Everyone does it. But it seems like everyone is too keen to talk about it: Practicing. Musicians of various genres spend thousands of hours with their instrument in the course of their careers without really looking for regular exchange with others and asking what he or she is currently practicing. The process of musical development is hidden behind a large portion of mysticism. A veil nobody really wants to lift. Reasons are various: shame, competitiveness or simply because you never really get to talk about this topic.
But wouldn’t it be interesting to know what your fellow student, fellow player or friend in the band is currently working on? How high is the probability that you might be practicing the same thing yourself and benefiting from each other’s tips and advices? How high is the probability that an experienced player can give you new inspiration and impulses for your next practice session, shows you a new piece of music or you discover a new player through a conversation?
In the future, I would like to regularly try to answer all of these questions, which are otherwise asked far too seldom, in the series “How does ….. practice?”. Because learning from others also always means learning something new about yourself.
Johanna Röhrig is 28 years old and has studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London for the past few years. She is now part of the soloist class at the HfMT Hamburg and is now completing her concert exam in the class of Tanja Becker-Bender. You will find out what special role her lecturer plays for her towards the end of our conversation.
Similar to Julia Hagen, I found out about Johanna through a podcast. In addition to her great musical ability, the young violinist impresses above all with her passioned structure.
Complete the following sentence: For you, practicing means….
To find myself. Spending time on the instrument.
Which music (album / artist) is currently playing in a loop?
Which CD has shaped you musically (related to your game) the most?
It has never been the case with me, that someone particularly has influenced me. I remember exactly when I was 18 years old and played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with orchestra for the first time. That was in summer. All other people were outside. The kids in the neighborhood played in the garden and I sat in my room, practiced and found it only to a limited extent good.
And then, at some point, it just clicked and I knew how I wanted things to be played. That sounds totally weird. I started working on the piece and always listened to recordings, tried to copy stuff to create some kind of expression. But that is very tedious work when you think “this note is a little longer, this one is a little shorter, here a little louder”. When you start copying something it’s very exhausting and then at some point it kind of clicked and then I just knew how I wanted it to play. That was a very early point and it has actually stayed that way ever since. I can’t say that anything has shaped me. It was always there somehow.
In times when you play a lot of concerts and are therefore on the road a lot, planning your own practice time certainly does not always work as you wish. Do you have a “minimal routine” on those days that you can fall back on?
I had that like 2-3 years ago. Even on days when I travelled a lot, I tried to squeeze into a kind of “minimal routine” in the hotel in the evening. But I’ve really become much more relaxed here. I now know what I can do and I also know well how playing the violin works. Simply because I taught a lot myself. That helped me a lot.
So of course, I have my routine. It consists of technical aspects and then I focus on music. But if I can’t do that, I don’t freak out anymore.
Do you have a consciously chosen day off during the week? How easy is it for you to really keep this day free?
It happens one way or another. Most of the times it is the days after a concert. You may have noticed that you have prepared for a concert and the muscles report that accordingly. It’s like preparing for a sport competition. You are just very much under tension and you put a lot of strain on your own body. And I think this desire to relax for a day or two and “get away from the instrument” comes naturally.
What helps you, after a stressful day, to free yourself up of other thoughts?
That was the sport for me for a long time. And then really sleep in after a concert, coffee and then I would go to the fitness studio: treadmill, sauna, swimming, stretching, yoga, strength training. But that has been gone for a year. I think I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that it’s very difficult for me. And running in the park or doing some workouts at home is just no substitute for it. For a long time, the Fintess Studio was this “safe space” for me.
Lots of small practice units or do you prefer a few longer ones during the day? And why?
My best practice time is always in the morning – around 9/10 a.m. and then for three to four hours. Of course there are also breaks in it. I would estimate that I always practice for 40 to 50 minutes and then take a break. By now, however, I no longer check the clock strictly.
However I did so in the past. I always practiced for 50 minutes and then took a 10-minute break. But as I said, at some point life comes and wants you to “take care of it”. I also try to incorporate a lot of everyday things into my routine (e.g. washing clothes, making phone calls to people who can only be reached in the morning, etc.). Practicing in the afternoon actually only happens when I am really preparing for concerts and need more time.
This blog was created from my bachelor’s thesis at the University of the Arts in Bern and is unfortunately not yet self-sufficient. With the campaign “Kissing the muse for the music desk – postcards for a good cause” I would like to support the work of the SOS Children’s Village Frankfurt-Sossenheim . In the SOS Children’s and Family Center there, creative and music courses are offered, among other things, to enable children and young people to learn to play a musical instrument. 10% of every set of postcards purchased goes to the SOS Children’s Village.
At the same time, the postcards allow me to continue working on this blog and cover its expenses.
So usually the morning is your practice time and the rest of the day is free for other things, like office related work?
Yes exactly. Or rehearsals, lessons, classes at the university, meeting friends.
