My Rehearsal Room: Mark Sadka

My Rehearsal Room: Mark Sadka

Understanding your own working habits to help you practice better. 

Mark Sadka
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Mark Sadka

Understanding your own working habits to help you practice better. 

I consider myself a professional musician.  At the age of 24, I have been playing music for 20 years and received my first professional gig 10 years ago.  Since then I have commenced multiple international tours with various professional groups, ranging from Two Steps from Hell in America to the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra here in Australia.  I play several instruments, but my primary focus has been the violin which I am very partial to.  In my experience with music, there are few things of which I do not possess vast knowledge of. Recently, I commenced heavy study at the University of Melbourne starting my concurrent degrees of Masters of Management and a Diploma of Arts, and I have encountered a unique problem: how do you study or work in a separate area full time while continuing to maintain a professional performing career?  Using my previous knowledge and experience, I have been able to address this problem with several key points to help me maintain a high level of performing, as well as achieving good grades.  These points can be summarized in one sentence: “Learn how you learn.”

The human brain is a fascinating organ.  It has capabilities far beyond our understanding, and adaptive abilities that are consistently changing to suit our needs on a subconscious level.  If a person knows how the brain generally processes new information and how their individual brain best processes knowledge, then they will be able to gain clear advantages in achieving their study and practice goals.  For example, it has been proven in multiple studies that the human brain starts to lose focus after 10 minutes of repetitive action.  If we take this number and consider the hours of practice generally necessary for an serious musician (say, three hours a day minimum), we will find that our brains are commonly on ‘autopilot mode’ and are not clearly focused by the end of our practice session.  This means that our practice will be wasted in comparison to having clear focus, and is the reason why they give us breaks at the halfway point in most three hour lectures at university. Ten minutes of clear concentrated practice is generally more valuable than one entire hour of being zoned out.  Using this basic system, I vary my practice to never go for much longer than 10 minutes on one particular objective.  I plan my practice sessions out so that I can return to the previous goals later on in the same session, which leads to two very clear advantages.  The first and most obvious is that no time is wasted, because I am constantly focused on what I am trying to do when my concentration is renewed as I change what I am working on, and thus never become distracted or zoned out.

The second advantage is based on the ‘theory of relearning’.  In high school, I took a class in psychology (yes, being a nerd and actually learning something has helped me in life!) where I was taught about this theory.  The relearning method states that as time passes, the memory nodes in our brain deteriorate and thus we begin to forget stuff.  This is one of the reasons why continuous practice is essential for any serious musician.  When we return to a deteriorated memory we will learn it faster, because not all of the information will have been forgotten.  The math suggests that it takes approximately half the time to relearn what we are focused on.  When I first learned a G major scale, it took approximately 10 minutes for me to roughly play through the whole scale as a child.  Because I have forgotten and relearned the scale thousands of times by this point in my career, I am able to ‘learn it’ very quickly as a result - each time I relearned the scale, the amount of time spent in total was halved.  So, if I begin a practice session starting with a scale, then moving on to repertoire, then returning to said scale, not only will I have forgotten the scale and have to relearn it, but it will take half the time to relearn the scale as well.  No time is wasted, and your concentration is always at 100% focus because you never give yourself a chance to zone out.  This is also a major preventative measure in practicing something incorrectly, which is very easy to do when you zone out and will make it necessary to unlearn what you have learned incorrectly.

The largest advantage you can give yourself, however, is by knowing how you learn personally as an individual.  I learned violin through the Suzuki method.  This method has been argued by many as having both good and bad points. It focuses on learning through playing pieces and by hearing them constantly.  Due to this method, I am especially adept at learning by hearing the piece I am trying to perfect, which means I know exactly what I need to do in order to play it, thus saving me an immense amount of time.  This knowledge allows me to plan my practice sessions in great detail to keep up with the large amount of work that is required.  Balance and self-discipline are essential characteristics and qualities that any serious musician will need to enhance their practice.  The only way I am able to truly keep up with both a Masters course and a Diploma as well as practice is by planning exactly what must be required far in advance, which leads me to the next point that I must bring up.  Professional groups such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, and the National Orchestra of America, will have no tolerance for anyone that is not able to play the repertoire at a professional level.  The best way to keep up with this level is to focus on parts of the repertoire that are especially difficult for you as an individual.  Because I know that I personally struggle more with techniques that are heavily dependent on the right hand, I can break down enormous amounts of work and focus on smaller passages that I will need to practice in greater detail.  

The last thing that I must mention is the danger with using the method above.  I remember once I practiced a particularly challenging passage for hours for a rehearsal the next day.  I spent maybe 8-10 hours practicing for my first rehearsal with Orchestra Victoria to be as prepared as possible, so I would hopefully fit in with all the amazing musicians in the group. The orchestra got to the part, we played it through, and I nailed it.  The conductor then looked at the violins and said, “I don’t like that. Please do it with more staccato”.  I was unable to play the passage for the rest of the rehearsal because I could not play it any other way than how I practiced it.  I had to spend maybe 20 hours changing the passage by resetting what I had already accomplished, which was almost double my original amount of practice time.  The best advice that any musician can receive, and that I was told years ago, is to find the balance between your work and your practice and to never learn anything in a permanent manner.  It is a very fine line in which you can both over and under practice to detrimental effects.  This does not even take into consideration the kind of performance you are doing, such as solo or orchestral. I am only able to keep up with this intense workload because I “learnt how I learnt”, and I highly recommend you do the same.