Saturday, March 30, 2013

The steps of learning a new piece on the piano

I decided to write down this little piece about how I practice, mostly to help myself so that I'm more explicit about what I think when I think about music.

  1. Find a piece I love.  I'll  have to stay with the piece for a while, and for most of that time (or so it seems at least) it will sound bad.  I have to like that piece of music a lot to stay with it through the bad times in hope of getting to good times sometime in the future.   In my opinion it is more important to pick a piece I love than to pick something I know I can master, but I've written another blogpost about that so I won't elaborate here.
  2. Struggle through sight-reading.  One bar at the time, then two bars at the time, then many bars, eventually most of the piece without having to stop to see what's going on.  If you're as bad as sight-reading  as I am, this will be painful.  Reading melody and chords, translating to finger positions, compensating for various signs along the way is, at least for me, error prone tedious and boring.  If I had better sight-reading skills that decoding process would be closer to real time defined by tempo the music should have in a performance. But I'm not that good, so it's a case of "read, decode, try to hit the right keys" in far less than performance tempo. Also I'm not capable of reading everything equally fast so some parts will be much more broken up than others.
  3. Selective practice on hard-to-read parts.  This is where it gets both more boring and slightly less boring at the same time.  In order to be able to "read" all the parts more or less equally fast, I selectively practice more on the parts that are hard to read.  This is boring since it's very repetitive, but it's also quite rewarding since it usually don't take that much practice until I more or less memorize the hard parts, and then they seem much easier, and I feel much smarter and that's always good ;-)
  4. /: Repetition:/. Play, then play more, then play even more.   Most of the time this is just about getting closer to real-time when playing, but also about working with fingering and in some cases also with musical content and interpretation.   It' kind of hard to work with interpretation while I'm struggling with just getting the right keys down at more or less the right time, so it's limited how much of this it's possible to do but something is possible and it's fun. At some stage during this phase I notice that I look less and less at the music and play more and  more from memory. When that time arrives I gradually go into the next phase:
  5. Playing by memory.  In some sense all of the above is just about getting to this point.   It takes way to long to get here to put it as a goal early on, but once I play mostly by memory anyway it's time to put the music sheet  away and try as best I can to play everything without looking at it.  Since by this time the music is almost memorised it doesn't take too long.  There are a few interesting thing that happen during the "play by memory" phase so I'll mention them here: This is the time when I invariably notice "large scale structure" in the music that I haven't noticed before. For instance long progressions that stretch out over many bars, sometimes tens of bars but which ties the bars together not the individual notes in the bars.  As an example, consider the second prelude in the well tempered clavier (book I).   In this piece the first part is first a progression going up along an Ab minor chord, and then stepping down melodically through  the Eb major scale (after that there is a sequence of cadenzas that does something entirely different :-).  This is  of course completely obvious once it's pointed out, but I didn't notice it until I started playing that particular part by memory.   The nice thing about playing by memory is that I need these kinds of large scale structure elements in order to remember the whole thing and the mind is very good at finding structure, so that is good.  There are many kinds of structures, the one I mentioned above is purely harmonic, but there are others that tie more to the experience of playing, fingering patterns, how it feels when stretching fingers and arms etc.  All of these things are fair game when looking for patterns.    The other nice thing about these patterns is that they all offer offer opportunities for interpretation:  Large scale structure gives low frequency patterns that can be used to tie the rest of the piece together, that is the very definition of interpretation.  Of course polishing is necessary, but starting with an awareness is good :-)
  6. Starting to work on playing the piece more than just muddling through the piece.  While all  the parts above are rewarding (see pt. 1 above) it's actually only at this step that the music has a fair chance of starting to sound good.    At this point I can play it more or less in tempo without having to stop every few bars to figure out what to do next.  This means that I can pick parts to practice based on what's technically challenging,  enhance some idea about interpretation etc.   I can try out various ideas just to see how they sound, play fast, play slow, rubato, experiment with various legatos etc.   All of this is possible since I can think many bars ahead and be in flow when I try things out. In a very real sense it's like discovering the piece once more.  This part easily takes as long as all the previous ones put together and in some sense never ends.
  7. Finding something new.  At some stage it is is necessary to concentrate on something new.  A point of diminishing returns is reached and it's better to start concentrating on a new piece to get new challenges.   Harping on the same piece forever is not good.
  8. Get back to it. Doing something new doesn't mean forgetting what you've worked on forever.  I  am often surprised about how much fun it is  to play something that I haven't worked on for a few days or even weeks.
That's it. That how I  do it ;-)

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