Category Archives: philosophy of practice

Taking the plunge…

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that for a long time now I have had a project in the back of my mind: a social project connected with the power of the arts to transform lives for the better. Having spent time in a hospital recently, a lot of things have become clearer to me: the power of human kindness, patience, compassion and above all, a little space to live your own life in.

I have been wondering, waiting and worrying, as I am wont to do, about the timing of such a project, the feasibility issues, the cost, the practical logistics, when I thought: ‘it might be now, or never’. So I took a chance, A risk, some might say. I took the plunge. I’m still not sure that it was the “right” thing to do, but perhaps I never will be, and anyway, I’m not sure that that is the important thing here.

The important thing is:

I did something. Not Nothing. And that means something.

I did it. Here goes. I said it.

 St Andrews Smiles Better Facebook Page – An experiment in positive thinking

“Don’t Ration Compassion” (a monk at Samye Ling Monastery, fieldwork, 2009)

This project is extremely close to my heart. So many people have touched my life in different ways, that I find it very hard not to say Thanks every time someone does something nice for me. So I want to pass it on. Play it forward. Form my own “Karma Army” like Danny Wallace. Help local businesses succeed and create employment opportunities. Play music to people to cheer them up. Do random acts of kindness and smile at people I don’t know. 


Thank you all for reading.



Jess xxxxxxxxxxx


With a little help from my friends… An open invitation!

An Open Invitation: ‘With a little help from my friends’





P1100298Dalai Lama

Thursday 29th August

St Andrews Church, Queen’s Terrace, St Andrews



Cello suites/Scottish Music/Surprise!!

Who, me?

Who, me?

You will need:



Your ears!

The plan:


The charities:

Heisenberg (Jill Craig)


Families First (St Andrews)

Sistema Scotland/In Harmony

Arts in Fife/Dundee

Drake Music Scotland

Music in Hospitals

Military Wives Choir (Gareth Malone)

Scottish Ensemble {insert group here}

Rokpa/Tibetan Children’s Villages/ICT

tibet screensaver

Brooklands College

Signpost International (Dundee)

Just Made/Gillian Gamble



Pragya (India)

RSPCA/RSPB/Big cat rescue

SUGGESTIONS WELCOME!! Answers on a post card to: Jess Long!

Rapture on the Edge of a Dime

Robert Baldwin’s beautifully vivid description of the ‘in the moment’ feeling musicians feel when we play music. Psychologists call it ‘flow’, jazz musicians say it is when they are ‘in the groove’, but I prefer to think of it as a kind of timelessness, where actual reality is suspended. When we play music, all we as performers can (or should) think of is the music and how to physically produce it from our instruments to make it seem as effortless and convincing as possible. I always look for that feeling in a great soloist or musician – if they are making something incredibly hard look easy, then they are truly a great artist.

Rapture on the Edge of a Dime.

Teaching students how to practise

As an instrumental teacher, I’m often asked by parents how much they think their children should practise their instruments, or told proudly that they practise every day or even twice a day. In turn, I often ask my pupils how much they practise, which is most often met with a sheepish grin and a muttered ‘…um…’

We all know the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’, and as a professional musician myself, I know from experience that this is all too true. Behind every polished performance are hours and hours of dedicated rehearsal, practice, memorisation and close analysis of problems and their solutions. What not everyone knows, however, is how to practise so that the time spent practising is spent in the best possible way; in other words, how to achieve the most in the limited amount of time that is allotted to practising.

Many children, and adult learners for that matter, have not been told the fundamentals of how to practise a piece in order to correct the mistakes that their teacher points out to them. How to practise is part of the fundamental toolkit of every musician, which includes basics such as how to tune your instrument, how to hold it correctly and make the best sound from it, and how to improve your own playing.

As a teacher, I don’t like to spoon-feed my pupils – I like to try and challenge them with questions about what they are playing, why, what this means and so on. But I had sort of assumed – and this was a dangerous assumption – that most children know how to practise in such a way that they can improve and see their own improvement. I now know that I should be telling all my pupils the basics of how to practise a piece, and not just assume that this is obvious – as to an adult, practising the difficult bits of a piece more than the easier bits is common sense.

