I'm a little under the weather… be back soon!
in Moscow, 1958
Once you have performed a piece, keeping it on the back burner (as opposed to in the basement) is relatively easy! By following an organized plan, you can expand your repertoire and have many more choices when putting programs together.
To accomplish this, you will need a notebook or calendar dedicated only to tracking rep maintenance.
Here’s how it works. After performing a program, put it on the shelf for a month. Note the date a month later on your calendar. Then, on that date “perform” it w/o stopping. Note any mistakes, correct them (fingering, memory slip), and put the music on the shelf again.
Write down the next date to take out the program.
This is for maintenance only, so practicing this music is not important right now.
When another month passes, repeat the same procedure.
After 2 or 3 months, you will be able to notice whether the mistakes are in the same place each time or in different spots. The best scenario is for them to be in different spots. Nothing to worry about.
If the mistakes are in the same place time after time, that indicates you have learned something inaccurately or not well enough. So you’ll need to take the passage out of context and relearn it.
To develop a large repertoire, different programs can be assigned to different days. You can also break up the program into sets, groups, or halves to spread your maintenance work over more days. This approach is valuable if you want to save time on a maintenance day to practice current rep, too.
When programming a piece from the maintenance list, all you’ll need to do is put it into your regular practice schedule somewhere near the concert. Maybe a month before? Two weeks? That depends on what works for you.
The beauty of this plan is that you will still know the music! You can avoid completely relearning something you played 3 years ago.
It bothers me to see fingerings in a piece I’ve performed but no longer remember. I’ve tried the maintenance idea, and can say it works! And the total effort it takes is not that great.
Today I practiced 2 Bach preludes & fugues, playing individual parts & harmonic structure in order to listen better. Besides, it was hot! I also practiced spots that needed attention in all 3 Messiaen preludes I’m playing in NY.
Image by gullevek via Flickr
This is Step 3 of “The ABC’s of Practicing,” I suppose. Now that you’ve learned each section of your piece, how can you get it all together so you can play it?
Are all the separate sections the same tempo? (Not necessarily performance tempo.) If some sections are slower than others, you’ll be a lot happier if you fix that now. A smooth performance requires that there’s nothing you need to slow down to negotiate.
That includes ornaments, by the way.
Have you looked and listened for glitches? The chief candidate for top of the list may be going from the end of one staff to the beginning of the next. Page turns are also at the top of the glitch list. If you learn them now (end of 1st page, beginning of 2nd), you’ll deal better when you put the entire piece together.
Being able to proceed from one section to the next will be your new focus. Try starting at the end of the 1st section (last phrase), then continue through the 1st phrase of the next section. This may bear repeating a few times, since it’s new.
Starting at the beginning of the piece is not going to help here. How will you still be alert for the transitions on the last page?
So practice the transitions. Then try going backwards. You could start just before the last section, then play to the end. Then back up one more section and see how that sounds.
If certain problems appear, don’t be afraid to take those spots out of context, work on them, and put them back into the piece. Doing this will save you time. Remember, you don’t want to reinforce mistakes.
Also, try to remember that even though you’re doing construction work right now, this is music. You can be as expressive as you intend to be. Saving that for later will result in sounding like the expression was, well, pasted on at the end.
You may want to start your practice session with the piece you’re pulling together for a few days, or every other day. Your focus is most acute at the beginning of your practice time. You’ll know when you can move your new piece to a later spot on your list. Your cue will be that you feel more comfortable with the entire piece.
Today I practiced 2 Bach preludes & fugues and 1 Messiaen prelude. Since it’s still HHH out (and in), I gave it an hour and 1/2.
Image by daniel incandela via Flickr
One of my former teachers advocated forte practicing. She employed this at all times. I’m not a fan of full-time use ~ it wears out my hands!
Practicing with the dynamics you’re going to use is just as important. Your results will feel awfully uncomfortable if this is done at the last minute.
