Unpacking Yo-Yo Ma’s practice routine — part 1 of 2

16 years ago, as a high school freshman, I got to go backstage with some of my musician friends and meet Yo-Yo Ma.


@ Boettcher Concert Hall, 2001

He did a Q&A and while he’d probably given his answers hundreds of times, two really stood out to me. This post will trace the implications of his response to the first question:

Q: “How much do you practice?”

A: “As little as possible!” [laughter]

The meaning of his answer evolved for me as I advanced, and tracing the way I related to the question at various points of my development has been invaluable as I teach my own students.

I think that fundamentally, the goals of practice itself change as students advance.

Following is an account of the goals of sitting in the practice room. It is not a how-to manual on practice, nor will it provide techniques for practice. It is simply one possible roadmap to evaluate your own course of progress. By “beginner” I will mean amateurs of all levels. By “advancing” I will mean semi-professional; good enough to get an ongoing gig. By “advanced” I will mean world-class.


Fundamentally, as a beginner, what is the goal of practice? Practicing should mean cranking out as many (correct) notes as possible to familiarize yourself with the instrument. Focus on your skill at the instrument & comfort in playing & performing.

When you’ve familiarized yourself with the instrument in a deep and meaningful way, the oft-forgotten step for advancing players is what Yo-Yo hints at: your practice goal is to *get better at practice itself*. Focus on deepening your knowledge and maximizing your work in minimum time.

Then, once you have a reliable scheme to perform consistently & comfortably at a high level, your practice goals revolve around interpretation and your contribution as a performer of this work.


For beginners, in your practice you’re trying to:

1) Organize your body to play the instrument with a good sound.

Hint: this goal accounts for most teachers’ emphasis on scales & arpeggios; navigating your way around with pleasant tone is, by definition, good technique).

2) Organize your brain to play the notes in time.

Hint: begin working with a metronome — like Nome (free for iOS or Android)— for right now, just learning to stay with it is a great goal.

3) Organize your ears to play the right notes

Hint: begin working with a tuner — like Pitchronome (for iOS) — if you play a pitched instrument.

4) Engage your imagination for things like dynamics and timbre by listening to as much music as possible.

Hint: obsess about music that features your instrument and make your own Spotify playlists.

5) Don’t make the same mistakes twice: evaluate why you missed a note.

Hint: something was un-organized and that made you miss. What was it?

Focusing on this last question is the biggest thing you can do to speed up your advancement.

Your goal is to learn your instrument and the basic language of music. Spend as much (mindful) time at the instrument as possible to gain precision & fluency.


For advancing students, you’re trying to:

1) Analyze which of the practice techniques that you’ve learned helps you make the fastest progress.

Hint: there’s a reason your teacher talks about practicing in bursts, practicing slowly, having a drone & metronome going at the same time, and recording your practice.

2)Systematize your practice for maximum efficiency using those techniques.

Hint: small sections (a 4-bar phrase, max) repeated X number of times with Y goals for each repetition, strung together to the next 4-bar phrase once its practice is complete.

3) Organize the challenges that this piece of music presents.

Hint: I’m a fan of coloring my music if my brain doesn’t automatically wrap itself around it.


Tim McCormack’s “

Drift Matter” for Solo Cello

4) Listen to other works by the composer, the composer’s teachers, and the composer’s colleagues to assimilate the style:

Hint: the sound of classical-era music is different than the sound of romantic-era music because of things like the attack & decay of notes, vibrato, acceptability of rubato, etc.

5) Critique multiple interpretations of the piece you’re working on in order to form your own interpretation of the work.

Hint: (legally) photocopy your music and use different colors to mark what different performers do.

If you’re still missing notes and rhythms, more organization is probably necessary — it separates beginning players from advancing players.

Your goal is to learn how *you* practice most efficiently and effectively. Experiment to make the most of your practice time so that a task that took five minutes yesterday takes four today. Spend some time with the music, away from the instrument, to start engaging directly with the ideas of great composers. Copy the masters’ interpretation, for now, to find your own voice.


Note: The following section is included less for the advanced players than for the advancing; every advanced player has his/her own routine — this is simply a presentation of the earlier goals’ outcome.

Advanced players are trying to:

1)Dissect the piece of music, perhaps even without an instrument. Key areas, phrase structure, formal architecture, harmonies, motivic evolution.

Hint: I spend almost as much time at coffee shops with scores as I do in a practice room.

2)Research performance style for this part of this composer’s output; Beethoven’s 1st Symphony is “classical” where Beethoven’s 9th is “romantic.”

Hint: If you haven’t checked out The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross, for instance, you’re missing out!

3)Implement his/her systematized practice routine.

Hint: I can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, how much time I will need in a practice room before performing a new piece of music.

4) Minimize his/her practice time.

Hint: after years of playing, I’ve systematized what works most quickly for me. Why do anything else?

5)Preclude the possibility of missing by practicing in such a way that he/she *can’t* play imperfectly.

Hint: practice slowly. No, slower still. Yeah that’s… *almost* as slowly as I practice. I use a drone note with a metronome at the same time (which is why I created Pitchronome).

Advanced players’ goal is to interpret deeply without the instrument getting in the way. Like Yo-Yo says, they practice as little as possible (because why waste time?!) and in such a way that “missing” a note or idea is impossible. They put their knowledge of theory and history to use, informing their artistic decisions. Then, they get outta there!

For a clear example that this is what the greatest in the world are thinking about, check out a Juilliard Masterclass with one of the pedagogues I most admire, Violin Professor Paul Kantor.

  • In the Carmen Fantasy: phrase-structure derived from pitch content.

  • In the 2nd Bach Sonata: formal architecture of the 4 movements considered together.

  • In the Sibelius Concerto: subtle differences in the printed copy and the composer’s manuscript, which Paul went to Helsinki to acquire.



Having traced the evolution of methodical & structured practice to its logical conclusion, it looks like practice is kind of a bummer, doesn’t it?

But wait! There’s hope! Yo-Yo’s answer to the second question!

Stay “tuned” for Part 2…

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Thanks to Joey Hosford, Sarah Imbriaco, Bruce Moore and David Ormai for reading drafts of this post.