Listening in on the music of practice

How musicians at MVHS approach their craft

Crystal Cheng

“It’s really weird. You can play for seven years, and then you don’t play for one day, and it’s like you’re learning it again.” 

As a violinist with several commitments within her instrument, school and other extracurricular activities, junior Erica Liu attributes her ability to find balance to the fundamentals she’s built from playing the violin since elementary school. After a long day of school, Liu doesn’t quite begin practicing immediately; she feels that if she were to do this, her energy levels wouldn’t be high enough for her to do her best work. Instead, Liu has developed the routine of finishing up other work first, and then practicing when she has enough energy to practice well.   

Junior Zachary Smentek, who plays the tenor saxophone, usually starts his practice sessions with overtones, a playing exercise that helps him work on the type of sound he wants to produce and builds on the foundation for a technique called “altissimo,” where saxophone players play notes above the range of their instrument. However, when time doesn’t permit an extended practice session, Smentek will cut out or shorten his warmups and dive straight into working on music, so as to prioritize what he needs to practice that day.  

While he usually warms up with scales and arpeggios, techniques used to practice speed and agility, when practicing the piano, senior Kaushal Amancherla also shortens his warmup on busy days to make sure he has time to practice his pieces. When it comes to pieces, Amancherla’s approach to practicing is to play slowly, one hand at a time, and concentrate on individual aspects of his playing, although he admits that he will occasionally practice at a faster pace for his own personal enjoyment. 

“I’ve formed a bad habit sometimes where I’ll just play [a] piece over and over again, fast, trying to enjoy myself,” Amancherla said. “[But] even though it’s fun, that’s not the best way to practice. Some days I [won’t] feel like practicing intensely, so I’ll just sight-read, look at new music and just try to find anything else that I like playing.” 

Finding the “fun” in practice is something that Liu also attempts to do every day. When she has the time, Liu’s strategy for her practice sessions is to split them into two or three one-hour sessions a day, with each session being split further into 15 minute chunks with a task to complete in each. Using this method, she doesn’t get too tired and remains motivated. Even when she isn’t as motivated as usual, Liu still tries to improve something in her playing with each practice session. 

“One principle that my parents sort of brought me up to do is to make sure that out of every practice session, I get at least one thing that improves,” Liu said. “I admit that sometimes when I’m in a rush, or I don’t really want to practice at that time, I sort of just practice one hour, just [to] get it over with and check off that box in my mind, but I definitely tried to improve at least one thing every time so that in the long run, there will be a lot of improvement.”  

Amancherla agrees that the lasting improvements in his playing result from daily practice. Even if it’s for a shorter period of time, Amancherla maintains a commitment to his goal of practicing his instrument daily in order to establish a steady routine.  

“I’d say consistency is probably the most important [thing]. I’d rather do one hour of practice every single day, rather than do four hours one day and then just take the next five days off,” Amancherla said. “So I’d say if you’re just doing it every single day, like anything that’s not music, if you’re doing something every single day, you’ll see improvements.”

Smentek echoes the prioritization of practicing every day above making sure each practice session lasts a long time. While acknowledging the difficulty of following such a procedure, Smentek finds that his motivation lasts longer the more he invests in long practice sessions.   

“Definitely, the most difficult aspect of practicing is doing it, like setting aside a time where you can sit down and just practice and do nothing else,” Smentek said. “It’s the hardest thing, but once you get a habit going it gets a lot easier.”