How to Learn a Piece of Music Once You’re Out of School

(and, honestly, even when you’re still in it!)

When I was in Chicago last week I had lunch with a young cellist that I know from my Boston days.  I used to work for her mom, and I’ve known this girl since she was a baby.  Now she’s all grown up (22!) and playing in Chicago’s Civic Orchestra.  I asked her what topic she would want to read about in terms of being a post-conservatory, but pre-professional musician.  After thinking about it for a while, she came up with this:  “How does one go about learning a piece of music–from cracking open the music for the first time to performance level–without the help and feedback of a teacher?”.  Ahhhh.  Yes.  Essentially, how does one learn to be their own teacher?

First of all, we are all constantly learning and tweaking our practice methods.  I do have a particular passion/obsession with practicing/learning techniques, and I can share what works for me, and what I try to instill in my students. 

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  1. Start with the Eagle-eye view. Zoom out as far as you can.  If it is a standard piece, then I would start by listening to a few recordings and just familiarizing yourself with how the the piece goes.  I like to do this in the car, while I am cooking or folding laundry, etc.  Then I listen to it a few more times, while sitting with my music, or better yet, the piano score. And I see what pops out at me.  Then, finally, I take it into the studio and just play through it.  No matter what, I just want to get a sense of what feels natural and idiomatic, and which sections will be problematic due to challenging technical demands, or because it just doesn’t sit well on the instrument (Poulenc Cello Sonata, I’m looking at YOU!).

2.  Zoom in a bit and find the large sections. I’m talking as basic as Intro, Exposition, Development and Recap, or ABA, or what have you. I like these sections to be between half a page and a full page, but definitely not more than that.  I take each one of those large sections and play through it a few times, and mark the things that prove to be obstacles (anything that causes me to stop or hesitate—usually a group of fast notes, a tricky shift, or some awkward double stops).

  1. Next step is the zoom in further and mark some smaller sections (that lyrical phrase, that line of double stops, that long run of 16th notes, etc.) and I bracket those. I ask myself what the problem/obstacle is, and figure out the best solution. Then these are sections (more than a measure or two) that I will repeat 5-10 times, and I’ll do this for a few days–always bearing in mind what my solution is to the specific problem.

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4. After a few days of that, I’ll have ironed out a lot of the kinks, but there will inevitably be a few things here and there that stop me in my tracks. That shift, that one double stop, those last 2 beats of that 16th note run.  And those are the things that I drill on repeat until they are hammered out.  This is the mouse-eye view.  The minutiae.  Getting all my ducks in a row.

  1. When I am satisfied with having gotten a handle on those bits and bobs, I start to zoom out again. From small sections to larger sections and back out to the whole piece.  When I can honestly say that I’ve got the notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations down, I’m ready to move onto Part B.

 

If Part A is all about figuring out the printed markings, then Part B is to figure out what they all mean.  WHY is it marked fortissimo there? Is it angry? Excited? Just a balance thing to carry over the piano? 

  1. Decide what the music is about. If the composer is alive and well, and you have access to them, you can just ask them. Otherwise, you might be able to dig up some good program notes online, or read up on the composer.  Maybe there are some published letters in which they talk about writing this piece.  Barring all that, you can just find your own interpretation of the music.

2. I zoom back in again, and create a story, with characters and plot and plot twists, and emotions and reactions and dialogue. I try to make it as vivid as possible and line up the notes/rhythms/dynamics/articulations with that story. I want it all to MEAN something.

On to Part C: Hone your storytelling skills. 

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Now that I’ve got the notes down, and I have decided what story I am trying to tell with those notes.  The only thing left is to see whether or not I am successfully communicating my story to my listeners.  If I have performances happening, that’s easy.  I’ll get feedback.  If I have decided that my story is one of hope and inspiration, and an audience member tells me that they really enjoyed my sorrowful lament, then I know I need to tweak something.  Maybe my tempo was too slow? Or maybe my tempo was fine, but I need to increase my bow speed to keep the energy level up.  And this is the part that makes it worth performing a piece over and over again.  Each time you have a new opportunity to be more convincing with your story; to tell it better, or communicate more clearly– to reach your listener in a more direct way.  And that is what it’s all about.  There is no such thing as a “right” interpretation, but you should be clear about what YOUR interpretation is, and if any of the notes/rhythms/dynamics/etc. are insecure, you won’t be able to get your interpretation out smoothly.  It will feel held back and stifled.

So there you have it.  Through a series of zooming in and out and in and out again, you first learn all of the little black dots, lines, dashes and words on the page, then you find out as much as you can about the circumstances behind the writing of the piece, then you decide what it is about, and figure out how to bring your story to life.

It is a wonderfully empowering journey.  A little scary at first, when you are accustomed to having a teacher there tell you how to play every note, but doing it brings about more self-confidence and the feeling of connecting with your audience over a piece that you brought to life yourself is an incredible feeling.

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in front of the Arts Center at College of Charleston

 

 

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