“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Plato

Thursday, March 17, 2011

ON PRACTICING


Neil Stannard Piano Studio

Please Read Me First

            There are three main types of practicing, and many variables. The first type of practicing is employed in learning a NEW PIECE (or a new technical concept). The second type is for a piece that is IN PROGRESS; the third type is for a FINISHED PIECE, one that is ready or nearly ready for performance. In an ideal world, there will be fewer new pieces at any given time than in-progress or finished pieces. All practice requires intense focus and concentration. But I find that the concentration required in the solving of problems in a new piece can be the most intense and should therefore come at the beginning of the practice session, when the mind is fresh.

            Psychological impediments sometimes stand in the way of good practicing, or of even getting started. I call these psychological impediments “the committee” that sits on our shoulders giving negative feedback. “Just sit down whether you want to or not,” says cellist Gordon Epperson. And he’s right. The ritual of preparing to work itself can be cathartic.

            But there’s more to it than that, of course. While getting set up, think about a basic plan, i.e., what types of pieces will you practice: new, in progress, finished. Where will you start and what is the first thing you will do and how will you do it? In other words, THINK FIRST before the hand touches the keys. It is the thinking process that protects us from falling victim to what I call MINDLESS ROTE, which is when automatic pilot takes over from the deliberate act of thinking about what you are doing. If you find yourself thinking about what’s for lunch, take a break: a short walk, go for a coffee, read a chapter, play solitaire (but don’t wear out your thumbs texting). For most types of practicing, one hour at a time with a 10 or 15-minute break between hours is ideal. At the end of the break start the THINKING over again: where will I start, what will I do and how will I do it---WHERE, WHAT, HOW?

THE BASIC PLAN

NEW PIECE

1.  SCAN. Play through the piece at a comfortable tempo, stopping and starting as necessary, not to amaze yourself with what a fine sight-reader you are, but rather to identify problem spots. MARK THE HARD SPOTS.

2.  FOCUS. Having located spots that need extra attention, figure out possible fingerings, several even. WRITE THESE IN THE MUSIC in pencil. You won’t remember them, I promise. When deciding on fingerings, try to keep the musical intentions of the composer in mind. (See “Fingering Concepts.”)

3.  LIMIT. Reduce the amount of information you process, even down to just one interval or one leap. Start this very slowly and GRADUALLY, increasing the tempo to as close to the performance tempo as you can, but not faster than you can at this early point!

4.  PROCEED.  Go on to the next hard spot. Do not try to put the measures together yet. Make notes in the margin if you have questions about technical or musical issues. Do this very detailed work for as long as you can concentrate fully. (This type of practice has a learning curve, but in the long run it will cut your required practice time for a successful performance by at least 50%, probably more.)

5.  CONTEXT. Once a particular spot is feeling EASY and rather consistent, even if not quite up to tempo, try putting it in context with the material immediately before it and immediately after. Do this several times. DO NOT FORCE THE TEMPO. A good technique is one that feels easy, never rushed, even in speed.

6. TEMPO. Hard spots must be worked up through several tempos from very slow to the performance tempo. When you’re ready to work up the tempo, that is, when you have solved the technical problem(s), remember to play NO SLOWER THAN YOU NEED TO but NOT FASTER THAN YOU CAN. The metronome can be useful here to keep track of your progress.

7.  MUSIC. The objective, always, is to make music. Keep in mind the quality of sound, the type of articulation required for the musical effect, the dynamic variety.

A PIECE IN PROGRESS

1.  EVALUATE. Make conscious decisions as to what sections need the most technical work. Start with those sections, working through several tempos. Most work should be under performance tempo. Keep in mind that the technique should always feel easy and unhurried.

2.  PERFORM. Try playing at tempo or near tempo in PHRASES or larger MUSICAL SECTIONS. For example, look at the musical form and select part of a section such as a first theme group or the development or the “A” section. This is also a good tool for examining the overall structure or architecture of the piece. Do not play through the piece non-stop at this point.

3.  SHAPES. Look for musical shapes. Where are the highest points in pitch? The lowest? What direction does a line seem to move over all? One approach to bringing the music to life is to play with increasing intensity as a line moves up and less intensity as a line moves down. This is just a starting point, of course.

4.  ARTICULATION. The length of individual notes has a great deal to do with musical expression. Should a group of notes be played very short or played with exaggerated length? What combinations of notes can be grouped under the hand without a thumb-crossing? The composer or editor often makes these decisions, but they are not cut in stone.

5.  DYNAMICS. Make some clear choices about how loud or soft a given passage will be. Where is the loudest place in the piece? The softest? Where are the crescendos? Are any passages especially accented?

FINISHED PIECE

1.  MUSICAL OBJECTIVE. As you worked through the previous section, particularly on SHAPES, ARTICULATION and DYNAMICS, you will have begun to form opinions about the meaning of the music. Ask yourself what the piece is about (happy?sad?). What is it that you like about it? How will you make your listener hear what you hear?

2.  PRACTICE PERFORMING SECTIONS. At this point it is time to start playing in large sections, i.e., an entire exposition or from point A to point B, without stopping. Try to incorporate everything that you have considered in the above. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come off as planned on the first try. Keep in mind that the technique should always feel easy, unforced, unhurried.

3.  PRACTICE PERFORMING. Play the entire piece through up to tempo without stopping no matter what happens. This is a diagnostic tool and sometimes it can be helpful to record the effort. Afterward, consider how close you came to meeting your goals. It won’t be 100% the first time. Don’t expect it to be. Do whatever cleanup is necessary. Make notes in the score. Try again, but not more than 3 times in one sitting. After the final try, do whatever cleanup you need, i.e., slow technical work. Then LEAVE IT. Go on to something else or take a break.

4.  PRACTICE PERFORMANING SLOWLY.  Play the entire piece as a performance, but well under tempo. This removes much of the tactile memory, requiring more thoughtful, deliberate playing. It is also a very good test of memory

NINETY PERCENT OF PRACTICING IS SLOWER THAN THE PERFORMANCE TEMPO.




           



            

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