Thursday, October 21, 2010

How I Practice for a Fiddle Contest

I have learned through teaching that many students have no idea what practicing is.  They confuse it with playing.  Although practice does require playing, it should focus on what you DON'T know well rather than what you are already proficient at.  In general, the majority of my practice time is spent working on new songs and techniques.  When I have finished working on those things, or if I just want to "have fun," then I start playing the tunes I already know or my favorites.  I may also take a look at a list of songs I play and make sure that I haven't forgotten any of them. 

When I'm preparing for a contest, I get really particular with my practice time.  It will be spent almost exclusively on the songs I think I might play in the contest for 2-4 weeks prior to the contest.  I analyze everything I do in the songs.  I make sure I can play them excessively slow.  If I can't, then I don't know the song well enough.  I don't want to be on stage feeling really nervous, start to think about what I'm doing, and then realize I have no clue what I'm doing and that I've been playing on "automatic pilot" for the past several weeks.  Take my advice on this one.  If you can't play the song slowly, go back and relearn it.

Next, I analyze any areas of the song that aren't perfect.  Do I have notes that are out of tune?  At this point in MY playing, out of tune notes would not be an overall problem, but limited to just certain notes in certain areas of a song.  It's usually related to how difficult the fingering is and how much I have to contort my left hand to get my little fingers in the proper position.  I have a perfect example.  I've been working on Cotton Patch Rag.  In one section of the song, my 1st finger on the A string is supposed to be low (B flat).  Invariably, I was playing somewhere between B and B flat.  When I slowed the song down so that I could focus on making this the correct pitch, I couldn't remember the rest of the notes in that particular section.  I had to work really hard again to get this down just because I moved my finger 1/16"!  So don't think you are the only one.

I can also think of a good example in Sally Goodin.  This particular song was what I played as my hoedown in the first round of competition last weekend.  When transitioning from the high part of the song (3rd position) back to the low part (1st position), my notes weren't clear.  I remember it USED to be clean, but now something had changed and it was not longer clean.  I slowed it way down, made sure I knew all the notes, and played through it a bunch of times.  When I sped it up, it was inconsistant.  Then I started analyzing my bowing and which direction I was going when it worked and when it didn't work.  I determined the problem was actually with my bowing.  I figured out that my bow was going backwards when I started the 3rd variation of the high part, and that made it almost impossible for me to play the transition cleanly.

If I am lucky, I will be able to play my songs regularly with a guitar player for the weeks prior to the contest.  Since my husband plays guitar, and my band has a good rhythm guitar player, and I own a music store with guitar teachers, this one is covered!  Having a guitar player is more than just having rhythm.  It allows me to make sure I am playing in tune.  It also helps me know how well I know a song.  If I don't know it well enough, I find the guitar is a distraction to me and I won't play the song as well.  When I know the song really well, the guitar is a bonus for me and actually helps me to play better.

In addition to playing with a guitar player, I spend time with a metronome.  I use the metronome to play songs slowly so that I won't speed them up and so that I can get really good at all the correct pitches, fingerings and bowings.  I also use the metronome to practice the songs at the speeds I want to play them in the contest.  It is easy to become nervous and play too fast.  I want to really FEEL the speeds I will be playing my contest songs.

I also spend time practicing just by myself.  I don't want to get dependent on any one thing.  Practicing by myself also allows me to work on specific areas that aren't up to speed.

Another thing I listen for when practicing for a fiddle contest is my tone quality and FEEL for the song.  I think they are related.  If you play a song with feeling, it is like the smile that you can't see over the phone, but you know is there (or isn't there!).  I make sure my bowing is smooth and consistant.  I listen for bad notes, distorted notes that are caused by too much or too little bow pressure.  I make sure I am using the right amount of bow.  If I'm using tiny little bow strokes for a waltz, I will not get a smooth sound.  I listen for dynamics (loud and soft) and make sure that they fit with what I'm feeling.  If I can't feel the song, I keep playing it until I can.  That's very important to me.  It also gives me a lot of personal enjoyment to play something that I can really feel.  That doesn't matter whether it's a contest or not!

I make sure that my beginnings and endings are smooth and fit the song.  Since these will be the first and last things anyone hears, they'd better be good.

If you have another musician (especially a fiddle player) that is willing to listen to you and give you advice, that can be a big bonus to you.  Another person may think of things that you did not.  They may hear things that you don't hear.  They may have experience that you don't have.  John Bell helped me out for the last contest.  I played all my songs for him, asked a bunch of questions, and he gave me lots of good advice.  Remember:  No matter how good you are and no matter how much you know, you can't know it all.  I am very grateful to him for his help.

One final thing that I do is to make sure I play the song the same way every time.  I don't do this for normal performances, but I do for contest preparation.  I know which variation I'll play when, and exactly how I'll play it.  I know how many times I will play each variation.  I practice the song the same way every time so that it will come naturally to me even when I get really nervous.

As the weeks progress, my songs should be getting much better.  In fact, my overall playing should be getting better, even on the songs I am not working on.  That's what's so neat about entering a fiddle contest.  When you prepare, you are improving everything you do, not just specific songs.  That means that even if I totally bomb out in the contest, my practice was not for nothing.  I am better for the work I put in and no one can take that away from me!

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