However, playing forte is very helpful in learning chords and/or fingerings. When a piece is new, you will learn it faster if you can hear it, and feel it in the muscles of your hands and fingers.
Forte practice works the machinery ~ your hands. You need it to feel the shapes of intervals and chords in your muscles. Having done that, your muscles will recall the shapes. You’ll find everything faster.
Sometimes when I’ve played a piece for a long time, I become sloppy. Notes don’t sound from time to time, or a fingering will slip. Once in a while, a dense chord will morph into one note less. (Hmmm… wonder why it suddenly seems easier?)
Slo-mo practice will make obvious any sloppiness that may have crept in. And the most effective way to correct the problems is to practice forte. It’s a great way to remind your hands what they need to be doing.
Today, however, is good old New England HHH weather. Any movement causes profuse sweating. So I practiced 2 Bach preludes & fugues and 1 Messiaen prelude slo-mo, listening to harmonic structure (playing block chords) & one line at a time. It was useful ~ a cinch to hear individual lines, for one thing.
Image via Wikipedia
Today while practicing Messiaen, it occurred to me that “pppp” is not a dynamic marking that we are called upon to produce every day. And what do you do when that marking is at the end of the piece?
You could hope to play as softly as possible when you reach the end and pray that the notes will sound…
That scares me for an entire concert! There is another way….
The piece in question has markings all the way from “p” to “pppp.” Yes, Virginia, that’s 4 levels of soft playing!
What I’m relying on is to find the softest level first. Practicing backwards is helpful once again!
The softest level is something you need to be comfortable with. What is the softest you can play and be sure the notes will sound? No walking on eggshells, please. Remember, the audience has to be able to hear you.
But you can’t cop out and substitute “mf,” either.
After finding something you can count on, try going up a level, practice going back and forth between the two, then add another level louder. Repeat!
Working on forte markings would go the other way. Try your loudest good sound first, w/o pounding. Then work down to one “f.”
Another consideration: every piano is different. It’s important to try out the dynamic extremes of your program on the piano you’ll be playing for the concert. You’ll want to hear how various levels work in the hall’s acoustics, too.
Once you become accustomed to trying things out like this, you can incorporate it into your warmup when you arrive at the hall. It need not take long, but checking out your comfort zone can help you be much calmer during the performance. (The amount of time this requires is most likely related to how much experience you have performing. Speaking for myself, during college this took quite a bit longer.)
Today I practiced 1 Bach prelude & fugue and 1 Messiaen prelude, all slo-mo, for my NY concert. Total time: 1-1/2 hrs.
During the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed walking outdoors, increasing toward racewalking speed after a broken foot (felt like house arrest).
All day today, we had HHH weather. Too humid to breathe. Then a wind came up. It looked to be about 50/50 between getting soaked or making it home, so I took a chance and walked. Made it! The only bunny was in my back yard as I was leaving, but the cooler air felt well worth it. : )
Sometimes people stare at the sidewalk. What’s so interesting about that? Do they know what they’re missing?
Just in the past two weeks, I’ve noticed the patterns of bluejays’ feathers; the brightness of goldfinches in the sun; and been surprised by cardinals flying suddenly in front of me, catching the sun.
Watching the play of light in the evenings is so beautiful.
You can watch the sunset. Even in NY, if you stand in the middle of the street, you can see it. But people don’t look. Have they forgotten that sunsets happen?
You can listen to the wind in the trees and feel it on your face and blowing through your hair.
Even weeds can be beautiful. They go through many stages. One year, while hiking in a blizzard, I saw the outside structure of a weed filled with ~ not flowers, but snow!
In the Fall, you’ll enter a land of yellow light when walk near a yellow tree. Even the air feels yellow!
During the winter, every snowfall is different. Have you noticed? Even in traffic, everything is silent. And ice storms, though destructive, are also beautiful.
