best and most efficient method to practice/learn new repertoire

July 6, 2015 at 01:23 PM · Until recently, I had what I felt was a very suboptimal method of learning new pieces. Basically, what I would do is just look the piece, and try to slight read it/play it all the way through. Then do this again and again, until I felt more comfortable, then start randomly working on individual passages more closely. The result is often poor intonation, and sloppy phrasing and bowing. Eventually I would need to relearn the piece in order to make it more acceptable.

Right now I'm using an approach that at least seems to be more practical. If it's a particularly difficult piece, I would often spend an entire practice session just practicing several measures very slowly, and making sure all the notes are played in tune and musically correct. Once I liked what I did, I would move on. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than that.

I'm curious about the best way to practice new pieces. I know that there are lots of teachers on this board, and it would be interesting to hear some thoughts.

Replies

July 6, 2015 at 02:09 PM · It depends as to what level you have achieved. Playing through, changing fingering and bowing, and sorting out any mis-readings are the norm for me, with a bit of extra attention to any very tricky passages.

When rehearsing yesterday Beethoven's A major sonata first movement with piano, we decided to play it slowly in sections and increase up to tempo once we had settled the ensemble problems. This worked well and we had the whole movement up to speed within half an hour. (I had managed to have a good look at the whole sonata prior to this rehearsal). This is probably how we will approach the other two sonatas we are doing, plus revising a Mozart sonata (K454 in b flat).

July 6, 2015 at 04:54 PM · Good question! I'm looking forward to reading others' responses.

I usually sight read the new piece all the way through once. Then I listen to recordings of it, when available, with the my music in front of me many times over the first weeks learning it. I return to recordings later in the process to compare other people's phrasing. In between, I usually fall into the trap of starting at a tricky place, intending to work on it, and actually playing through the rest of the piece instead of stopping where I ought to. I'm working out of that habit.

July 6, 2015 at 08:44 PM · Greetings,

of course we have all listened to our favorite works by our favorite performers a thousand times over so the purist view that we mustn't listen to recordings before finding our own way is rather locking the barn door after Adrian has Boulted.

However, I cannot say I really agree with the approach whe by one begins with a lot of listening as recommended above.

A new work has , usually, a finite set of parameters. beats in a bar, notes defines, comprehensible rhythms and so on. This is the fundamental knowledge we bring to a work. So we can , at the very least tap a hand on the table and get the ryhtms. Like wise we should be able to audite the melody , pitches etc to at least a modest degree. If not then that is something of an issue but outside the purview of is thread. At the very least, using this knowledge give sums a very crude impression of the work. But we also bring our innate interpretive skills to the work and our prior musical experience. So we can enhance this crude outline by singing a passage and trying to emulate what we sing. We can also add to our interpretation by studying the pianoart/ score and superimposing that on top of what we are approaching. Likewise we can analyze the harmony and stucture to whatever degre sour musical know how allows. Plus, on top of that, we can make a consideration of the period , composer and even listen to other works by the same composer.

If we put this knowledge altogether we may be able to come up with a prototype that can be enhanced by drawing on possibilities that we have not thought of.

But to begin by imitating other recordings is, in my opinion, a shortcut that inhibits us making our own efforts to get into a work, no matter how misguided and error strewn they might be.

Cheers,

Buri

July 6, 2015 at 09:15 PM · Buri,

The OP asked about efficient ways to learn new pieces. I find that having it in my ear helps me learn new pieces faster. Better is debatable. I don't do this with all pieces, just the rushed ones (i.e. for orchestra).

July 6, 2015 at 09:33 PM · yep, it's certainly necessary for orchestra!

There is a good case for practicing new violin works on the piano keyboard, I think.

Cheers,

Buri

July 9, 2015 at 02:52 PM · Shawn,

It seem like you're coming to better practice methods yourself. Many people never do, and just keep using the same "read through-I'm finished for the day" method, which, as we know, gets us nowhere. Stasis is of course great for a teacher's revenue stream, but pretty frustrating.

This is what I teach for initial mastery of the piece, which means

elements like intonation, shifts, string crossings, bow distribution, etc. (without these, little progress is made):

1. SMALL amounts of material.

2. SIMPLIFY- students generally try to master too many techniques at once, which leads to frustration. If there are difficult shifts, then get rid of the slurs first. Get rid of ornaments. Forget the rhythm. Focus on correct notes, centered pitch, dependable shifts. Left hand first so that you can forget about it later.

3. SLOWLY add (bowing) elements back in, like those slurs, articulations, dynamics. The most difficult part of practicing is putting it all together into a coherent whole. So just do it bit by bit--build it up little by little. Difficult passages should be memorized.

