Variations of this question pop up on V.com from time to time. This essay examines one solution to this problem. It is an analytical, practical approach. The description is intended to allow the reader a point of comparison for her own practice, and to serve as a possible source of ideas to experiment with. Alternatively, a teacher may find this essay useful to help explain some concepts about practicing to students. If you, dear reader, do not fall into one of these categories, you might wish to skip this blog entry, as it may well feel dry and dreary to navigate.
Two weeks ago I was assigned the 5th entry in Suzuki Book 3, Gavotte in Gm (Becker), to learn. My first impression was that it was long and complex, with lots of scary new technique, and that my normal approach of starting at the beginning and learning the notes and measures to the end would not work well. I sat down to take a close look, sans instrument, at the piece. What I quickly saw is that the 76-measure piece only has about 16 measures of unique music, and about 6 of those are variations of previous measures. Everything else is a form of repetition. This simplified the task considerably.
It works like this: The form of the piece is A-B-A, with a D.S al Fine creating an exact A repeat. This eliminates learning 25 measures. Each major section has an inner triad structure, giving the piece an overall structure of a-b-a’, c-d-c’, a-b-a’. Thus, 50% of the musical material has been eliminated. Each of these nine 8-measure sections is divided into 2 very similar 4-measure phrases. Again, each of the 4-measure phrases includes various sorts of rhythmic or translational repetition. The examination revealed that only about 20% (16 out of 76 measures) of the notes in the piece actually had to be learned. This was going to be do-able.
Now, where to start? I decided on where it looked easiest: with the legato ¼ notes, which also happened to be the middle of the piece. This had the added advantage of allowing me to build the piece from the center out, thereby creating an evenness of technique throughout. This contrasts with the beginning-to-end approach, which inevitably leaves me with a strong opening and week finish to my piece.
Choosing m35-38, along with its variation m39-42, I had the notes and bowings down in an hour-and-a-half on a Sunday afternoon. Practice showed that I could learn a 4-measure phrase in about an hour, or in about 15-minutes per measure. This would mean 4 hours to learn the core notes and phrases of the piece. I figured double that to 8 hours to put them all together. As it was, at the end of 10 hours practice on the piece over a 2-week period, I could play it all the way through at a VERY slow tempo, with some hesitations and errors.
This was as of two days ago. It felt like a huge accomplishment from the nothing that I started with, but there is still a lot to do.
Having projected 8-hours (and taken 10) to get to the initial play-through, the following projections should serve as guidelines as further work: another 8 hours to massage in basic bowing, fingering, shifting and relaxation techniques, bringing pitch, rhythm, quality of sound and ease of motion into phrases; and add to that 16 hours to knit all the phrases together and play the entire piece close to tempo.
Up to this point, the goal will have been (1) to correctly learn all the notes, and (2) to incorporate all of the technical facility that I have learned over the course of my lessons (or at least as much I am capable of incorporating independently). With a total of 32 hours of preparation, the Gavotte will now be ready to present for the first time at a lesson. To bring in any less effort or execution would be to waste my teacher’s time.
Corrections will be made and advice given, figure and additional 32 hours to integrate teacher’s suggestions, take it to another lesson for more feedback, and then give it 64 or so hours of polishing. At this point, the Gavotte will have received something like 128 hours of attention, probably across 4 months, and should be ready for a recital performance.
Is this a hard-and-fast time frame for learning Becker’s Gavotte? No. It is simply a gauge to help me structure learning the piece, and to give me approximate time frames for the learning and refining process. This is a step forward from two years ago when I began studies, and had no clue what-so-ever as to how much work and effort learning music took. Now I do have a clue, and can plan accordingly. This is useful.
I have also come to understand that the honing a piece takes ever-increasing amounts of time as the level of refinement increases. This is a basic concept of learning an instrument that is important to understand when reaching for ever-higher levels of mastery.
Most importantly, this calculation serves as a reminder that learning to play my instrument is MY responsibility, and that I should arrive at every lesson, every rehearsal, every performance having done everything that I am currently capable of in preparing for that event.
And now, dear reader, if you made it to the end of this very long and somewhat tedious post, congratulations! You get a Gold Star!
In fairness to my teacher, it is reasonable to consider why he might have been reluctant to step up the level of challenge earlier on in my lessons. From a teacher’s perspective, it is unusual to come across an adult student with the personal resources to do the kind of work necessary to take advantage of highly challenging lessons. Most adults have limited time and energy to devote to their violin studies, and the teacher does not want to overtax these resources and drive the student away.
Before my teacher would work with me this way, I had to prove to him that I was capable of handling the higher level of intensity. This included attending lessons consistently (almost) every week for 2 years; never canceling a lesson; never being late; using lesson time as lesson time, and not digressing into social time; practicing consistently throughout the week, every week; always arriving prepared; bringing questions into lessons; attending concerts regularly and improving my listening skills; increasing my knowledge of violin repertoire and music in general; showing signs of long term commitment to mastering the instrument.
In order to be treated as a serious student of the violin, I had to first demonstrate that I was.
Previous entries: November 2013
Kate Little is from Salt Lake City, Utah. Biography
Please consider supporting Violinist.com by becoming a sponsor, and reaching our dedicated community of violin professionals, students and fans!