TAO September 2018–The Practice of Practice

The Practice of Practice

Last month, we took an honest look at the faults in our practice habits and outlined a four-step process for improving them. These four steps, Analysis, Diagnosis, Correction, and Evaluation, help us to uncover bad habits, find a practice technique to solve the problem, apply it, and assess its effectiveness. Over time, using this process can help us to become more efficient rehearsal technicians. For some, this process will seem familiar, but for many, mastering these four steps represents quite a challenge. Let’s consider what learning a piece of music could be like if we had no bad habits. The following graphic will guide us through a series of interlinking steps that lead to polished performances.

REFERENCE RECORDING: The first step is to listen to a good performance of the new piece. Having heard the piece prior to practice makes us confident that we are learning the correct notes and rhythms. It clarifies the piece’s structure, and it accelerates the learning process. As our understanding of the piece matures, we might decide to diverge from the recording’s interpretation, but hearing the music before learning it is a great place to start.

NOTES: By breaking the learning process into small, easily accomplishable steps, you can take the stress out of learning music. Choose a short passage; learn the notes and learn their fingerings and pedaling before putting them together with the rhythm. Without the pressure of keeping time, we have the leisure to consider the most efficient fingering/pedaling. This is also the best time to confirm accidentals and to work out contrapuntal lines. Working in this way allows the brain the time it needs for complete, accurate processing.

RHYTHMS: Practice rhythm alone. With four limbs to coordinate, there is plenty of work to do. Again, working in small sections and at a careful tempo, tap the piece’s rhythms on a tabletop with your hands and on the floor with your feet like a percussionist. Master each staff before combining the hands, or the hands with the feet. Work for confident accuracy without pushing the tempo.

TECHNICAL INTEGRATION: Still working in small sections and at a slow tempo, combine your accurate, well-planned fingering/pedaling with your well-prepared rhythmic co-ordinations. Slow, careful work at this stage is preparation for exciting, confident performances later. Do not increase the tempo until you are able to play the excerpt accurately and without hesitation several times in a row. Use the metronome to push the tempo one click at a time.
Putting rhythm and notes together is a big task. Methodically applying a variety of techniques during this period keeps practice interesting. I recommend looking at some of the resources in last month’s column. Learning how to guide oneself efficiently through the integrative stage creates momentum that encourages more accomplishment.

SCORE STUDY: So far, the learning process has focused upon mastering the technical aspects of the piece; the goal being accurate notes and rhythms. During the note learning phase, it is also important to explore the score away from the console. Studying the score opens the musical imagination. It reveals the meaning of the piece. Score study is not passively staring at the pages of notes you are learning. It is an active search for clues as to the composer’s intention. What did the composer want to communicate? How is the piece organized? What is the “why” of the piece?

MUSICAL COHERENCE: Discovering answers to the questions raised in listening to the reference recording and in studying the score help make sense of the music. Fusing technical preparation with the meaning of the music is the second stage of integration. Expressivity is the focus. The primary question is, “How can I convey the music’s intent in my playing?” To bring the expressive content of the piece into physical gesture at the console is the happy task of the musician. Regardless of our innate talent or the quality of our training, we can always learn something from other experienced musicians. This is the purpose of a masterclass. Consider attending one!

RELIABLE REPRODUCTION: Being able to deliver an accurate musical performance is not the final goal, but it is an important resting point in a piece’s preparation. This is the time to perform maintenance on shaky passages. If you can, let the piece mature here while you gain more insight into its content and more freedom in playing it.

INTENTIONAL COMMUNICATION: The final factor in preparing a new piece of music is learning to communicate with an audience. A feedback loop exists between performer and audience. Each performer responds to the presence of listeners differently, so practicing with an audience is important. Enlist the help of a few friends.

DYNAMIC PERFORMANCE: By following the previous steps, you are ready to give a dynamic performance. Together, you and the audience are present with each other. You want to include who they are and what they bring with them into your performance. They are a part of the NOW of musical expression. Expect inspiration and let it guide you. It’s time––you are the channel––let the music flow through you!

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