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.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Project Capriccio-final act! a.k.a. Ignorance is bliss

Tomorrow is the big day! Tomorrow will officially be the end of Project Capriccio!!

At the dress rehearsal, today, I had someone ask me what happened to my blog posts on practicing? What have I been doing these past couple of days? How come there haven't been any blog posts? I should, after all, be cramming, right? Hmmmmm...let me think about this. How much have I actually been practicing the Lukas Foss Capriccio since Thursday?

The answer: I practiced it 30 minutes on Thursday plus a 30 minute rehearsal, 20 minutes on Friday, none today except for the run-through at the dress rehearsal, and I anticipate none tomorrow.

Now I am honestly not telling you this because I think I deserve a prize. I am telling you this because I want to share the great freedom that comes with learning music and practicing with an engaged, mindful, problem-solving mindset. Forget the hours and hours of mindless, repetitive practice. Forget thinking, "If only I had practiced that more." Forget having to run over the piece over and over again right up until the time you have to walk on stage lest you forget the music.  Forget feeling tortured about performing.  Try something new!

So why haven't I practiced much these past few days?  Here are my reasons:
  • In addition to being a musician, I am also a mother to a pre-schooler and a wife.  I simply did not have time!  I think there are lots of us out there in the same boat.  Even when I was a student at music school I didn't feel like I had time to practice.  I think there are a few folks that manage to find the time to practice 5 or 6 hours a day, but, well, ugh...that doesn't leave a whole lot of time for anything else.
  • I truly believe that there was not much I could have done between Thursday and Sunday to really improve my playing of the piece.  I wouldn't be able to trust that it was there.
  • It freaks me out to practice a lot right before a program.  Anytime I make a mistake it raises my anxiety level.  Then I make more mistakes and it goes downhill from there.  This is where the "Ignorance is bliss" phrase comes in handy.  I really do apply it to this type of recital preparation.  I'd rather not know what's not going well and be perhaps painfully naive.  
  • At the performance, if I have made a lot of mistakes in the days leading up to the recital, all of those little details loom over my head and take over my brain or I have unreasonably high expectations for myself.  Then when I do make a mistake, which is inevitable, I become shocked and enraged.  Instead of making music, the performance becomes a battle between me beating myself up over ridiculous details and me trying to get myself back into the music.  Not a pretty picture!
So what did I do the few times I have practiced these past couple of days?  It's pretty simple and there's nothing new here...
  • I only practiced spots that I had marked as difficult passages
  • I worked first on details like shifts and bowings and then put everything together, starting at a tempo that was slow enough that I could play without making mistakes, without altering the pulse, without my mind freaking out on me, and musically.  Then I built the tempo up until it was pretty close to being at performance speed.
  • I used lots of rhythms when I could to test the strength of all my fingers. 
  • When I had time, I went through sections of the piece very slowly, just to listen to intonation
What I didn't do:
  • Play through the piece ad nauseum
  • Play up-to-tempo
  • Repeat hard passages mindlessly and quickly
  • Freak out
So am I crazy?  Perhaps.  But I also feel just fine about tomorrow.  In fact, I'm eager to get a chance to play through the piece in its entirety again with my fabulous young pianist (thanks again, Martin!) because I am not sick of it...I am not weary of it...I am not scared.  And you know what?  That, in my mind, is a wonderful state to be in.  I'll take this over the alternative any day.  

Ignorance is indeed bliss...

Wait, what am I playing tomorrow?!?!?


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From simplicity to complexity - Bach's C minor Prelude and Fugue

I have been looking forward to recording the second Prelude and Fugue from the second book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for quite a while now.  For me, it is a journey from simplicity into complexity.  The Prelude is very reminiscent of one of Bach's Inventions, with a simple passing of musical material between the right and left hands of the pianist.  Every few measures, he then joins the hands, engaging them together in sequences that take the listener from one key to another.  Harmonically speaking, there are no curve balls here.  In the first half, Bach takes us from C minor to the relative major, E-flat.  Starting the second section in the same key, he sequentially moves us up to F minor where he then begins a final long sequential descent back to the home key of C minor.  The simplicity of all of this would be difficult to miss.  The passing of a steady stream of fast notes between the hands has a bit of a hypnotic effect on me when I play or listen to this piece.  It's almost as if Bach wanted to get me to a certain place before beginning one of the richest fugues I know.

