►A very strategical method for practicing new music

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.):

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.
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.
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.
Using the above method, memorization can quickly take place, again using this phrase by phrase approach.
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.
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).

►About practicing a musical instrument

So, lately I’ve been working full-time as a classical guitar teacher, finally I have the job I always wanted.

In this context, I’ve been noticing that up to a certain level of experience, most aspiring guitarists – and not only kids, some of my students are adults – have a serious difficulty in learning the right habits and methods of practice.

I think this isn’t limited to guitarists, I think it happens to many aspiring musicians, I won’t even limit this to classical music.

And it is not necessarily linked to their talent (or lack of) or capacity of discipline and dedication.

So, what exactly am I referring to?

Them practicing for quite a long time, yet not managing to solve certain difficulties or not managing to improve all the exercises or pieces I gave them.

Often the problem is this: they play the exercise or piece over and over, from the beginning to the end, and as if that wasn’t enough, they often try to reach final tempo without having solved technical difficulties at slow tempo first.

So, I thought it could be interesting for some people out there, if I’d write down, right here, what I usually try to explain to them.

How to practice a musical instrument correctly:

• Choose a place where you won’t be bothered and that is silent enough so you can hear yourself very well. It should also have a “positive” acoustic, I mean, it should sound nicely to you, a room with a cold sound or an uncontrolled reverberation can really take the pleasure from playing. Ah, and temperature should be nice, avoid a place that’s too hot or too cold.

• Have a clear idea of what you are going to work (this is something the teacher should help to make clear – point out priorities and what is expected at the next lesson, for example) – if you just “start playing around” it’s hard to accomplish anything.

• Start with something that helps to “warm-up” your fingers – it doesn’t have to be technical exercises, but I really recommend that – a little technique should always be part of your practice. For minimum, stay at this half an hour, or until you feel your fingers are “warm”, but if you want to improve technique or a specific exercise, try to work on this a little longer.

• Then pick up the musical piece your teacher has given priority for next lesson, or, if that’s not the case, pick the piece that you know you’re having most difficulty or have made less progress yet – or that you have less time to prepare for a certain goal.

Now, you have to think first: if the piece is ready for being played as a whole, then you can start with playing it once, from beginning to end, to get “focused”. If it’s not ready yet (if you encounter major difficulties, failures or have to stop repeatedly while playing, then it’s not ready), avoid playing the whole piece.

In this case, begin with the section, part or musical phrase you feel that needs more work, and then continue to the second difficult/less well prepared part/phrase, etc. If it’s a long piece, divide it into several parts. This is where musical analysis is needed – you should have done a basic formal and harmonic analysis to the piece prior starting to play it. Give priority to the parts you know that are less well practised.

While working like that, if you encounter something that you’re simply not able to play most of times because of technical difficulty, many notes simultaneously and not having it by heart yet, speed, sound, dynamics or any other reason, stop and isolate this phrase or section. Try to really locate the problem, “zooming in” to just one measure, a few notes, or even just two notes. When you have found it, practice that little bit of music over and over, until feeling some improvement.

If problem is speed, start slowly.

But do not repeat without making a little break between each repetition – to avoid getting tired, risk of injuries or just to avoid starting to play with auto-pilot – you need to be able to think about what you just played and improve according to that. So you have to listen carefully.

Don’t try to solve it in one session, though, unless you feel you’re almost there, because, remember: you probably have lots of other little bits like this one, probably even lots of other pieces, so don’t loose control and overview of your time. Also, don’t go too far: if you reach the point of fatigue, you won’t be able to improve anymore, so after some time you should move on to another problematic section/phrase.

After a little bit – hopefully having felt some improvement – progress to the next “problem” or to the next section.

And when you feel you dedicated enough time to the piece, go to the next piece, again following clear hierarchy of priority (leave the piece you have most well prepared to the end, because if for some reason you get interrupted or have to finish your practice session earlier than planned – or you might also get “hung up” for more time than planned on some difficulty you really need to solve – then at least you will not leave out any piece that really needs practice).