My suggestion would be, especially if you haven’t tried it, to turn off your phone, leave your iPod at home, go outside and focus on your surroundings. There’s plenty going on.
For winter, you can get a waterproof and windproof shell jacket with a hood. It’s fun! And you won’t even feel cold. (Although that might depend on how fast you’re moving!)
Today I practiced part of my NY program slo-mo. 1 Bach prelude & fugue, 1 Messiaen prelude. Total time: 1-1/2 hrs. Stopped 1/2 hr. early in order to mail PR at the post office.
Image via Wikipedia
Just a short post today, not so much about practicing.
I timed my music for NY, then went out for dinner & walked home. It was a hot walk, but nice. I saw 4 goldfinches, a small female cardinal (a baby?), & 2 bunnies.
And there was a weed that looked like a geometry project! It had a tall stem, but the white flowers were gone. Instead, there were spider web-thin strands connecting each point of the shell to every other point in straight lines. The result was, in effect, a squared-off globe.
After that, I listened to Obama’s press conference on the radio. Just made it home in time!
I’ll post more soon, so please come back.
As always, suggestions/comments/questions are more than welcome.
Image via Wikipedia
So now we’re at “B” in “The ABC’s of Practicing.” What do you do next?
You’ve figured out how to play the right hand of the first phrase reasonably well, under tempo. Good! Now you have a melody to work with.
You may want to try adding the left hand. How complicated does it seem? If it’s too dense (too many notes to deal with right away), you could play part of it.
Try the bass line. Now you have the basis for the harmony you’re going to fill in later.
Next, you could play the tune and the bass together. You’ll want to have a slower tempo than you had for each hand alone. (Feeling cross-eyed? You can look back and forth, remember one part or the other, or… get used to it.)
If the left hand is busy, that is, with lots of notes noodling along, now you can add a little at a time. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to play chords, taking chord tones out of what is written in the left hand and stacking them up vertically.
That works well with the left hand in the musical example above.
Another thought I had last night: when you’re comparing the opening of the piece with the same music when it comes back later, look to see if both sections end the same way. Sometimes the only difference in a repeated section will be how the composer continues. He may be changing key, for example.
So then, the only new notes you need to learn are the different endings! Now you know a lot more of the piece than you’d thought!
And remember to practice the middle section that’s different, as well as the ending. You’ll be happier if you begin some practice sessions at those spots, rather than always starting at the beginning.
And with that, I took a day off today! Slept in, no practice, no exercise. Caught up w/The New York Times.
Image by michaelgoodin (scarce for a few days) via Flickr
This morning someone asked me about practicing. “What do you do?”
That is a very difficult question to answer. Why? Music is about sound. You can’t see it. It’s intangible.
So this is an attempt at an answer ~ you’ll need to fill in the blanks.
- Go to the piano (or your instrument)
- Open the music
- Look at the musical instructions: dynamics, tempo. Do you understand them? Are they in English? If not, don’t guess. Please look them up! Google works. Assuming you know what a foreign word means because it looks similar to another one you know may not be accurate. (Legato & leggiero, for example, are NOT the same thing!)
- Play the melody of the first phrase slowly. Listen while you play. Feel your fingers working. Did the fingering feel comfortable? Did the phrase have shape?
- What do you want to improve? Choose one thing (louder, softer, better fingering, etc.) Focus on that one goal while playing the same phrase again. How did it go this time? Could you play it better? Can you sing it? Conduct it? Clap it? Walk around the room and sing it? Dance it?
- Look at how the piece is written. Does the beginning appear later on? Are there other sections, such as one in a different key, or one that looks completely different on the page (half notes instead of eighths, chords instead of melody)?
- Skip around! If you start at the beginning every time, then the middle and the end will always be harder, always be a surprise, and always be slower.
Choosing something realistic to start with is important. That wonderful performance you just heard on a CD? Listen to it, yes, but you’re not ready to play that piece yet.
