My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Look before you play - a sleuthful approach to learning music

Photo by Johanson, from Wikimedia 
Ah...the joy of being at the crossroads between endings and beginnings. A lot of music has been learned, rehearsed, and performed these past few months so it's time to begin anew with a completely different batch of musical projects. I do love finding myself in this place, when every new project is full of anticipation and excitement. But it can also be a bit of a scary, intimidating place too. My husband started all this fun a few days ago when he brought home some music I need to learn for his next recital. The first piece I cracked open was Wolf's song, "Der Soldat II (The Solider II)." Here's what I saw (please do click on the image if you really want to get the full effect):

And here are my uncensored thoughts that came to me when I looked at it:
  • Oh man, 5 flats?!
  • Are those double-flats I see all over the place?!
  • Octaves?!
  • Octaves and double-flats at the same time?!
  • I hope this is slow...oh says "eilig" and "heftig" what does that mean? Oh great, it means "urgent" and "driving."
  • Oh no! (accompanied by a racing heart and my throat immediately constricting)

Now what? Well, as with most new music that I get, I decided to stop panicking and to practice what I preach which is to look before I play, to figure it all out before falling into the trap of random, unorganized, slightly or fully desperate music cramming. Here's how I went about learning the music.

Working backwards (I always work backwards), I started with the final 3 measures, asking myself, "What do I see?"

  1. The second-to-last measure is a 3-note pattern, starting on the second eighth note, on D-flat. Each statement is one octave higher and the hands alternate, left-right-left.
  2. Last two chords are made up of the same notes (a B-flat minor chord) but in different inversions & in different hands.  First chord is sforzando and the last one triple piano.
  3. Leading up to the 3-note pattern are repeated Fs that start right after the second beat and that diminuendo.

After making these observations, I slowly played each hand separately, at a tempo that enabled me to consciously think through everything I had figured out about the music.  Then I put the hands together and played slowly, in the same engaged way.  After a few times, it was learned and practically memorized.


It's marked fortissimo and it looks a little thick and nasty but...
  1. The left hand and the top voice in the right hand stay the same for the entire first measure.
  2. The line that moves, the bottom voice in the right hand, moves down the chromatic scale.
  3. At the beginning of the second measure, the right hand is still moving down in half-steps but both voices move this time.
  4. In the left hand, the top and bottom voice stays the same while the middle voice moves down a half step to end on a nice dominant 7 chord - how pretty! (Seriously - that is actually part of my thought process!)
This isn't so bad...yet.  Onward! Or rather, backward ho!

No double flats yet, but octaves. Yuck. (I have small hands.)
  1. For this entire 3 bars, the hands are playing in octaves...piece of cake!
  2. Almost entirely chromatic movement being the sneaky little whole step at the end of the second measure...looks like it's going to be a third of some sort but it's not.  Since enharmonic writing can play tricks on me, I chose to write in the A-natural again.  Even taking the time to think this out and write it down can eliminate any confusion later on.
  3. Whenever there are two repeated octaves at the beginning of a set of three eighths in the right hand, the left hand leaves out the second of the two eighths, adding an additional rhythmic element into the mix. I think this helps to propel the music forward.
  4. Not surprisingly, once the chromatic material starts going up, the music is accompanied by a molto crescendo.
Yay! A short easy one...
  1. These two measure are made up of E-flats, F-flats, F-naturals, and G-flats.
  2. It starts with the F-flat octave in the left hand, played piano.
  3. Right hand loudly interrupts at the tail end of the second beat, playing an accented half-note motive that immediately repeats an octave below, in both hands.
  4. Sudden pianissimo follows while both hands remain on F-flat octaves which are repeated until the last eighth note when it goes up chromatically again, with a small crescendo, surprise, surprise!
  5. Entire pattern of the first measure is repeated, but starting this time on G-flat.

Aack! Double-flats! OK, breathe...figure it out.  Are they scales?  
  1. The first scale in the right hand is actually a G-flat minor scale with a chromatic note thrown in at the beginning of the third beat.
  2. The scale in the right hand in the second measure is a F-flat major scale with the chromatic thrown in on the last eighth note of the second beat.  Or since I have that aversion to double-flats, I prefer to think of it as an E major scale.  Ah, E major.  
  3. Not quite sure of a neat and tidy way to explain the left hand although it is pretty straightforward harmonically - no big surprises.
  4. Musically the dynamics make sense again (thanks, Wolf!) with crescendos occurring each measure to accompany the upward-rising scales.
Phew! That's done...all downhill from here...

  1. Right hand moves chromatically again until the last eighth note of the measure which moves up by a whole step (darned double-flats again!)  There is a crescendo on these final rising notes.
  2. Left hand has a bit of its own pattern going on for the first two beats but the beginning of each beat is a tenth away from the right hand octaves.  The subito piano on the second eighth note helps to point that pattern out, at least in my mind.