How do you deal with mistakes?
Practicing in itself is the repetition of error-free runs. If you practice and you played a mistake, then this one repetition of the passage goes into the “negative side”. That’s not what you want. You want to repeat the music without errors in order to get your brain used to the correct sequence of movements.
That means errors are something that you try to avoid per se. If one is there, I try to find out why it occured. I don’t try to repeat the passage blindly until the mistake is gone. So that in the end, I’m so cramped that my tendons hurt the next day. I try to approach it more analytically.
No matter where I live, I always have my fixed practice setup consisting of a mirror, a music stand and a dresser. In general, I work a lot with the mirror and try to go through the checkpoints of my concept. Asking myself questions like: is my arm in the right position? How about my wrist What about the balance within the hand? Where do my fingers hit the string? What about my shoulders? I try to go through these points and usually I find the error there.
1) My music stand with iPad and metronome. I like to practice without a cell phone, very old school.
2) My violin case is right next to my music stand and has a permanent place, so I can quickly get my violin to a safe place, which prevents accidents.
3) While practicing, I can observe my posture in the mirror and correct it if necessary.
4) I record all of my individual projects on individual A4 pages (some of which are still top secret). So I always have an overview of all processes and don’t forget things quickly.
5) All things related to music are stored in the dresser; Sheet music, violin accessories, strings, and all the products associated with my Instagram collaborations.
Then I make notes in my music sheets. Mostly in red – so that the mistake in this passage doesn’t happen again. Often, mistakes also happen because our brains see something in the sheets that was not notated clearly enough.
If someone follows you on Instagram, one can get the impression that you are very meticulous. How did you manage to structure your practice in the long term? For example, do you keep a practice diary?
No, I actually don’t have one. Although it probably wouldn’t hurt. Just yesterday I wrote down my whole repertoire on a piece of paper, which I will need for the next few months.
The problem, however, is the corona crisis. I had already made a similar plan two months ago and it looked very different back then. In the meantime, so many concerts have simply been canceled.
I am making such plans in order to keep track of what has to be finished and when, or what goals my Professor Tanja Becker-Bender is pursuing with me. However, I don’t have a special plan just for practicing. I have a very clear, technical structure that I always go through. Sometimes a little longer, sometimes a little shorter – depending on the length of my practice time. When I know I only have two hours to practice, I compress things accordingly.
I would like to implement this technical structure into an online course in the future. This system, which I have developed over the years, consists of ten blocks that are all build on one another. Each individual block deals with all aspects of playing the violin – from arms, hands to fingers. However, they are variable, depending on how advanced the student is.
I myself also like to adapt these blocks to the repertoire that I am currently preparing. For example, one of the points in the course is thirds. It can be that I just look how the thirds lie in the hand, or play a scale in thirds over all strings – or just over one single string. It may be that I am playing a passage from a piece, that I am practicing, in which thirds occur. On the one hand, the structure is determined by the blocks, but on the other hand, the content is also completely variable.
Do you have a certain routine with which you approach a new piece?
I like to practice pieces from the end. Simply because otherwise you have the habit of only “hanging around” in the first few pages. I also like to practice sonatas from behind – even in rehearsals.
Would you say that your practice has changed since you started teaching?
My practicing not necessarily, but definitely my understanding of how to play the violin. I still remember very well that I started teaching back then in London. Online as well as offline – in real life.
One of my students (adult amateur) from Brazil was in London for work. We worked very intensively for one whole week. I didn’t do much practicing myself during this week. Actually I only worked with him – I probably wasn’t too busy. We worked through this entire program (editor’s note: she means the building blocks of her own course system). I explained it to him, wrote it down, showed it and corrected him. In face-to-face lessons, mistakes can be corrected so easily because you can touch the students and correct them. After that week I had a lesson myself and my teacher asked me if I had done nothing else but practicing all week. I replied, “No, I actually didn’t practice at all.” (She laughs while she tells this.).
But that’s exactly the point. By doing all these technical things with my student, my whole understanding has changed. That was two or three years ago and of course it has changed and improved since then.
This technical part in the morning is really all about comparing my inner imagination with the reality. To see where I think my arm should be and where it actually really is today. And then I match that and move on to the wrist. To the balance in my hands and so on.
What are you currently learning (practicing) that you can’t do yet? (also like non-musical)
I’m currently trying to find the balance between discipline and free time.
How does it work?
Mhh, learning curve: so-so (she laughs heartily.)
What tip would you like to give your younger, freshman music student self that you would have been happy for back then?
When playing, always try to take the path with the least possible resistance. I really practiced injuries and was then completely “inoperative” for half a year because I tried to replace the quality of the practice with the quantity. Sooner or later that will fly around your ears. If you do not approach the practice with your head, it is at the expense of your own body.
So don’t work against your own body – that would be your tip?
As much effort as necessary, as little effort as possible.