How to Learn a Piece

June 30th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing

I. Getting Acquainted

A.   Read through several times at a medium tempo to get a musical feeling for the work. Play with feeling and with a gorgeous sound, getting as many of the details as you   reasonably can.

B.   Study the score (orchestra or piano part) to learn its texture and harmony.

C.   Purchase a recording and play it as background music in your room.

D.   Research the background of the composer and the piece.

E.   Sing the piece to get a feeling for the lines.

F.   Clap complicated rhythms and mark if necessary. Subdivide!

G.  Imagine who or what might be singing or playing different parts of the piece (e.g., opera singer, pianist, clown, monster, tank, etc.) What is the story line?

II. Phrasing, Fingerings and Bowings

A.   Play each section slowly, outlining phrase structures clearly in your mind.  Mark phrasing crescendos and diminuendos, high points, and low points.  If you already have a sense of a character for a section from studying the score, mark an adjective or word that will help you remember.

  1. Plan your bowings, with a clear understanding of bow distribution.  You may find it helpful to mark parts of bow at specific points. I also frequently use “MB” (more bow) or “SB” (save or slow bow).
  2. Put in fingerings that make sense with the phrase or the color that you think appropriate.  Balance musical fingerings with practicality.  Sometimes the “expensive” fingering isn’t worth it, and sometimes it is crucial!
  3. Plan vibrato intensity, which may or may not match bow intensity. It may be helpful to circle special notes where you want more or less (e.g., appoggiaturas, cadences, in piano dynamics, etc.)

III. Identifying Problem Areas

A. Without playing, go through your piece and mark passages that you expect will  need extra attention with a star in the margin.

B. Plan your practicing for the week, estimating the time it will take to work through a page or a movement.  Keep a log to see how well you estimated the difficulty and the time necessary to bring the passage to a reasonable level.

IV. Working

  1. Woodshed difficult passages slowly.  Do not play through the whole work at this point; analyze the difficulty of the passage and try to figure out a solution for each successive event.
  2. Analyze what each hand is doing separately. Left Hand: intonation, finger patterns, scales, shifts, vibrato, hidden double stops, finger placement.  Right Hand: sounding point, weight, speed, bow distribution and planning, tone colors.
  3. Build in releases: legs, pelvis, shoulders, neck, elbows, wrists, knuckles, fingers, breath.  Try to find the ideal way for your body to perform each skill required in a passage; memorize the feeling and remember which area of release is most important for each passage.
  4. To build left hand work: listen constantly and strive for absolutely perfect intonation; play legato for intonation practice; play everything possible in doublestops; keep fingers lightly on the string to block hand as much as possible; do not overpress; use dotted rhythms, tapping in a tempo for evenness, high lifts and drops, and necklace technique to build speed.
  5. To build right hand work: always use as beautiful and rich a sound as possible, even in soft dynamics; pay particular attention to releases; understand which part of your arm or hand is responsible for the action; practice fast passages with open strings; use “rhythm diet,” playing each note 4x, 3x, 2x, then 1x, starting down bow and then up bow for exact coordination of left and right hands.
  6. Daily metronome diet: start at least 2x slower; work gradually up to tempo and slightly beyond.  Start and stay at the level of perfection.
  7. Mental practice: feel, hear, see, and do—all in thought, with no physical movement.
  8. Memorize immediately, in small bits.  Work on a bar or even one part of a bar, turn away and practice the passage by memory, turn back to reinforce.  Do not allow yourself to grope for notes; play slowly and turn back before you make a mistake.  Memorize everything, including dynamics, bowings, terms, tempo changes, rests, and orchestra tuttis. Count rests aloud.

 V. Integration

A.  Continue to perfect difficult passages, with some daily woodshedding.

B.  Begin to play through larger sections of piece, e.g., begin shortly before each difficult passage and play slightly beyond. Do not forget your releases! Remind yourself before you enter the difficult stretch.

C.  Integrate improved sections into whole work.

D.  Notice stubborn problem areas and spend extra woodshedding time on these,  reducing or eliminating time spent on others.

E.  Record practice room runthroughs; listen and analyze remaining difficulties, if  any.

F.  Begin to let go of as many technical thoughts as possible while playing through, turning your attention to musical and expressive work.

VI. The Big Picture

A. Actively listen to recordings of the work, noting differences of character,  expression, tempo, stroke and articulation, etc. If applicable, find recordings of performers from different eras, and note stylistic changes.

B.  Listen to recordings of other works by the same composer.

C.  Research the era and country in which the composer lived.  Read literature and look at art from the composer’s time.

D. Think about what it is that you are doing to make the piece your own, while playing with an authenticity to reflect the composer’s wishes.  What is the larger message of your performance?

E. Find several opportunities to perform the work while it is at its present peak; then put it away and return to it occasionally, in order to keep it in your active  playing repertoire.

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