In my experience as a teacher, children tend to play their pieces through from beginning to end, often as fast as possible, and it doesn’t really occur to them that this might not be the most effective way of practising them. What often happens is that the same mistakes get repeated every time they play the piece through, and as such become ‘part’ of the piece and the way they play it, making it even more difficult for the teacher to correct when the mistake is pointed out. These habitual mistakes can be addressed, but what is much more effective is pointing out that playing the more difficult bars or sections of a piece on their own repeatedly until they became easier, then fitting them back into the piece, is a much better way of approaching the difficulties of a piece. Of course the piece must be played through from time to time to prepare it for performance, but variety is important – many teachers have emphasised to me the importance of not always starting at the beginning of a piece.

So, here’s my guide to mindful practising:

How to practise a piece mindfully – and really improve

  • Play the piece through to get an overview of the technical and musical challenges presented by it
  • Identify and isolate the difficult bars of the piece
  • Play these bars on their own, slowly if necessary,  become aware of the problems and work out solutions to these problems (e.g. bowings, shifts, fingerings)
  • Once you have worked out the solutions to the problems, play the difficult bars until you are satisfied that they are improving (this may take a long time in the case of very difficult music!)
  • Play the bars in context again, making sure that the join between the difficult bars and the others is practised thoroughly
  • Play the piece through again, this time being aware of the difficult bars and (hopefully) their improvement
  • Repeat the process regularly!

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to learning a musical instrument, but if this kind of mindful practice can be learnt and applied, then it will make the process of learning to play music more rewarding and less frustrating for the pupil. In other words, it is the quality, not the quantity, of practice that really matters!

For more information on how to practise and for discussions of many other issues that musicians face, see the blog of The Bulletproof Musician


“The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should
represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with
concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say
that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask
more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be
as active as the fingers.”
 -Leopold Auer

10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?

A very interesting blog post from Robert Baldwin on ‘Before the Downbeat’ on the time it takes to become accomplished at something – the title refers to the 10, 000 hours that research has suggested it takes to become expert at a task such as learning a musical instrument.

10,000 Hours or 22,000 Days?.

My own view is that, while individuals may develop the technical proficiency to play a difficult piece of music,  the mere accomplishment of playing the piece itself is nearly worthless without the development of musical understanding and of a musical personality. This phenomenon is especially common in young children who have been pushed to become ‘virtuosos’ by the age of 5 or 10 – while they can play their instruments very well, their musicality is  un- or under-developed, leaving the performances technically flawless but without the depth that makes a good performance great. Or as Robert Baldwin puts it:

Art reaches beyond good craftsmanship.  Seasoned musicians transform it into artistry. A Bach Cello Suite can be played perfectly, without mentionable flaw and still not quite be ready.’

Documentation Project: preparing music for performance

Reflection on my Documentation Project Proposal

Hoffnungs cartoons: closer to reality than you might think!

I’ve been reading some of Sandy Hutchison’s¹ journal entries lately, and spurred on by the approaching deadline for all my Integrative Studies work (which is 13th May), I am trying to reflect on the process of taking a fresh, unlearnt piece and preparing it for the concert platform. This is the subject of my ‘Documentation Project’ described in the course literature as ‘a collection of materials derived from an aspect of your work this year’. I handed in a proposal for this before Christmas, so I can’t really remember what I said I was going to base it on exactly…

To refresh my memory, here’s the proposal I just dug out (if you can use that expression when searching through computer files!)


MMus Integrative Studies

Documentation Project Proposal 15.12.10

For my solo recital in May, I will be preparing Brahms Sonata in Eb Op. 120 No 1 for Viola and Piano. In order to prepare for this, I will have lessons on each movement of the piece with my teacher, have sessions with my pianist (Hester Dickson), and do private solo practice. I will also have some coaching from my teacher in my sessions with Hester, and perform some of the movements in performance classes. It is this variety of different preparation methods that I hope to document for my project, using sound recordings.

I will use the following to document the preparation process:

  • Recordings of my lessons on the piece
  • Recordings of sessions with Hester
  • Recordings of solo practice – eg successful practice and frustrations
  • Recordings of performance classes

Alongside these recordings which will be dated chronologically, I will write a brief commentary on the main issues raised by each recording or how each fits into my overall learning progression, and a broader reflection on my preparation process as shown by this material. Hopefully this will help me to identify and clarify the different ways in which I prepare a piece for performance, whether they are good or bad, and in the future use this to improve my preparation skills.


