A while back, a new student of mine asked me to blog about how I practice. Well, Andrew, this one's for you!
I just spent a half hour "waking up" my viola muscles. What this entails is, after tuning, I set myself up in front of a mirror so that I can see that the line of the bridge and the line of the end of the fingerboard are parallel. In other words, I am not facing the mirror, but my bridge is (my body is pointing towards the left side of the mirror, and I cannot see myself full-on). In this way, when I put the bow on the string, I can see if the line of my bow is parallel to the line of the bridge and the line of the end of the fingerboard. This is how I always start every day-- I make sure that my bow is perpendicular to the strings from frog to tip and back, listening for even, rich tone. I work on frog bow changes and different bow speeds and tip bow changes and the different sounds I can make at different contact points (closer to the bridge versus closer to the end of the fingerboard) and basically do a lot of bowing work on open strings (always listening for consistent and sonorous tone). This is generally the first 5 or so minutes of my practice (though it used to be a lot longer when I started this kind of work-- now it's a "check in" to make sure I play with a straight bow!).
From there, I wake up the left hand. I'm constantly changing what I do, because I don't want to get stuck in a non-challenging, brain-shut-off repetitive rut, so what I've been doing for the past few weeks is picking one of the Primrose scales (at the AVS conference I bought a copy of the scales-- they're in print again! I've been given super photocopied versions from all of my previous teachers, so it's a nice treat to have a "real" version!), and working on that. For those of you who don't know, the Primrose scales are a bit... different... than your Flesch or Mogill or other traditional scales methods. He goes through different modes and uses challenging fingerings, and I find many of them difficult and that they require much brain power (which is a good thing).
So I'll play the scale very slowly, one note per bow, using the whole entire bow, again, listening for rich, even, chocolatey sound and pure intonation. (Notice that I build upon what I just did with the open strings-- adding just one finger to the mix.) Then I'll play the scale "repeat and slur" (if it's C major: C on the down bow, C-D on the up, D-E on the down, etc.), again using the whole bow, and working to change notes at the exact middle of the bow. Then I'll play two notes per bow, three, four, etc. all the way to 12 notes per bow. Every time I try to distribute the bow evenly, so that each note gets the same amount of bow and I am using the whole bow. If my intonation or a shift gets messy I'll isolate the problem instead of blindly foraging on-- it's a good idea to fix problems when they happen.
For the fives, I cycle around at the bottom and top, so I play the scale 5 times with different bowings each time (C-D-E-F-G, A-B-C-D-E, F-G-A-B-C, D-E-F-G-A, B-C-B-A-G, F-E-D-C-B, A-G-F-E-D, C-B-A-G-F, E-D-C-D-E, F-G-A-B-C, etc. so that the top and bottom Cs are a turning-around point within the group of 5). I find 11s especially tricky these days, so that's fun. Once I've gotten up to 12, I then play all 24 notes in one bow, both starting on up and on down. Sometimes I challenge myself to start all of the scales on an up bow instead of down (we always start everything down!), and that adds a different element to the scales. After I go through these bowing patterns, I'll play the scale to the Gingold rhythms. This also is something that has been passed down through awful photocopies from previous teachers-- I'm not sure if they are published anywhere, and a quick Google search just now did not produce immediate results.
In the early stage of scale warm up, I sometimes play with vibrato, and sometimes without. When I do use vibrato, I work on even oscillations and the oscillation not stopping between fingers (i.e. continuous vibrato).
This scale process takes probably 10-15 minutes, depending on the difficulty of the scales. C is "easy" whereas E#/F locrian is not.
From here I'll pick an etude or two, and go through them. This morning I worked on Schradieck XVII, which passes through positions 1-6. I love Schradieck. Really great finger twisters, with nothing much for the bow to do. Therefore, once my fingers are sufficiently supple, I'll play a different etude with challenging bowing patterns. Today I played Kreutzer 12, changing up bowing patterns so that I was working on both up and down bow staccato. This morning I did not play any spiccato, but that is also a good warm up for my bow hand. In all, my warm up this morning took 30 minutes.
It's important to be creative when practicing. In my repertoire practice recently, I've noticed that when I get to challenging bow passages, they're not as clean as I want. Having not done a lot of bow work recently, this makes sense. Instead of only working on the bowing pattern within the context of the piece, I've been assigning patterns from my repertoire to etudes and scales, which helps the repertoire immensely. It's good to expand the confines of a technique to other, unrelated notes. It helps your body and mind to trust the technique as its own procedure, instead of something that is attached to a certain passage within your repertoire.
Speaking of which, I better get to my repertoire now. :-)