In this relatively short fugue of only 28 measures, Bach pulls out just about all the cards he can.  He takes the subject, made up of only 5 notes, and varies it, sometimes by changing the subject's rhythm, but also by inverting it (what went up the first-time around, now goes down and what went down, now goes up), by augmenting it (he makes every note twice as long) and also has them entering in stretto (the voices enter with the subject before another voice has finished its turn - basically, it's interrupting!).  And if that isn't enough, he combines all of these variations of the subject in the second half, placing them one on top of another.  Another interesting thing to note is that although this fugue is considered a four-voice fugue, the fourth voice does not enter into the picture until well into the second half of the fugue and when it does come in, it is augmented and surrounded by the other voices that are involved in some complex rhythmic interplay.  When I get to this spot I can't help but feel that Bach is trying to say's as if he is saying, "Listen - this is what I have to say!"  I only wish I knew what that something is.  

Any thoughts?

So here they are...first the Prelude in C minor:

And the Fugue...

Other posts in this series:
Prelude and Fugue 1 in C major
Prelude and Fugue 3 in C-sharp major
Prelude and Fugue 4 in  C-sharp minor
Prelude and Fugue 5 in D major
Prelude and Fugue 6 in D minor
Prelude and Fugue 7 in E-flat major

Monday, May 24, 2010

Project Capriccio, day 5: tying up loose ends

I just got back from another rehearsal for the Lucas Foss Capriccio. Since all of the notes had been learned by last Friday, and because I had two good practice days this weekend (thank you, family!) the piece is starting to settle in. Good news! So after the notes are learned, fingerings, bowings, and breaths are decided on, what's next? How do I get from well-acquainted to completely having it under my skin? It's really a piece of cake. All you need is:
  • an engaged brain
  • a little time each day 
  • a lot of restraint 
Here's how I mix those ingredients for each of my practice sessions that lead up to a performance.

1.  Figuring out how much time I have to spend on the piece in question: This step may seem optional but in my opinion, it really isn't.  As I have been mentioning throughout this series, I feel it is crucial to take take luck and randomness out of our practice.  Especially when I am running short on time, it is very tempting for me to just sit down and dive in, without any sort of plan.  But when I do this, more often than not I end up practicing sections that I really don't need to practice, avoiding the hardest passages, and play too quickly, making many mistakes that don't get corrected.  This may feel all right at the time, but then when I get to the performance, it becomes painfully obvious which sections I had conveniently forgotten during those practice sessions.  Knowing how much time I actually have to practice helps me structure my time so that I don't end up on that road to Las Vegas, gambling my precious practice time away.

2.  Review what happened the previous day: After I know how much time I'm dealing with, I then try and recall how things went the previous day, either during my practice session or at a rehearsal.  Any problem spots are immediately put at the top of my mental list because if I don't address them sooner rather than later, I am bound to forget that they are a problem until the next time I play that section.  And since I don't practice every note of a piece every day, that means I could go days without touching on a spot that is bound to be an issue sometime in the future.  Sometimes this step can be a bit on the painful side for me because it makes me face my weaknesses - that' s not usually conducive to happy, confident feelings.  In the end, however, it is so worthwhile.  The pride and confidence that I feel when I consistently nail what once was a problem spot, is truly priceless, energizing future practice sessions, rehearsals and performances.

