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.
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:
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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