Very, very few recordings are the result of one take. And recordings can be, and are, spliced together! NOBODY is perfect. So expecting yourself to play like that performer on that CD is just not what happens in the world.
That performer most likely played everything on that CD on tour all over the country before making the recording.
Think of how you learned to ride a bike and drive a car. Was it instant mastery, or did it take practice?
How did you memorize your Shakespeare recitation in high school?
I had the great pleasure of living in an apartment for 11 months with a baby. He was born shortly after I moved in, & then I moved out when he reached 11 months. (Mama wanted the toys to be in his room!)
Have you ever watched a baby learning how to walk? Joseph started out small, then tried longer & longer steps. He crashed a LOT. And he didn’t care!
You’re going to crash sometimes, too. But nothing bad is going to happen as a result. You won’t fall on the floor, & the piano won’t break.
Sleeping with the music under your pillow doesn’t work. Didn’t work for learning Shakespeare, either.
Learning to play an instrument takes patience, commitment, time, & regular practice. Your brain teaches your hands the music, so you need to be aware of what you’re doing & set goals.
If you have trouble getting to the piano, try practicing at the same time each day.
Also, I keep a practice log. In it, I note what I worked on that day, any metronome markings (so they’re not scribbled all over the music until I know for sure), & sometimes a word or two about what I’d like to work on in a particular piece the next time.
A log is a good way to track when you last worked on something, if you’re practicing more music than will fit into one session. (I don’t like to skip something for more than 2 or 3 days. More than a week is too long for me.)
By writing things down, you can find your own best scenario. You’ll develop your own shorthand along the way, so it really only takes a second.
Hope this helps. Mostly, I think it’s about getting to the piano & paying attention while you’re there!
Today I practiced 1 Bach prelude & 2 fugues, 3 Messiaen preludes, & 1 Liszt piece. Total time: 2 hrs.
Image by Glamhag via Flickr
You probably know that Olivier Messiaen incorporated bird song into his music. Well, today I practiced one of his preludes that has bells throughout!
The piece, “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell)” is the 6th of 8 Preludes composed in 1928-29, when Messiaen was about 20 years old & still a student.
Although I felt rushed today, I practiced slowly. That worked well ~ calmed me down, helped me concentrate, & resulted in making significant progress.
Slow practice ended up in my happening into the perfect tempo for this piece! I have been struggling w/this tempo for some time. Although I thought about a week ago that I had the tempo, today’s begins a full 14 beats on the metronome slower!
A recording of this piece that I heard on the radio felt way too fast. I experienced it as sounding superficial. And now I know why!
One section of the piece, which is repeated, has bells going in 3 different note values: mf 8th notes, pp 16ths, & ppp 32nds. All of this must be heard.
Messiaen was a devout Catholic and an organist who thought on a grandiose scale. I don’t think, when he wrote bell sounds, that he was imagining wind chimes tinkling on the porch! More like the 32-foot stop on the organ. It rattles.
When I lived in New York, I became a member of Riverside Church. On New Year’s Eve @ midnight, as well as other times, there is a tradition of bell ringing. The ceiling between the sanctuary & the bell tower slowly creaks open so the congregation can fully experience the sound.
Huge bells such as these don’t do anything fast. It takes time for them to sound, & a very long time for them to stop sounding. Anything that sounds fast would be due to several bells ringing one after the other.
For a look @ Riverside’s 10-ton bourdon bell, click here!
If by some chance you have never heard bells like this, GO! It’s an incredible sound & a wonderful experience.
So this is where my tempo for this prelude comes from. This is a majestic piece, suitable for a very large, diginified event, & I intend to play it that way!
I’m glad I practiced slowly today. This is new for me, practicing slowly on a daily basis. Had I given in, practicing fast because of feeling rushed for time, my tempo discovery would not have happened.
Today I practiced 1 Liszt, 1 Stravinsky, 2 Charles Turner, & 2 Messiaen. Total time: 2 hrs.