Aha, now I remember… I knew that it was focussed specifically on the Brahms but forgot the details.

Now, on reflection (if you’ll pardon the pun) and through experience of this year’s work, my focus in the proposal on one specific piece (ie Brahms Eb Sonata) was too narrow, as I now have decided that I want to document my approach to preparing pieces for performance as a whole, which means not homing in on one specific composer and using a variety of different pieces and performance situations (i.e.solo/chamber/orchestral). So through the terms I have been keeping photocopies of my viola scores and markings on them as they develop and my own experience as a player and performer has developed. It is this cumulative process of learning to ‘become better’ through preparation that I now wish to focus on.

The next step is for me to collect all the photocopies/pictures ²of pieces I have accumulated over the last 7 months, put them in some sort of coherent order and work out what each says about my approach to documenting my practice as a viola player.

Now, where did I put them all again?  😀

¹ The RSAMD’s Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow

² I find the easiest way to document something when I’m in a hurry is to take a photo of it; this works well with sheet music if the light is ok and you have the flash off

Mr Bean conducts

I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while, but a series of unforseen events has prevented me from doing so (that sounds rather grand, but it really isn’t, it just involved a lot of unnecessary hassle and stress…)

Anyway, a more serious post will follow soon but in the meanwhile here’s something humorous to think about!

I was watching TV this evening (during the aforementioned event- see my facebook for more details if you want); Mr Bean happened to be on and one of my all time favourite moments happened to flash up (the pickpocket bit before he conducts is also incredible!)

This got me thinking in a semi-serious way: can modern conductors learn a thing or two from Mr Bean’s style and attitude?! 😛

I’d love to know which brass banded recorded the episode’s music and hear the stories from the players who took part!

Walton by numbers

Today has been a fairly productive day – and by that, I mean a day devoted to practising and learning the Walton concerto. It’s strange that conceptions of ‘work’ can vary so widely: in academia, work means writing/research/reading (what I did for my undergrad degree, in social anthropology at the University of St Andrews), but in the music profession, ‘work’ means practising a piece, either on your own or in a group, or listening to it with a score, or working out fingerings or bowings, or teaching, or any other activity that musicians carry out on a daily basis. Writing and research comes into it, of course (I have to write programme notes for my recital in may, so I have been doing some online research on the Walton), but this is not the bread and butter of what musicians do. I am still getting used to this new conception of work, after 4 years of studying for a very theoretical degree – now I can say things like, ‘I’m off to do some work’, by which I mean viola practice, whereas when I was studying anthropology, my tutors would have frowned at me in vague confusion if I had told them I had to ‘work’ on a piece of music.

Anyway, here is a photo of my viola part of the walton, heavily scribbled on with fingerings/bowings/annotations. Today’s task was to firm up fingerings and bowings so that I can really drum home all the notes into my brain, and to help this, I have used a new way of writing my fingerings in – writing them in red for a shift. This means that my music is now covered in red pen (deliberately) as there are shifts all over the place and it helps focus my brain if I know where they are. I’m hoping this will help me when I practice – a kind of walton by numbers! Let’s hope it works…

‘Think’ by Blackburn

Reading the introduction to ‘Think’ by Simon Blackburn, an accessible guide to basic philosophical ideas, I came across the following on the nature of philosophical reflection:

‘For the last two thousand years the philosophical tradition has been the enemy of this kind of cosy complacency. It has insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. It has insisted on the power of rational reflection to winnow out bad elements in our practices, and to replace them with better ones. It has identified critical self reflection with freedom, the idea being that only when we can see ourselves properly can we obtain control in the direction in which we would wish to move. It is only when we can see our situation steadily and see it whole that we can start to think what to do about it.’ (Blackburn 1999:12)

This quotation explores how reflection is not just an aim in itself, but actually helps us to improve our practice – a kind of self commentary giving us feedback on ourselves. Hopefully I will find that reflection on not only my community work but also on aspects of my viola playing will help me confront issues and overcome them.