3.  Practice the problem spots first, followed by the sections I have marked as being spots that simply need a lot of careful, mindful repetition: I practice these spots first by analyzing what the problem it a bad fingering or bowing? Am I not really sure of the notes or rhythms?  Am I playing it too fast for where I am with the passage?  I then play the passage as slowly as I need to in order to play in rhythm, smoothly, musically, without my brain or body panicking in any way.  If I am playing and I make a mistake or my brain seizes up, I immediately stop, back up, and start again at an even slower tempo.  Once it's comfortable, I repeat it at the same tempo several times.  If I can do it three times in a row perfectly, then, and only then, do I bump up the tempo.  Eventually I hit a wall that I can't get past and that's normal.  I simply know that I've reached my limit for the day.  There are times when I don't get a piece up to performance tempo until a week before.  The most important thing is to practice in such a way that I virtually never make the same mistake twice in a row.  If this happens, I know I'm doing something wrong.

4.  If a performance is right around the corner, practice performing: If I have finished going through all of my trouble spots, I will spend a little bit of time playing through longer portions of the piece with the mindset that I'm performing.  Now it's important to note that I don't do this with the panic and adrenaline that often comes with performing.  I strive for the opposite instead.  I make sure that my mind is calm, that I'm singing the music in my head, that I'm engaged with what I am doing in a positive way.  Just as repetition is important in order to learn notes, I feel that repeatedly playing the music with expression and a healthy state-of-mind is habit forming.  If I can build it into my music-making at home, it's more likely to be there on its own during a performance.

So there you have it...this is how I will practice the Lukas Foss Capriccio this week, probably through Wednesday.  Stay tuned to find out what I do differently with my practicing in the days right before the performance.  You may be surprised!  Sometimes I even surprise myself ;-)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Project Capriccio, day 4: it's about more than just the notes

Yesterday wasn't such a great day but as one of my twitter friends predicted, I'm back in the saddle again today.  I'm not surprised...we all have down days, even when we think we're doing everything right!  That may sound like a trivial comment; everyone knows this simple fact of life.  But it never ceases to amaze me how shocked  I am, horrified even, when I'm on one of those off-days.  I think many musicians, young and old, react in the same way.  We are perfectionists, after all...that's what makes us good at what we do.  But there are times to let go of the perfectionism and off-days, in my book, are one of those times.  (Performing is the other time it's good to let post, "A call for a movement among classical musicians," talks about my not-so-quiet perspective on the topic.)  In fact, I dare say that on off-days it is actually better to stop and walk away from a practice session rather than risk incorporating bad habits and a bad mind-set into your music.  Mindful, engaged repetition can be good - it builds those connections in the brain.  But when incorrect fingerings, bowings, notes, rhythms are part of the repetition, it can be fatal in a performance situation...those mistakes might just happen to be what your mind chooses to recall.  

Here are some things I try to do when things aren't going well...
  • I immediately stop and try to figure out what's going on before I make any more mistakes.  Am I hungry? Thinking about a chore that I should have done before practicing? Annoyed that my fingernails are too long?  Wanting a jelly bean?  If I can identify the issue, than I fix the problem and try practicing again.
  • If I can't solve the problem, I take a break.
  • If after taking a break, I still can't concentrate, I immediately stop again, possibly for the entire day!  I know this sounds risky, but I feel that I can't afford to practice incorrectly.  If I really feel I need to just put time in at the instrument, I will choose to play some old literature or sight-read something new.
  • Don't beat myself up over it and move on!  I am human, after all ;-)
All right.  It's time to get back to my project and what I did today with the Capriccio.

