"Let's strip out all the other notes and practice just the scale in this little passage," I advised a student who was playing Mazas Etude No. 25.
She looked at the page intently for a long minute, smiled, and laughed at herself. "I didn't even realize there was a scale in there!"
One repeated note, but it's basically a scale.
It's easy to miss that kind of thing, especially if you aren't really looking for it. I've missed some whoppers. For example, one day in the relatively recent past, I was doodling distractedly while listening in on my son's piano lesson. The holiday season was approaching, and his teacher was instructing him on what was a new piece of music for him at the time. "Play just the first eight notes," she said.
"What is it?" she asked, after he played it. I thought to myself, "It's 'Joy to the World,' he'll know that." My son paused for a moment, then brightly said, "A D-major scale!"
I had to look at the music. I'm not even kidding! I had to sing the solfege in my mind: Do, ti, la sol, fa me re do.... I'd been singing that song since I was a toddler and playing on the violin it almost as long -- hundreds, if not thousands, of times. And yet this was the first time in my entire life that I saw that line for what it was: a descending scale!
So it's not surprising to me that students, while wrestling with fingers and bow and trying to make one note to follow the next, often fail to see the scaffolding on which the whole thing hangs -- those basic structures at the heart of any musical composition: scales, arpeggios, sequences, patterns, melody, harmony. Yet finding the basic structures can simplify it a great deal, making the music easier to learn, master and memorize.
Sometimes the thicket of notes gets pretty dense, and that structure can be hard to find. But it's in these cases that having that structure can really make the difference. Take, for example, this (really fun!) passage from Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro."
To the outsider, it sounds like a virtuoso barrage of notes. But the insider learns pretty quickly that this is a fairly simple series of sequences that actually lays pretty easily on the fiddle. There are many different ways to dissect and practice this little monster but to see a basic shape, start by looking at the top line, which I've conveniently circled in red: first is a pattern of three descending notes, and we get a series of five of these inching upward. After that is a little transition. Then we get a pattern of three notes that go down a step and then skip a third -- that happens seven times in a row in a descending series. Then another transition. Then four-note pattern that basically goes down a third, down a third, up a step, in a series of four, after which it all transitions in a descent to the next section.
That's just the basic structure. To really understand the passage, get rid of all the open E's. Pair each circled note with the note before it and make it into a double-stop (they are all basically sixths). Play the whole thing this way, as double stops. I've left out the fingerings, but you pretty much just crawl up and down the fingerboard, using the same fingering (more or less). Once you can play it all as double-stops, you are pretty much good to go.
How does one find these things? In violin playing, you can look for things like that "open E" in the above passage: a pedal tone or a pattern that repeats without much change. If you eliminate those notes, what is left? Usually the moving notes are left, and then you can see what you have: is it a scale? The melody? An arpeggio? This is what you need to practice or analyze, for better understanding.
Certainly, there is music that does not conform to any obvious pattern or set of patterns. (Check out original violin part in the opening John William's "Hedwig's Theme," heaven help us! Do you have examples?)
But quite a lot does, and for that music, a little detective work can make something that seems pretty foggy and confusing come into clear focus.
What are your strategies, when you come to a passage that is a big thicket of notes? How do you find the patterns? And what do you do, when there is no pattern?
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For fun, here is Itzhak Perlman playing Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro" in the style of Pugnani, which contains the above passage at 3:52:
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