4. GROUPS and RHYTHMS for fast passage work. I introduce an organized approach on scales to students, and reinforce it on passage work in the literature. When they use it, they advance quickly. When they don't, they bog down.

The higher the level of student, the less I recommend them to listen to recordings first. Conservatory students really shouldn't have to listen to something to "hear how it goes," but someone in Suzuki book 3 should. Personally, I only listen to something AFTER I work out as much as I can, technically and musically.

Listening first can cause "first exposure bias," which is difficult to shake. Conductors can also get something from a recording stuck in their head. A good example is from Bach: I've seen recitals in which it was obvious that someone had used a very well-known recording, such as Sigiswald Kujiken's, and included his idiosyncratic technical issues, good or bad, in the recital. Also true for Perlman's version of Lalo, which many students emulate a little too much, with slides and rubati copied slavishly.

I'm not sure what good learning a violin work on the piano would accomplish, unless one were having gross problems with intervals.

July 9, 2015 at 06:23 PM · Greetings,

Shawn, you can see from Scott`s approach that basically you have got things backwards. Follow his guidelines and -then- play through the work (more likely to be a section of the work you have been practicing. ) This is a performance. It will be improved in many areas but still have weak patches. Makes a note of the problems and when you start your practice the next day those are what you need to focus on as he prescribes.

When you practice complex passages using various patterns and rythms make sure you are doing it from memory. this not only demands mental involvement but also means the work is automatically memorized.

Most students sya they practice slowly but they never really practice slowly enough. The practice speed must be so slow that you are thiinking about everything you are doing conscioulsy. If you dont, then the unconsciousprogramming will still be going on and you will be learning errors.

But fast practice is also crucial. One way to do this is take a -very-small group of notes. Play them up to speed. repeat many times, always mentally reviewing what you are doing with them. Then move to the next chunk and do the same. Then the next , up until abut five or six chunks. Then combine the first and second chunk at speed. then the 2nd and thrid. third and fourth and so on.Then go back and try three chunks together.

Eventually you will be able to play the whole passga e as one chunk with one mental command.

Also , when you simplify a difficult passage as Scott tells you, doing the bowing only, then fosu on left hand, etc slowly adding elements you might feel you have mastered the chunk. But the problem is also the connection between it and what comes before and after. So you need to play the chunk you have practice in detail while including a small segment to lead in and lead out of it.

Cheers,

Buri

July 10, 2015 at 12:03 PM · This is a good question, Shawn, and one that I have as well, thanks for posting it. My teacher uses the approach Scott outlines and I think it's a logical one insofar as, for me, this is how long term memory is created. One of Buri's additions, however, in my opinion is insightful. Regarding memorizing difficult passages, I completely agree. Others likely have more capability than I to read music while at the same time playing the passage they've created through practice; for me, I need to memorize the passage so I can focus completely on it. Somewhere in Suzuki he says all work should be memorized. I hope it is proper etiquette to add to Shawn's post...should the piece being worked on be memorized?

July 10, 2015 at 12:52 PM · I always find that I make faster progress once I've memorized something ... but unfortunately I am rather miserable at memorization. So I have to cave in an look at the music most of the time. Not really sure how to solve this.

I really appreciated Scott's remarks, I think you have to have this kind of rational approach or you're doomed to waste time. I admit that I'm not always as disciplined as I could be, but I forgive myself for that.

Whenever I have a brand new piece I do sight read through it, partly because I think I should improve my sight-reading skill, and partly because I learn where I need to concentrate my work.

As for listening, I think that's just a matter of your personal approach. Those times where I've studied recordings very closely at the outset of learning a piece, I've noticed that I can get rather hung up on trying to play some very small detail just the way a certain violinist played it. Probably that's just me, but it's not super productive.

July 10, 2015 at 01:48 PM · I think certain repertoire should be memorized, and as early in life as possible: solo Bach, concerti, showpieces. Memorization implies a deeper level of knowledge of the work, and will result I greater confidence.

However, I don't necessarily think it should be the first goal, especially as it's easy to memorize wrong notes/articulation/bowings/etc.

Rather than consciously attempting to memorize, I suggest lettinging memorization happen as a natural result of good practice habits. If you really do go through the process in a focused and mindful manner, which means includes lots of group/rhythm work, or metronome work etc, you'll find that most passages can't help but become memorized. As an example, I've never consciously tried to memorize orchestral excerpts. But after decades of very focused work in an attempt to bring them up to a professional level, I can play most of the common ones by memory. I'd be surprised if most career violinists couldn't.

If you have memory problems, perhaps you haven't really focused on small units of music. Smoking pot doesn't help memorization, by the way.