First off, I should tell you that today is another very busy day for me so I knew that I would only have one hour to work on the Foss piece.  Although I realize I can't know exactly how my day is going to go and I am like anyone else and have odd things pop up and interfere with my schedule, I make a point of deciding when and how much I am going to practice, being sure to be realistic so that it would be virtually impossible for me not to succeed.  (Remember, repeated successes are crucial in my method of practicing!)  When I have a day in which I'm short for time, I am even more careful about how I follow my practice plan - I have certain steps I make sure I follow and then there are those that I put aside, saving them for another time.  Here's how I decided to structure today's one-hour session:

  • 9:00-9:30 Review material learned the previous day, still working backwards through the music.  Because of time restraints, I do not link musical chunks, I simply review each chunk, one at a time.  For example, I started with musical chunk #12 and once played accurately, I studied musical chunk #13.  On days when I have a lot of time, I would then play chunk #12 connected to #13.  After that I would study musical chunk #14.  Once accurate, I would play #14 connected to #13 connected to #12.  This can take some time.  Today I just worked on #12...then #13...then #14, not bothering to link them although I often play the first few notes of the next chunk since transitions can be tricky.
  • 9:30-10:00 Learn new material,  using steps 3 and 4 that I discussed the first day.  Click here to get to that post.
This plan was really easy for me to stick to which made me feel great!  What made me feel even better is that when I got to the end of the section I had marked for today, I glanced at the next day's section and realized that it was all material I had previously learned, fingerings, bowings, and all.  This means that I have now learned the entire Capriccio well before my deadline which was originally Monday.  I also had 10 minutes to spare at the end so I used that time to do some drilling of passages that I have marked with the "*"s and arrows.  A side-note here: this is why marking those sections clearly can be so valuable.  I didn't have to take the time to figure out what passages could use extra practicing.  When they are marked, I can easily pick them out and get to work, which I did.  By 10am, I felt like I was on top of the world again.  Attainable goals and success are invaluable and conducive to encouraging practice sessions!  I am excited to practice again - what could be bad about that?

One final thought about today.  Once I've worked on a new piece for several days, I make a point of making a lot of musical and technical decisions about the music.  When I am reviewing a section chunk by chunk, I make sure that I stop whenever I hit a glitch.  I then take time to really ask myself what's going on.  If I think it's a fingering issue and that I could probably find a better fingering, I take the time then and there to figure it out and write the result in my music.  Sometimes it's a physical issue that can be helped simply by analyzing how I can get from one place on the cello to another, more easily and with better accuracy.  Other times the problem is that I don't really understand what's going on and all it takes is realizing, "Oh, this is just a g-harmonic minor scale." The main point here, is that I don't just keep repeating a problem passage over and over again until I "hit the jackpot" - that would be random practicing (you can read about my thoughts about this in my post "Learning to 'Leave Las Vegas' when it comes to practicing.") and I don't believe in this type of practicing.  I don't have time for this type of practicing and I don't believe most people do. I also make a point of reading each and every musical marking while I'm reviewing chunks and I begin the process of making musical decisions and trying out different options.  I believe it's important to incorporate musicality from the get-go since often times, being able to carry out those musical decisions requires a certain technique, a particular fingering or bowing.  

Enough food for thought for today?  I imagine so.  I'd love to know if anyone reading my blog is actually trying to learn a new piece along with me, following some of my suggestions.  Sometimes I feel a bit alone and crazy when it comes to practicing.  It would make my heart happy to know that perhaps I'm not so alone after all!

Have a great weekend...and stay tuned for even more practice tips!  

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Project Capriccio, day 3: dealing with doubts

So today has been an interesting day...let me rephrase has been nuts.  When I thought about writing this blog post for today, I thought, "hmmm...perhaps we should just skip this day" but then I realized that today is really just realistic and just about everyone relates to trying to squeeze 28 hours into a 24-hour day.  With that said, here is where I am with Project Capriccio.  I am still on track.  Actually, I am a day ahead of schedule because yesterday I had about 45 minutes of extra time.  Knowing what my schedule was going to be like today, I chose to spend that time working ahead in the music and managed to complete today's portion of new music ahead-of-schedule.  Not bad!  That definitely made me feel good, optimistic, on top of things, in control...all of those good things.  And yes, I was on top of the least for the remainder of the day.  (That's all right, go ahead and snicker a little bit...I bet you know what's coming!)  But I don't want to leave the success part quite yet because I truly believe that having moments such as these are crucial in our musical lives and it's why I have created a method of practicing that allows for these moments almost at every turn.  I believe in setting realistic goals that I know I can attain, simply so that I can have multiple successes, almost continuously.  

