Today, I’d like to share with my readers a text written by american classical guitarist and music teacher Louis Gehring in which he describes very precisely an interesting alternative approach to learning new repertoire on your instrument (a method focused on a phrase-to-phrase-approach as opposed to the more common “step-by-step-improvement on the whole piece”). Don’t get me wrong: all good musicians will learn a new piece dividing it into as small and as much phrases as necessary to musically understand and technically master all of them so to eventually be able to play the whole piece without sectioning. But what normally happens is, that you get to learn all of these phrases more or less at the same pace, some difficult ones might take longer, but anyway, when you’re at the point starting to practice performance, for example, you normally have all phrases more or less perfect. And here is where this method is different, come and read on (in the beginning of the text you probably won’t see anything new, but still is very well written. Step 3 is where it gets interesting.):
Step 1: ANALYSIS
Divide the piece first into main sections, and then subdivide these sections into phrases. The phrase is the basic musical and expressive unit of any piece, and therefore should also be used as the basic learning unit.
Step 2: FINGERING
Mark all of the fingerings for both hands. Since left hand ﬁngering is included in most editions (but should, nonetheless, be carefully examined for possible improvements), this will entail more work on right hand ﬁngering. Careful consideration should be given to finding the easiest possible ﬁngering with the best musical effect. It is important to practice a given passage with the same fingering each time in order to learn more quickly and to produce an accurate, consistent performance.
Step 3: PRACTICE
Begin practice, starting with the first phrase only, carefully avoiding any mistakes. Study should begin by using the metronome set at approximately one half the future performance tempo (this initial speed will depend greatly on the difficulty of the composition). When playing at this speed is mastered with appropriate dynamics, articulations, and timbre, the metronome should be moved up one notch. After this speed is mastered, then one more notch, etc.
When the player has achieved three fourths of the performance tempo, he should go on to the next phrase in the same manner, and so on. After a section has been learned with this method, the whole section should be practiced with three metronome speeds: slow, medium, and fast (the performance tempo). This is the way the section will be studied from now on in order to maintain and perfect it.
Step 4: MEMORIZATION
Using the above method, memorization can quickly take place, again using this phrase by phrase approach.
Step 5: PRACTICE PHRASES OUT OF CONTEXT
After the entire work has been learned thoroughly and memorized, phrases should be practised out of the context of the piece (this is especially useful for compositions that do not lend themselves to easy division into phrases, e.g., fugal writing). Practice the last phrase of the piece (or of a major section) by memory, then the next to the last, and so on, moving from the end forward. Practice similar phrases together so that there will be no confusion under the pressure of public performance.
Step 6: ADDITIONAL TECHNIQUES
Practice without looking at the fingerboard.
Study away from the instrument by mentally recalling all movements of the hands (left hand positions, bar chords, fingerings; and right hand strokes, fingerings, string changes).