Think Carefully, Play Quickly - Reading and Retaining Fast Notes

September 28, 2020, 7:09 PM · No matter how familiar violinists become with reading music, sometimes it feels like there are too many fast notes with not enough long notes to give the mind a chance to reset. The time necessary to shift your concentration to the next group of notes never seems to be enough. A musical “rest stop” is something you can’t always count on. There is a method, though, to transition seamlessly from one part of the phrase to the next part. I call it “Framing the Mind”, and it works best if the notes are organized by musical ideas than by barlines.

bow, music

As is often the case, things that happen more easily in other areas find difficulty in music. Maybe if we didn’t have to concern ourselves with intonation, sound, rhythm, articulation, and last but not least, musicality, it would be easier to read and retain long passages. I’d like to discuss how to hone in on the reading so that retention and continuity become easier. It’s all about concentration, which makes you alert and careful. Music teaches you that thoughts and actions happen in an orderly fashion.

The Flow of Reading Music

The temptation to skip steps in reading music is strong because the ear is often quicker than the mind. When playing lots of uninterrupted 16th notes, take a moment to look at each group of four notes. Notice how your mind feels nimble and musical when you take this opportunity to include all of your senses. The best recipe for success is to follow the correct sequence of actions:

  1. See the group of notes. Take the time to recognize the pattern and observe the contour.
  2. Identify the notes as if you were singing them. Fingers respond quicker to the ear than to the eye. Knowing intervals is like owning extra insurance for playing the correct note.
  3. Visualizing the fingering and rhythm. Give yourself time to think. Retaining fingerings and rhythm are not difficult in themselves. What causes difficulty is not giving yourself enough time during practice to process the information.
  4. The first time you play the group of notes, don’t put the bow on the string until your mind is satisfied with full awareness of the music.
  5. Stopping and starting too much breeds doubt and insecurity. Start once, play it all, then remember where the mistakes were. This instills confidence, and the mistakes will stick out like an x-ray. This is a healthy way to believe in yourself and get a clear picture of what you need to work on.

Adults, Etudes, and Reading

Improving your ability to play longer passages with more accuracy involves having a large repertoire of musical patterns. If you think that older age makes it more difficult to read music, think again. Pick a few etudes from Wohlfahrt to Kreutzer to Rode, play a few lines from each, then use your adult mind to patiently learn new patterns. Adults have several advantages over children. They have more experience with setting goals, staying calm when things get tough, and following directions.

Etudes have the added bonus of offering sequences of the same patterns. Once you’ve established the intervals in one bar, you have the opportunity to play the same intervals two steps up or down. Etudes understand the human mind, which seeks repetition and comfortable intervals.

Re-Booting the Mind When Playing Long, Fast Passages

Music offers the challenge of “playing the right notes at the right time”, a quote often attributed to J. S Bach. Musicians put a lot of pressure on themselves to play accurately. Even though they work on forgiving themselves for making mistakes, they have to work even harder to learn how to avoid them.

Long technical passages are accompanied by the fear of stopping suddenly, sometimes so abruptly that it feels like a wall. When that happens, it’s best to stop. Unfortunately, some players don’t let a wall stop them. They may go through numerous walls, while accumulating large batches of mistakes.

After the player stops, he should find out what rhythm, note or interval threw him off. It’s usually one tiny thing, but it’s still enough to interrupt the delicate ecosystem of reading music. I call it the “pivot” because it’s the part on which everything can fall apart. Even though it may seem like a small mistake, the player should assume that it will keep reoccurring until he thoroughly analyzes, practices, and polishes it. It may seem like a lot to do, but it will probably only take a minute or two.

The Wall That Goes Up Can Come Down

Anytime a passage is practiced carefully, it’s as if the mind has been retrofitted for the music’s unique qualities. So, in the event that a mistake reoccurs, the player will know exactly what to do. He won’t be likely to stop the next time there’s a wall because the separate parts of the phrase have their own structures. It’s not like dominos. Instead, one mistake stands alone without dragging down everything around it.

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September 29, 2020 at 10:50 PM · Excellent advice!

I also find that adequate light on the page is necessary especially for aging eyes. I purchased a light from that has been very helpful. The link doesn’t work so copy and paste it.

I also have glasses that are optimized for music stand distance. Seeing is a first step to applying Maestro Stein’s wisdom.

September 29, 2020 at 11:23 PM · Corwin, Thank you for your insightful suggestion. I can’t believe how difficult it can be to see the music in some orchestra situations. . It’s good to bring your own light source. And extra batteries just in case.

October 3, 2020 at 03:49 AM · Vision-- I agree that that is an important part of the solution. I went for several years with this problem:-- I am right eye dominant, but my left eye is clearer at close distance, so things looked clear, but did not register on the correct side of the brain, and I would make odd mistakes. A lot of us need prescription glasses calibrated for music reading: at arms length in front of us and a foot farther than that when we are sharing an orchestra stand and looking at the page to the extreme left or right from us.

High velocity passages are one of my two enemies as an orchestra violinist. (The other problem is sight-reading anything with more than 3 ledger lines) I have frequently shaken my head and apologized to a stand partner; "I'm sorry, I can't even Hear that fast". That's why we want to be able to play all of our scales and arpeggios from memory, on automatic pilot, thinking of groups and patterns instead of note-to-note. And for more modern music, even that is not enough. Tchaikovsky symphonies have lots of non-standard scales, with an extra added random half-step, just so he can have 8 notes in a run instead of 7.

The psychologists tell us that we have a mental speed limit of 16 events per second. I suspect that I am slower than that. So those very fast runs sound like a blur to the audience. Accelerated speed-talkers on the radio ads are unintelligible. It may be just a coincidence, but a very low frequency on the sub-woofer of a boom-box car sounds like rapid thumps at anything below 16 cps--low C.

Thanks for this week's essay - jq

October 3, 2020 at 10:38 AM · Joel, thank you for talking about what I think are experiences shared by many. Your comment about patterns makes me think about the difficulty of filling the gaps in my ability to play fast notes accurately. For example, one long passage may have some patterns easier than others. If I'm impatient, I'll try to process the harder parts at the same speed or intensity as the easier part. That's my big mistake. It takes time for my mind merely to recognize the complexity of the harder section, let alone work my way through the steps of polishing it. If there's one thing I can count on in music, everything is relative.

October 3, 2020 at 03:43 PM · continued-- and to the standard list of memorized arpeggios, in all keys, I have added; augmented, suspended fourth, major seventh, added sixth, minor-major seventh, half-diminished, -- and so on.. These chords are common in real music, but not in our classical violin books. Ricci's book has an even longer list. Most jazz theory books will have the expanded list of chords.

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