OK, it's time for the "but" that you may have seen coming from a mile away...BUT life happens, doubts creep in, days don't go so well...that doesn't mean we should abandon what we're doing.  Here's what happened to me today.  I started out just fine with my Project Capriccio practice session.  I reviewed yesterday's new music, marked in trouble spots, changed a few fingering and then moved on to learn the chunk of music that was next on the list.  But while I was learning the new material, I started getting nervous because I knew I was supposed to go to my first rehearsal for the Capriccio in the afternoon - I still hadn't even looked at the first two pages!  How was I supposed to rehearse?  Voices started creeping in, telling me I should abandon my plan and cram.  I decided, in the end, to disregard those voices.  There was nothing I could really do to get the rest of the piece learned in time so I took a deep breath and told myself to proceed with my plan.  So that's what I did...I refused to listen to the gargoyle sitting on my shoulder that was telling me, "Play faster! Play faster!" and I kept everything slow and relatively relaxed and told the gargoyle to take a hike.

My rehearsal with the pianist was this afternoon and although I didn't totally bomb, well, it wasn't as good as I would like it to have gone.  (I need to add here that the pianist, a young man whose sister I often accompany was very prepared so I take full responsibility!  Thanks, Martin!!)  The reason I'm sharing this with you all is because again, I think this was a realistic, fairly commonplace experience but it doesn't mean careful, planned practicing doesn't work.  I have been in this situation before and I know that my practice method has worked in the past and it will work again in this situation.  

So what did I learn today? (I figure I might as well find something positive in it all.)  I learned that I should have started learning this piece sooner, surprise, surprise...and that perhaps I should have waited to rehearse with the pianist until I had finished learning the entire piece.  Again, no surprise there!  But such as life and I will move on and I will finish learning this piece without relying on mindless repetition or luck.  I refuse to take that highway to Las Vegas again. 

How will this story end?  Stay tuned - I promise there will be more practice tips to come.  But that'll have to be on a better day!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Project Capriccio, day 2: the fun begins!

I want to start off this post by saying that I am always excited to be on day 2 of any learning project.  The first day for me often feels a bit just like busy-work but on day 2, if I've been practicing carefully and slowly, I start to see progress, make music, and feel really good about myself and the work that I'm doing.  I also want to add that having a detailed plan like the one I have come up with for learning the Capriccio, is essential because it gives me realistic goals that I know I can attain.  Meeting goals and feeling successful is an unbelievably powerful tool.  It is also a bit addictive because who doesn't enjoy success?

So I'm picking up my cello - here goes day 2 of Project Capriccio...

1.  Reviewing the previous day's material: This is a crucial step and I am wary of skipping it unless I know that time is an issue.  It's important for two reasons:
  • It helps solidify the learning that occurred the previous day.
  • If I make sure I go about it in a healthy way (slow enough to not have mistakes, musically, and relaxed) than I will usually have success which means I will start learning the new section with a positive mindset
I review the material working backwards from the end, in the same way that I learned it.  This time, however, I am even more picky about the details.  If I miss a shift, jumble a bowing, or play a wrong note I immediately stop, analyze the problem, make any changes that need to be changed such as bad fingering or bowing, mark in the music anything that would help (fingerings, bowings, accidentals), and then play the isolated problem-spot until it is perfect.  If I have quite a bit of practice time, I often require myself to play a fixes spot 3 times in a row perfectly before I proceed.  When I am able to play the first chunk perfectly, with a steady pulse and no musical stuttering, I then continue on to the chunk labelled as "2." After I've conquered the second chunk, I then play from the beginning of that chunk until the end of the piece.  Next comes the 3rd chunk.  When I'm done tidying up that one, I play the 3rd, followed by the second, all the way until the end.  I continue in this fashion until I have reviewed all of the music I learned the previous day.  Since I am repeatedly playing through the chunks to the end with each new chunk being reviewed, by the end of this step, the ending usually sounds pretty solid - success!  Today, this step only took me about 15 minutes.  Granted, I'm used to my method so it goes quite quickly, but I think with concentration and determination, this method can feel virtually effortless in a small amount of time.

