technique at a time.
  • Try the new technique in it’s simplest form (on an open string/single note or simple run, if possible). You’ll need to be in the thinking state to achieve this step.
  • Once it feels physically comfortable, repeat it, but move into your listening state, and focus on listening to the sound you’re making. Make sure your listening is focused on what improvements you want to make in the sound you’re creating.
  • Repeat, with your eyes shut, to focus more deeply.
  • Repeat it and record it. Listen back to the recording. Notice if there are things you didn’t hear while you were playing. Is it helping achieve the desired sound? If not, go back to the analysis stage, and see if you can identify any different changes to work on. If it’s working, go on to the next step.
  • Put the new technique into a phrase of a tune or riff. Repeat the last 4 steps above
  • Move on to the next area of technique
  • Repeat the cycle


One issue you may have is around managing to remember things. How do you learn a new tune and commit it to memory?

What’s your current method of learning a new tune? For many people, they will play it round and round for some time, going over any tricky bits, and gradually familiarising themselves with the patterns in the tune. it can be disconcerting to find that having done this, an hour later you have no idea how the tune starts, and you therefore can’t play it at all. If you go back to a recording at this point, or find the written music, you’ll usually find that in fact you do remember most of the tune. So what happened?

The issue is not so much about not being able to remember the tune, but more a case of not being able to access the memory we have created. if you struggle with remembering tunes it’s worth devoting some of your practice time to practicing the art retrieving tunes from your memory.

If you want to commit a new tune to your long-term memory, there is evidence that if you can learn it, then play it an hour or so later, and then a day later, it will help lodge it more firmly into your mind.