Have you ever gone to a restaurant, ordered an entree you’ve never had before, and thought to yourself, gee, that was tasty, I wish I could get the recipe and make it myself at home.

Well, you’re not alone. Indeed, there are websites devoted to reverse engineered recipes of popular dishes from various restaurants around the country — like KFC, California Pizza Kitchen, P.F. Chang’s, Starbucks, even Ben & Jerry’s and Girl Scout cookies!

You can use the same concept of reverse engineering in the practice room.

What does reverse engineering look like?

Imagine this scenario. You step into the practice room, and begin practicing a piece that’s relatively new, but is coming along nicely. You start at the beginning, but stop when you get to a section that doesn’t sound so great. You play it a few times and futz around for a bit until one repetition sounds pretty darn good. You think to yourself “Yeah, that’s more like it,” and resume playing until you get to the next section that needs some work.

Is that reverse engineering? Meh, not so much. In fact, that couldn’t even really be called practicing. Is that a little harsh? Maybe, but what actual learning has taken place? Do you know how to consistently replicate the result that you just stumbled upon? Nope. You accidentally made some fried chicken that tasted like the Colonel’s, but didn’t take the time to identify the 11 secret herbs and spices and write down the secret recipe. Good luck doing it again when you only get one shot at it.

Let’s try again – what does reverse engineering look like?

Imagine this scenario. You step into the practice room, and begin practicing a piece that’s relatively new, but is coming along nicely. You start at the beginning but stop when you get to a section that doesn’t sound so great. You play it a few times and futz around for a bit until one repetition sounds pretty darn good. You say to yourself, “Yeah, that’s more like it — I wonder what I just did?

Then, you put together some ideas about what enabled you to get this result and begin experimenting with different combinations of variables to see which combination of factors leads to that highly desirable sound, intonation, articulation, etc.

Was it something I did with the point of contact of my bow and string? Was it something I did with adjusting the pressure of the mouthpiece against my face? Perhaps it was something I did with my breathing? Having identified the critical ingredients, and tested it a few times to make sure it’s consistent, you write it down, and move on to the next section that needs work.

If you fail to stop, you’ve just missed out on a golden opportunity to figure out what went right, and how to replicate this in the future. Instead, what’s likely to happen, is that when you try to play this again tomorrow, it’s going to sound exactly like it usually does, and you won’t know exactly what to tweak to get the result you want.

Pay attention to what’s already working

Most of us spend far more time identifying and analyzing problems than we do identifying and analyzing the bright spots in our playing. Try asking yourself these questions — What sounds great? What am I doing right in that spot? How can I build on that? How can I transfer those principles to other places? Funny enough, there are often many clues, ideas, and solutions hiding in those bright spots that can help you improve other areas of your playing.

For instance, I often struggled to play 5ths in tune. However, as I became more aware of the profound impact that light finger pressure had on my ability to shift accurately, this led to some additional personal breakthroughs in my ability to play 5ths (and all double and triple stops) better in tune, as in my experience, it turned out that the key ingredient in both accurate shifts and double stop intonation was exactly the same.

The one-sentence summary

Ask yourself – what am I doing well, and how can I do more of this?