Thursday, February 08, 2007


There's more to my practice room than me and the cello. You've already seen my way with whoopee cushions and silly putty. Another indispensable tool is the timer. Or perhaps I should rather say, are the timers. I use two types, not every day I practice, but often. I use them alone and together, depending on my goals.

The timer on the left is a standard kitchen timer. This allows me to set a desired time in minutes and seconds, then counts down and beeps when the time is up. I use it to define my practice segments. For instance, today I planned to do four 15 minute intervals before my lesson, consisting of scale, Bach, trio music, and orchestra music. I just got a call that I won't have a lesson today, so I'll probably add an etude segment and another orchestra block, since we are having a strings-only rehearsal tonight.

Why bother with a timer? (1) It keeps me honest, (2) it allows me to concentrate deeply on the task at hand without the requirement to keep half-an-eye on the clock, and (3) it allows me to schedule rest at appropriate intervals so that I don't exacerbate my overuse syndromes. I don't always use 15 minute segments. It depends on the plan for the day.

The timer on the right is a standard stop watchwith an interval timer feature. This watch actually has two interval channels. Each channel allows you to set a time interval and a number of repetitions. After starting the countdown, the watch beeps at the set time interval for the number of repetitions programmed. If two channels are set, it rotates between the two intervals. The advantage it has over the kitchen timer is that you don't need to interrupt your practice to restart the timer.

There are a number of uses for the stop watch in practicing. I use it when I am trying to keep a particular technical point in mind throughout my practice, usually a physical fine point such as "keep right shoulder down" or "feel the weight under the right arm". This functions similarly to the teacher who keeps reminding you to do something as you forget while concentrating on something else. Bringing the desired action more frequently to consciousness hastens formation of the habit. I usually start out with a short (1-3 min) interval and gradually lengthen it.

I also use the stopwatch when I really need to spend time on something, knowing my own short attention span. For example, this week I used it to spend an hour (plus) block practicing Bach. After my analysis, the Prelude to the 2nd Suite fell into about 12 phrases or half phrases, where the beginning of each phrase was a logical starting point for my memorizing efforts. I set the watch to 3-minute intervals, and focused one phrase per interval, moving on with each beep. This allowed me to play the phrase, fix 1 or 2 things, usually play it again, and also to get through the entire piece. Each 3 minutes was an efficient practice, I covered a lot of ground, I put in some of the time I needed to, and best yet, the hour seemed to fly by.

Another item in my box of cello toys.


Maricello said...

These are wonderful ideas. My teacher would love them--and it would make me much more organized about my practicing. I especially like the use of the timer for keeping a particular technical point in mind. I already have a stopwatch hanging from my music stand (for checking the duration of pieces for programs), and will try it out (maybe not the intervals, though--it sounds a little high-tech for me!)

Gottagopractice said...

Greetings, maricello. Oh, but the intervals are key to using the stopwatch as a reminder. If you have to re-set it each time it beeps, it just doesn't work. Too much interruption, and pretty soon you stop re-setting. Better pull out that instruction book!