When you feel that a piece is getting ready for practice at what we call “performance level” (it means you can play the piece at final tempo (or close to) and with all musical, technical and acoustical problems clearly managed), you will have to change strategy for that piece:

• Go through the piece, once, from beginning to end, with the score in front of you, slowing down only on difficult passages – maybe repeating them sometimes, but then move on – or, if you have little time, pick out directly those passages.

• Then, put away the score and play the piece once from beginning to end, by heart, and with maximum concentration, imagining you were playing it at a concert (or really play it to some friend or relative). When you reached the end, look back and analyse carefully how you did. What went well, what went less well, what did you like, what part do you think needs improvement, where did you feel insecure, etc…

• After this critical reflection, get the score and go through the piece again, picking out those passages you stated that need improvement, and work each of them exactly according to what needs to be done (for example: improve memorization, sound, control, dynamics, etc…).

I could add many more tips and details to this post, but I think it would get way too big, so I’ll finish for now, and maybe write a follow-up one day with some more ideas.

Hope that this can be useful for some of you, and now: stop surfing the internet and start practicing, hehehe! 😛

Musical Instrument Practice Humor
A funny pic that says it all, about practicing a musical instrument... (Found on the internet, credit belongs to the original author, it's NOT mine)

►An end has a start

Got you curious with that title? (I borrowed it from one of the albums of the band The Editors). Then, read on 🙂

Two days ago,  I had the last important exam at university (classical guitar) which I managed to do with very satisfying result and which means that I’ve almost completed my bachelor in music.

Almost, because I’ve yet to do a last test, next week, in a discipline that has only 3 credits (it’s one of those you can choose freely) and which I shouldn’t have chosen, because I didn’t manage to pass the first two tests and I do need the 3 credits to complete my bachelor, arghh :S… but if I’m not totally unlucky, I guess I’ll manage to do it, and there’s still the possibility to repeat the test in september (special rules for students who are finishing).

Anyway, these 3 years at Évora University were totally awesome, I’ve learned so much and made a big evolution in my guitar playing skills (which doesn’t surprise, having had the great Dejan Ivanovich as my teacher), but also gained a lot of knowledge and improvement of my musicianship in general.

Then there are all the fantastic people I met and friends I made, not to mention concerts, partys and events I participated in, or certain academic traditions in which I took part.

Or even the city, which is beautiful (classified by the UNESCO as World Heritage), just one  quick photo for you, so not to forget what I wanted to say 😉 :

Évora (Diana Temple)
Évora (View of the Diana Temple) - Autor: Rita Faleiro

Thinking again about my musicianship, I guess I know today what I didn’t, 3 years ago:

this was just the beginning. When I started at university, I imagined it as the highest degree I’d make (and it might really be), but I never thought that there was so much I’d still have to learn and discover by myself, probably over the whole rest of my life.

I did know that one never stops learning and I also had full perception that my playing was far from perfect, but I had to go through these 3 years of intense learning to realize how “ignorant” I still am, although I already do know quite a lot and became like 10 times a better musician then when I started, 3 years ago. But still, I now am fully conscient of the fact that this is only the beginning…

There’s SO much to learn, to listen to, to discover, to read and to experience, and I’m not even talking of my instrument yet. Just musicianship in general. There’s so much history I don’t know yet, composers of whom I only know their name, works I never listened to, even instruments I’ve never seen or heard.

And then there’s my instrument. So many fantastic pieces to learn, to play, so many scores to discover, so many technical improvements I can still make, so many musical and interpretational aspects that I still don’t fully understand (one thing is to do what your teacher says, the other is to fully understand why and be able to get to that conclusion by yourself).

And then again, the’re so many other instruments. I do play (at least to a basic level) one more, the piano. But that’s not enough. Not only do I have plans to improve my piano playing, but I also have “fallen in love” with the sound of the saxophone and so I want to learn to play it, at least to a “medium” level, one day…

Oh, but I could go on and on. I want to improve my skills in composition (so I can produce my own songs more easily, quicker and better…), want to take my project to the next level (live concerts), and also integrate (or start, that depends) other projects (especially chamber music). But I guess that you, my reader, are getting already a little tired, so for now that’s all, and I finish this post with an announcement I’m very proud of:

In exactly one week from now, I’m GETTING MARRIED!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