Welcome back to my discussion on developing and improving personal practice habits and skills!
Following on from my last post in which I discussed my philosophy behind developing a more effective and rewarding practice routine, I now want to share the actual nuts and bolts of how one can actually maximise their practice sessions through examining specific, proven practice strategies.
C. Improving our actual practice approach: Making each session count!
One of the most effective ways to approach a work is to first identify the challenging passages. Next, isolate those sections, working through them slowly and then putting them back into the context of the work when sufficient accuracy is achieved. Do not reinforce mistakes by repeating them, but stop and identify what the specific problem or challenge is. Now, determine how you will fix it. Your teacher’s shared strategies will be of great assistance in this exercise.
2. Learn to identify trouble points through the comparative listening approach.
At times, it may be useful to record yourself (audio or video) to identify specific trouble spots. If you are having difficulty with a particular passage, it often helps to play through the section very slowly, experimenting with a variety of articulations, rhythmic sub-divisions and intervalic variations. Try alternative finger combinations/slide positions. If it is a rhythmic problem then try counting (sub-dividing) and fingering (slide shift) or buzzing through the passage. Do not play the passage any faster than you can play through it correctly! Slow practice is best when addressing individual trouble spots. This strategy will aid in automating your approach to the passage.
The Comparative Listening Process -
I have an aural model of what is to be recreated, either from my teacher, musical director or another source, such as a professional recording, or live performance. I try to re-create the model. Following my 1st attempt, I now compare my performance against the model: I make the necessary adjustments, (teacher suggestions) and try again. I repeat this process until I achieve a close approximation of the model.
3. Be patient!
Begin by playing through the problem passage very slowly, if need be, one note at a time, until you are playing the rhythms, fingerings, articulations and pitches correctly. Once accuracy has been achieved, then repeat that section at least 3 times. Now, gradually increase the tempo until the passage is up to speed. Remember; it is essential to begin the passage at a slow tempo and gradually increase your speed while playing the passage correctly rather than attempting to play an entire piece at performance speed, making numerous errors. Remember: We don’t generally play difficult passages slow enough for long enough periods.
4. Trial expressive interpretation possibilities.
Once the passage has been mastered you can then begin to focus on expressing yourself through the passage/work instead of being limited to playing the correct note at the right time. Musicality can be defined through demonstrating the ability to interpret a piece with emotional connection through identifiable phrases and cadence points, with shape, contour and nuance. These decisions are generally informed through harmonic “Departure/Arrival”. This is what distinguishes an outstanding performance from that of a predictable one.
5. We all need inspiration.
First, follow the printed directions such as dynamics, style of playing, and the tempo, or speed at which the music should be played. But remember; these are only ‘instructions’ that are actually derived from the underlying harmonic chord progression and the unique interplay between harmony, rhythm and melody. It is best to ask ‘why the instructions are there in the first place.’ To what are the instructions pointing and leading us to actually do at the moment. Can the interpretation be different tomorrow?
You can gain additional interpretive insight and inspiration through listening to fine recordings of the same piece performed by various artists and attending to their individual interpretations. You can also gain excellent insight by researching the history of the composer and the era in which the music was composed.
6. Be prepared to experiment!
Be sure to try out different phrasing/breathing/fingerings/alternative slide positions. Also explore variations in tone production, articulations, style, and intensity. Memorising a piece may assist you in achieving more freedom of expression. Once you know a piece so well that you are "free" from the technical demands, you may find it easier to interpret music on your own.
7. Productive Review Process
At the end of each practice session, try playing straight through the piece, enjoying your successes and consolidating your gains. The progress made during addressing ‘problem spot’ practicing can be reinforced and locked in. And, you will also feel a sense of accomplishment, hearing the improvements you have made in the full context of the work. “Perfect practice makes perfect". All it takes is commitment, persistence, patience, consistency and concentration. We can then begin to enjoy the fruits of rewarding, productive practice – real musical investment.
8. Come Prepared
Be sure that you have all of your materials handy and organised, including music, tuner, pencil, metronome and any other items you plan to incorporate into your practice. Use your pencil to note fingerings, phrasing, breathing points and any other pertinent information. A serviceable music stand is essential and always employ the best posture and hand position, whether sitting or standing.
As to the materials ...
- Breath control tools
- Buzzing aides
- A book of warm-up studies consisting of series of systematic long tone, lip slurs and agility and range-building studies over a wide compass
- A rhythm vocabulary builder/primer
- A comprehensive scales and arpeggios collection
- A few method books containing technical exercises and etudes, studies that provide for various combinations of meters, rhythmic syncopation challenges, clef/transposition studies, alternative fingerings/slide positions, articulations, phrasing and styles.
- A few of method books consisting of several melodic/vocalise studies, across all keys. These are helpful in building expressive phrasing, contour, shape and nuance interpretation as it relates to the implied harmonic progressions.
- Solo Repertoire
- Ensemble repertoire
- Orchestral excerpts
9. Be sure to divide your practice segments equitably.
Consider using a mix of scales, etudes, and repertoire selections (concertos, sonatas, orchestral music, etc. However, you may not have time to work on every element in every practice session, plan according to your time limitations.
Consider building your practice sessions around the following five categories
a. Warm-up routine - be sure to vary this every day
- Lip buzz exercises & long tone, intonation studies,
- lip slurs, lip trills (brass)
- lip/finger/wrist flexibility exercises
- endurance and range building
b. Technical ‘A’ - rhythmic exercises that include
- Various syncopation and meter combination challenges
- Major/minor/whole tone/chromatic/modes – arpeggios: Maj, min, aug/ dim/ related 7ths various articulation combinations
- Technical studies/etudes: exercises involving mixtures of rhythms, articulations, key centres, mixed time signatures & meters
c. Technical ‘B" - Melodic studies exploring:
- dynamic contrast and expression
- shape, contour,
- harmonic profiling
d. Solo repertoire
- current works under preparation
- projected works
- past works
e. Ensemble repertoire*
- Remember: Responsible ensemble participation also requires systematic preparation enabling one to make significant ensemble contributions.
Be sure to catch my final instalment "Informing the Format: How to put it all together"
Once again, thank you for reading!
Warm regards and best wishes for your next practice session.