One final note about this step:  after working on the previous day's material for a while, passages that are more troublesome will make themselves pretty obvious.  When this happens, I mark the beginning and end of the trouble spot with a "*" in the music.  (Please refer to the image of the music below.  I have marked them with blue pen.) These markings will come in handy as we progress through the week.

2.  Learning new material: I follow steps 3 and 4 outlined in yesterday's post until I've learned the day's material.  Depending on how much time I have to practice, I make a choice about how far I'm going to play when I'm stringing chunks together.  If I don't have a lot of time, I will only play to the end of the section being learned each time.  But if I do have time, I play into the section learned the day before.  I string together a maximum of 7 chunks, however.  Otherwise, I fear that mindless repetition could sneak in.

Today this step took my about half-an-hour and by the end, I could play through the section very comfortably and pretty musically too.  I'm making myself very vulnerable now, by posting a video I took when I did the run-through of the new material. Please know that no cellos or people were injured in the recording of this video!  I will also post the music that was involved so folks can follow along if they wish. goes...

And here's the second-to-last page of the Capriccio:

3.  Playing through new section straight through to the end of the piece: I make sure I pick a tempo that will allow me to play without any mistakes.  On day two of a project, this is usually pretty slow.  It might take some getting used to, playing this slow, but I assure you, it's worth it!  Playing at this tempo allows me to think about everything all at once with a relaxed mind.  Requiring myself to use my brain while doing this also means I'm not as liable to fall into the mindless repetition trap.  Mindless repetition takes us back into the Los Vegas practicing syndrome that I mention in my post, Learning to "Leave Los Vegas."  Practicing in this way basically relies on luck.  I don't think we want our performances to only be successful if we're lucky!

So we're at the end of day 2 and I'm feeling good and very excited to learn another page tomorrow.  Until then, happy practicing!

Previous posts in this series:

A new lease on life, music, and practicing

Learning to "Leave Las Vegas" when it comes to practicing

Project Capriccio - learning how to practice by learning a new piece of music 

Subsequent posts in this series:

Project Capriccio, day 3 - dealing with doubts

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Project Capriccio: learning how to practice by learning a new piece of music

So today is the day - the first official day in my series about practicing.  


No worries, please.  This first post will probably be the longest as I lay the groundwork but after that, it should get easier :-)

This past weekend I have been thinking through how I'm going to go about addressing this issue.  What I finally came up with is this...I am going to start at the very beginning...for the next few posts I am going to take you along with me as I learn a completely new piece of music.  My hope is that by doing this, you'll be able to see all of my practice techniques and be able to apply some or all of them to your own practicing.  My goals will be to:

  • learn this piece quickly but accurately
  • make musical decisions about the music from the beginning
  • get it to a level that I can depend on for the performance (which is Sunday, May 30)
  • be able to enjoy the piece at the performance and have fun with it!

The music?  Lukas Foss' Capriccio for cello and piano.  I will be learning the cello part.  Here goes:

Day one of Project Capriccio 

1. Come up with a learning plan: I want to have this piece fully learned by next Wednesday, May 26, so I have time to just enjoy it and live with it before I have to perform it.  That's 9 days of practicing starting today.  There are 5 pages to learn.  I should be able to practice every day so I need to learn about three-quarters of a page each day.  