Double-flats again!  Grrrr...
  1. This time the left hand moves upward chromatically, starting on the second eighth note of the measure and ending at the end of the measure.  The gesture is accompanied yet again by a crescendo.
  2. The right hand uses a repeated dotted-rhythm motive throughout the measure, adding a note in the final two notes of the measure to help lead to the downbeat of the next measure.
  3. In the second measure, both hands have the same dotted rhythm.  Same notes are repeated throughout with some accented chords in the right hand as the main exception.

  1. The first measure looks especially familiar...hmmm...It's exactly the same as the first measure of the previous chunk.  Chromatic scale in the left hand, starting on F and starting right on the first eighth note.  Again, this is accompanied by a crescendo and by dotted-rhythm octaves in the right hand.  An additional note is again thrown in to the octaves on the last beat of the first measure.
  2. Subito pianissimo at the beginning of second measure highlights change in texture and rhythm.  Very basic, simple harmonic structure in this measure.
This measure is basically the same as the second measure of the previous chunk, with the right hand in a different inversion, that's all.

And last but not least...

  1. I'm loving the right hand.  The same thing throughout the first four measures.  I notice what the pattern is and then play it with the right hand alone until I no longer have to think about it.  It's auto-pilot time when it comes to repetitive figures.
  2. In the left hand, the first two measures are identical, starting with mezzo-fortes on the second beat.
  3. The third and fourth measure in the left hand are octaves in the third measure and than one compact crunchy chord in the fourth measure, on the second beat.

Ta-da...Wolf's piece is much more understandable to me.  The notes aren't random anymore and now when I practice, I feel like I'm speaking the composer's language because I've taken the time to study it.  I think it's also important to point out that my analysis is not full of profound theory analysis.  There's no Schenker here, no talk of Roman numerals or anything of that nature, largely because I am not very good with that stuff.  I think anyone can become a music detective, making basic observations such as the ones I've made here, to make sense of the black dots on a page.  

So next time you need to learn a piece of music, try picking up a musical magnifying glass to see what you can find in the music to make some sense of it.  Just as all those crime investigation shows on TV can be addictive, so can musical sleuthing.  And now I close this post with a famous Sherlock Holmes quote, "You know my methods, Watson."

Now run with those methods and have fun!

Happy music learning!


  1. Bravo, I had the same instant 5 flats that then moved further into horror.

  2. Hello, Patrick. Yes, horror and too many accidentals do tend to go hand and hand, don't they? And I find it so odd that I tend to react differently to sharps than I do to flats which I find quite amusing and baffling all at the same time!

    Thanks for reading and commenting. It is wonderful to be able to compare notes with like-minded musicians :-)

    Happy practicing and music sharing!


  3. Erica-
    Yes to this: I think it's also important to point out that my analysis is not full of profound theory analysis.
    Often it is "the language" of theoretic analysis which stands in the way of what, as you have so nicely shown here, is actually quite understandable in "simple terms."
    I believe we will communicate (with ourselves & others) more usefully when we discard confused & confusing verbage, and speak in a language all can understand.
    For example: "I notice what the pattern is and then play it with the right hand alone until I no longer have to think about it."
    In my "Map Of Music" Handbook there is a short section on "Discerning Patterns and Shaping Melodies" - it resonates with what you say here.
    And maybe best of all, for me, a universal principle of practice - "Working backwards (I always work backwards), I started with the final 3 measures, asking myself, 'What do I see?'"
    This is a #Wowser of a blog post.

  4. Thank you so much for your comments, Wayne. It's great to hear support for a simplified way of looking at music, especially after having to endure years of music theory that usually went way over my head. I think there is something about the subject that is extraordinarily challenging for many. I see so many people, myself included, who completely shutdown when those Roman numerals enter the discussion or when someone mentions form.

    It is also so encouraging for me to hear that people are actually ok with reading such a detailed account of practicing. It tells me that there are a lot of musicians out there that are constantly striving to find new ways to work on their art. That's an exciting truth, at least for me!

    Thank you again, Wayne.


  5. I really appreciate this post Erica. I have one question. During this process, do you write down fingering, or not?

  6. Thank you for reading, Rafael. (I've never used your real name since I know you as @Discoverpiano . Hope I'm right.) Fingerings...I definitely write down fingerings from the very beginning and I tend to put quite a bit of thought into them but that's not to say they're always good ;-) And the reason I write them in is because I want to be as consistent as possible to help my brain process the information as easily and quickly as possible. I should add, though, that I am pretty quick to change a fingering if I keep on making mistakes.

    Hope that makes somes sense.

    Thanks for reading and happy practicing!