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. 

images-1

  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.

FullSizeRender 24

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. 

images

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.

IMG_9053

in front of the Arts Center at College of Charleston

 

 

Spotlight Series: Lidiya Yankovskaya

Recenly, I wrote about the new direction I am taking with this space, and as a part of that, I am excited to introduce my new Spotlight Series.  One Wednesday each month, I will interview a totally fierce, ultra-talented female who is taking the music world by storm. I am going to have a mix of performers, composers, conductors, managers, and other lady bosses who are involved in the classical music world in some way.

 

9844695.jpg

Today, we have conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya.   Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, I had the pleasure of meeting Lidiya in Boston a few years ago when we were both doing some work with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras.  It wasn’t long before she was whisked away to do project after project–collecting kudos and rave reviews everywhere she went.  She is currently serving as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, Artistic Director of The Refugee Orchestra Project, and Artistic Director Emeritus/Conductor of Juventus New Music Ensemble.  Here, she talks to us how she prepares for a performance, shares her tips of the trade for traveling and practicing, what advice she would give her 18-year old self, and tells a terrifying story of life in an opera pit!

What is your morning ritual or routine?

LY: Since my schedule varies wildly from day to day, I don’t have a routine (and don’t particularly enjoy having one). However, I generally plan out my schedule (including score study time, etc.) at the beginning of a week for that week or at least for the next few days.  If I don’t have a morning rehearsal, I will generally go jogging, go to the gym or do something else active in the morning.

Must-haves for air-travel?

LY: Scores—airplanes are great for score study.  Bring a big warm scarf/sweater in case the plane is super cold.  Comfortable clothing. Airborne in case I end up next to someone who is sneezing and coughing. Generally, I try to pack as little as humanly possible while traveling.

What was your scariest moment on stage?

LY: Last season, I conducted an opera in which a chorus of women was ‘gathering water’ by scooping clay pitchers over the pit.  Someone in props decided to give them pitchers made out of actual clay, and at one point, the handle of a pitcher broke off as a woman in the chorus did the scooping motion.  The pitcher fell into the pit and shattered directly between a cello and a violist—a few inches to the left or right and it would have fallen on someone’s head or someone’s instrument!!

What has been your most rewarding moment as a musician?

LY: There are so many.  I really love my job and there is nothing like the magic of everything coming together the way you mean for it to in a performance.  Luckily, I get to have this feeling often!

LY conducting.jpg

Practicing: Love it or Hate it?

LY: There are things I love about the study and rehearsal process even more than performances.  It’s exciting to discover something the composer put into the score for the first time, or to come up with a new way to shape a phrase.  Of course, it’s also very rewarding to bring the final product to the audience, but I really love the discovery and musical shaping that takes place as I learn a new piece (or rediscover an old one).

What about when you were a kid?

LY: I liked to practice, but was also very impatient about sitting still for long periods of time.  I would want to work very intensively for about 20 minutes, then get up and do something else, then come back to work.  I came from a musical culture where I was asked to sit at the piano patiently for 3+ hours in order for the practicing to be seen as effective, and I learned to do this over time.  Of course, we now know that it’s actually much more productive to work in shorter spurts.  I do wish someone recognized this when I was a kid and allowed me to take full advantage of the practicing style that was most natural for me.  These days, I find that I’m most productive in 45-minute increments.  Work intensely for 45 mins, take a stretch or grab some water or thing about something else; get back to work.

Who were some of your role models as a young musician?

LY: I had some spectacular teachers.  Probably the most important were my high school piano teachers, the duo-piano pair Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther.  They didn’t really have other students and, after a long solo career in Europe, retired to upstate New York, where they occasionally concertized in their piano museum and concert hall.  Each weekend, I would drive an hour and a half to their home in Hudson, NY and spend an hour with one and then an hour with the other.  They approached music making in an incredibly deep, nuanced, and cross-disciplinary way that has stuck with me throughout my career.  They also had this huge collection of pianos from different periods and different places and had me play all my repertoire on the instrument of that time, which gave incredible insight into the work.

6084366.jpg

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician?

LY: Although I studied music very seriously my entire childhood, I didn’t think I would pursue it professionally.  I toyed with the idea of getting a conservatory piano degree, but realized that I wanted to study other things and also that sitting alone in a practice room for so many hours a day was not for me.  In college, I studied music, philosophy and languages, but realized that music was the one thing I couldn’t live without.  By the end of my time in college, I realized that conducting was the most natural path for me, and a perfect way to combine my various skills and interests.

Have any pre-concert rituals?

LY: Relax, stretch, eat lots of food and drink lots of water to energize for a performance. When possible, I like to go for a long jog or do something else active to clear my head in the afternoon the day of a concert.

Favorite city to perform in?

LY: I like variety.  Each city has something different to offer, and it’s often the city you least expect that is the best place to stay for a short while and that has the most enthusiastic audience.

What is the hardest part of being on the road?

LY: Not having loved ones with you.

569791.jpg

What advice would you give to your 18-year old self?

LY: You have lots of time—don’t feel that you have to have everything figured out now.  Also, sometimes, sleep is more important than fitting in every single thing you want to learn and accomplish; sometimes resting more will allow you to take more advantage of what life has to offer, not less!

If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about?

LY: Mendelssohn—he was such an incredible overall musician and human being.  Mahler—how did he really want his symphonies to sound?  Wagner—I’d be curious to learn how such a seemingly horrible person could be reconciled with such superb music.  Anton Rubinshteyn—he accomplished so much in his lifetime, basically building a classical music tradition in Russia.  Obviously, choosing just one is hard for me!

Where can people find you?

www.LidiyaConductor.com (where you can also sign up for my mailing list!) @LidiyaConductor on FB Twitter, instagram, etc.

lidiya_30_small (1).jpg

Thank you so much, Lidiya, for this glimpse into your amazing life!

Photos by Kate Lemmon.