Lesson plans for a happier practice

Susanna Klein wearing a black motion capture suit with nodes plays the violin while standing in front of a screen

In the field of music, there are a staggering number of injuries. Recent surveys have shown nearly three-fourths of professional musicians have experienced injuries and pain that affected their playing. These range from musculoskeletal injuries—think tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and back and neck issues—to hearing loss and tinnitus. Even neurological issues—like focal dystonia, which causes involuntary muscular contractions—are common among musicians.

VCUarts music professor Susanna Klein says it doesn’t have to be this way. For years, Klein has been studying and presenting on injury prevention and informed practice techniques. The two are inextricably linked, she says, yet few musicians truly consider their practice habits until an injury forces them to take a different approach.

Klein, who is also a professional violinist, knows this firsthand.

“I’ve been injured many times,” she says. “Never catastrophically, but the maximum was three months when I couldn’t play at all. I learned how to practice without my instrument.

“When I got my instrument back and I could use both, I could see how much more efficient I was, because I had three or four methods of practice rather than just the one I thought I really needed.”

Klein’s research interests initially focused on how musicians could leverage technology to their practice technique. She used iPads to film students practicing, sometimes turning off the sound and using the footage to study bow grip and posture. When VCU opened a motion capture studio, Klein and her students suited up and used the technology to study how their bodies moved—or didn’t—when performing.

Susanna Klein holds an iPad while instructing a student playing the violin

Her focus on practice technique shifted, though, when she received a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund (PeRQ) grant in 2017. With the backing of the university, Klein planned to study musicians’ abilities to regulate and monitor their habits and develop a mobile app to use during practice.

“It wasn’t designed to study the psychological habits of practicing,” Klein says. “It really was about how long [do people rehearse]? When do they feel pain? It was objective measures.

“But I could see that so many people were actually unhappy with their practice and unhappy as musicians. When it was just me, I could say, ‘I’m not feeling confident,’ or whatever. When I could see it more objectively, I could see that everybody needs a little help with this.”

Klein soon honed in on three qualities of practice—efficiency, empowerment and joy—that she believes are interrelated. Efficiency is about getting the most amount of work done in the least amount of time; it’s important for making progress and for not getting injured from over-practicing. Empowerment is having a positive outlook about staying on course and reaching goals. And joy is simply having fun.

The three components make up a three-legged stool, Klein says. If one gets out of whack, the others suffer.

“Let’s say you practice for a long time, but you don’t feel like you’re getting anything done,” she says. “You actually get depressed, and you don’t feel empowered. And empowerment is important if you need to perform for others or find new ways of working on the same material. You’re likely to practice less because you don’t feel like it matters. If you feel efficient and empowered, but you’re not having any fun, game over. You’re not going to keep going, because oftentimes, we have to practice when we don’t want to.”

Klein has a number of methods for strengthening all three, including some of the technological tools she previously used to study practice technique. Sometimes, she says, practicing in a motion capture suit or using apps is just what a student needs to shake up their routine and be inspired by the novelty. She also encourages students to step away from their instrument and spend more time singing scores, looking at a piece and writing it out, and playing the same piece on the piano.

She recently outlined these techniques—and many more—in Practizma Practice Journal. The journal lays out a 16-week roadmap for musicians to get outside their comfort zone and push themselves. One week, she challenges musicians to pick a flaw and exaggerate it several times in practice before then playing it the correct way. Another asks them to record themselves five days in a row and look for themes at the end of the week.

While Practizma draws on techniques Klein had been using or teaching to students for years, writing the book nudged her to test out the comprehensive roadmap she was proposing. The experience was a reminder that her own practice habits are still evolving. In one exercise, Klein listed what makes practicing easier, and realized she’s inspired by taking a lesson. Now, whenever she travels, she lines up a lesson with a professional in the area, such as the concertmaster of the Florida Orchestra or the New York City Ballet.

“[The journal process] was really hard, and it was humbling,” she says. “It also helped me see myself on a continuum. When I have the practice blues, there’s nothing wrong with me. It doesn’t mean I’m not meant to be a musician; it’s a normal part of it.

“We go into music because we’re deeply connected to it, and we think it’ll make us really happy. If you’re driving yourself crazy and have lots of shame, or you’re always comparing yourself to others, you’re robbing yourself of all the joy.”