July 10, 2015 at 05:16 PM · Greetings,

ironically when we are young pieces tend to become memorized automatically anyway....I think whether one chooses to memorize a chunk for this kind of practice depends on its length. At times one is applying the rythms and bowings to rathe rblong sections and memorizing is not nevessary as does, as you point out occur naturally. iin such cases the time is bette rspent just getting down to the work.

Cheers,

Buri

July 10, 2015 at 05:39 PM · That's how I feel about memorization too. The thing is that when I "learned" the violin as a child my teacher did not require me to memorize hardly anything, even for performances (which were rare too). So I just did not build up the skill. My memorization skill is improving, but like everything else, rather glacially.

July 10, 2015 at 07:58 PM · Thanks for posting that Scott. I think you are right about listening to recordings be detrimental(it's true for me). I often times copy the technical flaws or certain intricate stylistic elements that I'm not yet ready for rather than the good things(because it's easier).

Paul, as far as memorization goes, I don't think it's ever necessary to make a conscious effort to memorize. Often times, I find that if I practice the piece enough, no matter how long the piece is, I generally have it memorized in no time. However, I think I am more focused when I actually look at the music than when I play from memory. Thus, in my opinion, I don't think the ability to memorize quickly makes you a better violinist.

July 10, 2015 at 08:25 PM · Greetings,

your right that the ability to memorize more or less rapidly has very little to say about your playing abilty. However, there is very widespread agreement that playing from memory is superior to looking at the music. Playing sonatas from the music for the , to me, rather meaningless idea of respecting the pianist (is that the reason?) has never made any sense to me. To my mind it was a n unnecessary and unhelpful red herring. It tends to underscore the point that students seem to be less nclined to put the same effort into learning a sonata as they would a big name concerto. Players like Milstein and Rosand frequently commented on this.

Cheers,

Buri

July 10, 2015 at 08:48 PM · Buri thanks for that comment. I think memorizing definitely has it's advantages, but as someone like me who has very bad adhd, looking at something generally helps me focus. For example, just now, I was playing a bach sonata from memory while not looking at the music. My mind frequently wandered around thoughts such as "what am I going to eat for dinner", or "man, man I really need to take a shower" rather than, "how do I make my base notes stand out more". At least for me, having something to look at helps me focus.

July 10, 2015 at 09:25 PM · Greetings,

I suppose it is possible you have a slight problem with attention, but that is actually pretty much the way most people are these days. Meditation is actually a very helpful tool in focusing the unquiet mind.

But playing the violin is in of itself meditation. I think one should practice what one finds difficult rather than follow the path of least resistance. So in your case, it may help to choose one specific thing to focus on throughout an extensive passage. Parctice daily to develop the skill of getting focuse don one specific area, be it vibrato, the background humming noise the bow hair make son the string, intonation or whatever.

I also think this is related to the way you practice. Because you havent. put a fantastic amount of thought into bow distribution, vibrato speed and width, how tomshift,and so on the mind actually isn't programmed to pay attention to anything in the first place so of course it goes for a walk when you start performing.

That is how you have been practicing!

Cheers,

Buri

July 11, 2015 at 12:43 AM · I agree that the whole idea of playing sonatas with the music so that you're not upstaging the pianist is silly. Lots of players have the music in front of them and then they never so much as turn a page.

July 11, 2015 at 01:08 AM · "Playing sonatas from the music for the , to me, rather meaningless idea of respecting the pianist (is that the reason?) has never made any sense to me."

Agreed. I've had teachers that harped on this. If you can play without music, do it. Wish I was better at it...

July 11, 2015 at 04:02 AM · "If you can play without music, do it..." I wish I could play better "with" music. Nasty habit of mine is to memorize portions of the music, then loose my place when I have to jump back in. Maybe it's just me, but I saw a world class American violinist last year along with a piano accompaniment and I was quite surprised to see the violinist pull out the music. It seemed that he only glanced at it now and then, nevertheless, a bit surprising to me. Shawn, my teacher actually advises me to listen to YouTube to hear others play the piece she has assigned me. I find this quite useful because it helps me understand the piece in its entirety before jumping into it. And...I sometimes use a slow downer program and play along to learn the piece; quite useful,,but likely a mortal sin.

July 12, 2015 at 07:10 AM · "Also, the goal isn't to see improvement NOW in the current practice session, but to see improvement in the next session."

Whilst I appreciate that this may be desirable I think that improvement (or rather problem solving, and finding a strategy) in the same session can be extremely important. The next session will be used to further consolidate/remember the advance made in the previous session, and establish it. (Or discover that it did not work, or may have been the wrong answer).

If you are still at the lesson stage then a discussion about this and other problem passages can be analysed with a teacher, who might add something that clinches the matter and provide a final solution. (OR dfiscuss with a professional colleague who may also have a useful opinion or an answer).

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