Friday Mailbag and Linkage: Camp Insanity

May 9, 2008

This past week has been busier than usual at my house. We’re getting ready to move over Memorial Day weekend, and I need to have everything packed and boxed by next Friday because my husband and I will both be doing some long-distance traveling. Then, the morning after I return, I have to be available for the furniture delivery crew. Needless to say, my writing and posting time has been a bit sparse. Luckily, when we moved into the place we’re currently living in, we didn’t have room to unpack all the boxes, so about half of the job was pre-done.

Another part of the equation: my in-house students had their recital last Sunday. They were fabulous, and I am so proud of them.

All this is to say that my posting will probably remain slightly sporadic until we get moved and unpacked.

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Fast Versus Slow, or How to Avoid Mistakes

May 1, 2008

Of all the times I really needed a scanner, this would be it, so I could illustrate my points using actual musical examples. It’s on the purchase budget for this year, though.

Fast practice leads to mistakes. Playing a piece fast, mistakes and all, simply reinforces whatever mistakes a student has learned into the piece. However, practicing a piece slowly, mistakes and all, does exactly the same thing. On the surface it sounds like a no-win situation — doesn’t matter what you do, or try to do, it’s wrong. If the goal of practice is to make whatever you’re practicing easy, how does it become easier if it’s always hard and it never feels like it’s getting easier? That’s the $64K question! Luckily, the answer is pretty simple. So how do we avoid mistakes?

1) Listen to the piece.
2) Separate the hands
3) Break the spot into individual pieces and remove the fluff
4) Think slow, play fast

First, you absolutely must have an accurate idea of what the spot is supposed to sound like, and/or what you want it to sound like at performance tempo. Then you reduce the spot you’re working to its individual components. For most students, it just won’t happen unless you know what it’s supposed to sound like and you make it easy to work on. Start by separating the hands. Pianists do this all the time — work on left hand stuff, then switch to right hand. Violinists can do this too. Intonation is generally a left hand issue; whereas bowing is the domain of the right hand. For example, say the passage has intonation issues combined with an intricate bowing. These things are worked on separately, then when everything is more comfortable, the hands are put back together.

In order for the brain to have time to process all the bits of information it is given, it is very beneficial to break down the practice material into its smallest possible components, and add rests to the music for practice purposes. Sometimes, I like to call it “thinking space” or “decision time”. Practicing this way will drastically reduce the amount of clock time that a student has to spend practicing. It will also drastically reduce the number of mistakes that get “learned” into the piece. I think this procedure is most helpful when it’s done at some sort of tempo, or assigning each bit of the spot a preset amount of time. Musicians would probably understand this better as “keeping a beat.” The most common ways to reduce a spot are to remove the bowing, add space (rests) between each note in the spot, and change/substitute the rhythm of the spot.

Removing the bowing means just that. Take out all slurs, hooks or other phrasing indicators that are done with the bow. You’ll then have a pattern of single pitches, unencumbered by a bowing or phrasing pattern, that will be easier to practice. If you add space between each of those pitches, you have programmed time for your brain to fully focus and process the muscle memory instructions that are necessary for each pitch in the sequence. If you feel it is a particularly difficult spot, you can add as much time as you need, but try to keep it in a set meter (keep a beat). If you have trouble with this, a metronome can be useful (but it shouldn’t be relied on or overused. Use it only until you are secure in counting). Another way to do this is to change the rhythm or substitute another rhythm pattern for the one on the page. It accomplishes the same thing that adding rests does, but it also changes the focus to something else so it makes the original point of practice seem less difficult. For example, you could take a string of pitches and practice them using the “Twinkle A” rhythm pattern (aka, Mississippi Stop Stop).

All these things are easy enough to do, but the tricky part is to play each note in the sequence, no matter how you’ve broken it down, at performance tempo and using the same technique that you would if you were playing it as written. An easy catch phrase for this might be: “Think slow, play fast”. If you try to play the edited spot with sluggish motions, just because you’ve “slowed” it down, when you try to play it faster you’ll likely have a train wreck on your hands. This happens because you have (unintentionally) trained yourself to be sluggish. If you want the bow to move fast, if you want fingers to move fast, you have to train them to do it. They don’t do it automatically just because you want them to or think they should.

If I was a betting person, I’d put money on this method of practice. It works. If you’re dissatisfied or frustrated with your progress, give it a try. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you did.