By the time St. Louis Symphony first violinist Angie Smart was halfway through Chetham School of Music in Manchester, England, she was practicing 10 to 12 hours a day. Roger Kaza, Symphony Principal Horn, was doing well if he managed 15 minutes as a boy, three hours in college.
Practice is the most eccentric of common denominators. Everybody has to do it, to train motor skills and muscle memory, deepen understanding, maintain skill, learn new music. But every instrument makes different demands at different points in time, and as for when and how you practice....
Percussionist and Associate Principal Timpani Tom Stubbs says that when his friend Rich O'Donnell played with the St. Louis Symphony, his favorite time to practice was late at night after a concert. Smart gets up at 5 a.m., gulps coffee, and practices while the day still feels empty and peaceful. Kaza takes his horn when he goes camping, so the music can float into sky and water and forest. Stubbs puts a high-tech monitor above his music stand and fastens a video camera to his hands, so he can see what a conductor would see.
Stubbs loves the technology's efficiency: "It uses a visual part of the brain, and I can get two to three times the amount of work done in the same amount of time." Smart loves efficient practicing, too: especially now that she has to contend with all the laundry, play, cooking, and gentle nagging motherhood entails. She does a lot of listening and marking away from her violin, so she can progress faster once she's actually practicing. She misses the luxury of endless, solitary practice time, with its sense of being transported. "Now it's kind of hilarious: I'll be constantly interrupted. But I can still get good work done: it's amazing."
Practice makes no guarantees, she adds. Kaza agrees: "If you're doing it mindlessly, or you don't have the proper direction, you can completely waste your time. The most important thing is that you practice creatively and you're never bored. If you are just plugging away, putting in time, your body kind of knows that, and you don't get anything out of it. And overpracticing is a real danger: You actually peak, and then you start doubting yourself. OK, I'm 90 percent there, can I get another 10 percent? And the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and you start tearing down what you've achieved."
At age six, Kaza was picking out tunes on a piano. When he started lessons, practice was like solving a puzzle, deciphering what was on the page of music. At 10, he started playing the horn, and to his surprise, his parents, both professional musicians, didn't push him to practice. "I remember my mother writing the band director and saying, 'Roger practices about 15 minutes a day, and that's OK; he's enjoying it.'"
He got serious in college, practicing "three hours a day maybe, which is about the most you can do on a brass instrument, because you start getting very tired." He learned to outwit frustration by circling around difficult piece, playing it in different keys and tempos, "even something as simple as practicing everything 10-percent faster, so when you do it at concert rhythm, it sounds easy.
"You're training muscle memory," he explains. "So when you go back to the real version, the goal is for it to feel like a piece of cake."
Stubbs thinks about playing in three parts: "You have to visualize or conceptualize what you're going to do. Then there's doing it, which is actually the easy part. And then you have to listen to what you just did, which is hard." That's where his technology comes in. "I use all sorts of gizmos. I have a boomerang, a little box that makes it easy to record yourself and play it back. You can play it back half-time very easily, and then everything that's wrong is just glaring." A drumroll, for example, "should sound like steam: a sustained note: not like a train chugging along."
When Stubbs was a kid, practicing the drums three or four hours a day didn't feel like a tedious, soul-killing punishment. It felt normal, because everybody in his family practiced. His mom taught piano, all five kids played in the family band, and one of Stubbs' brothers, Jim, would go on to play trumpet with the Metropolitan Opera.
Now, though, Stubbs teaches. And not all his students practice with the same alacrity. "Usually they start in fourth grade, but I started Micah Iticovici [son of violinist Silvian Iticovici] at age six," he says. He exhales in a long gust. "It was a real challenge. Practice wasn't one of his favorite things." Stubbs set short-term goals, making a game of it. He sprinkled in lots of little events where Micah could play. And he bit his tongue instead of kicking the child out the door.
"He's turned out to be very good," he says, glad he was patient. "I do try not to be overbearing. I let them set the goals; we make a little chart together, and they fill in the amounts of time and then make check-marks if they've done it. Of course, I'm never quite convinced that they don't fudge a little bit."
Smart's also a fan of practice charts: She makes one for each of her students. "That way they don't have to sit there alone with an hour to fill with the clock ticking, not sure what to do first." Practicing's lonely. "It's you and your instrument in a room," Kaza says. "Everyone says you're mastering it, but really you're kind of a slave to your instrument."
There's no instant gratification, just hours of disciplined focus. Play all the games you want; in the end, the only possible motivation is the music itself. "If they master a difficult piece or hear a performance that really moves them, they'll figure out how to get there," Kaza says. "Everyone ultimately is teaching themselves."
Jeannette Cooperman is staff writer for St. Louis magazine.