2. Mark the plan in the music: Next I go to the music and physically mark in what material I'm going to learn for each day, feeling free to adjust the amount of music to learn based on natural sections in the music.  In other words, I am not completely mathematical about it.  I also need to add that I learn music backwards - starting at the end of the piece and working towards the beginning of the piece.  I do this for several reasons:

  • I am less tempted to keep starting at the beginning all the time because that's what I know best.  
  • It is easier to see the music in smaller patterns and motives.
  • When I perform the piece, I feel more and more comfortable as I play because the ending is actually the section that has been learned the longest.  This is convenient because many pieces are the hardest at the end.
  • Often times, the ending says it all.  I like knowing what the composer does at the end of a piece of music because then it helps to make musical decisions about the material that precedes the ending.

In this specific piece, it turns out that I'll actually be done learning all of the piece by next Monday.  That's me a little room to wiggle if something comes up and interferes with my practicing or it gives me extra days at the end to live with the piece.  I should add at this point that if someone is squeamish about marking up music, following this method of mine will be challenging.

3. Start learning the music backwards: I look at the music and figure out what my first learning section will be and then put a "1" at the beginning of it.  I choose this chunk based on how many different musical items there are.  The brain can process about 7 different items at a time apparently, so that's what I look for - 7 different motives, gestures, etc...Then before I even play a note, I analyze that first section in order to simplify it and understand what's going on.  Here's a copy of the last page so you can see what I'm dealing with...

Looking at my first musical chunk (indicated by the red "1"), I see that it is basically made up of 5 different musical ideas.  It starts with a motive, an arpeggio/scalar figure that goes down to the C string, than a two-note "sigh" repeated three times, ending with a chord.  Pretty simple.  Now because that lick going down to the bottom of the cello looks a bit complicated, I figure out exactly what's going on.  With the exception of the major third going up at the beginning, it looks like a whole bunch of whole steps separated by various intervals.  I also note that each two note grouping starts with an accent.  My eye looks at the first note of each pair and I play just those accented notes to get the outline in my ear.  Next, I figure out a fingering that seems to make sense and I mark it in the music.

FinallyI play the first musical chunk slowly...first I play all the notes with my chosen fingering to get the pitches in my ear, then I add in the rhythm.  Once I have the pitches and the rhythms with pretty decent accuracy and comfort, I put it all together, playing it slow enough that I can play it accurately, and with a steady pulse - it's important that I don't stutter musically.  If I hit a wrong note or fumble a rhythm I immediately stop, figure out what the problem is, and then start back at the beginning of musical chunk until I can play the entire chunk free from stress or error.  If I have a lot of time on my hands, I will ask myself to play where the error was three times in a row, perfectly, before I move on.  And yes, this does mean that if on the third try I make an error, I start over again with the three-times-perfectly in a row requirement.  One thing I love about this method is that I often have the music memorized by the time I get a chunk really learned because of the analyzing, problem solving and thoughtful repetition that goes on using this method.

4. After the first chunk is learned, I mark what the second chunk is going to be and apply the same techniques from step number 3.  Once this is accomplished, I then play the second chunk followed by the first chunk with the same goals in mind - perfect intonation, correct notes, correct rhythms, no musical stuttering and all of this with musicality.  I often have a tough time linking the two sections so I take the time to figure out how I'm going to make that transition, practice it slowly, and then try again, starting from the beginning of chunk number 2 and playing through to the very end of the piece.

5. I keep doing steps 3 and 4 until I reach the beginning of the first day's assignment.  At the end of this first day, I should be able to slowly play through from chunk number 6 until the end.  It should be fairly confident, with good intonation, accurate rhythm and with musicality.

I realize that this probably sounds extraordinarily tedious but it isn't, I assure you!  My brain is constantly working throughout the practice session, trying to solve problems, coming up with good fingerings, and trying out different phrasings and dynamics.  The process also goes fairly quickly once you get the hang of it, I promise!  

Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning to "Leave Las Vegas" when it comes to practicing

Today's the day!  To start off my series on practicing I thought it would be good to share what my philosophy is on the topic. Here it is:

Taking the randomness and luck factor out of practicing improves the quality of our learning.

When I follow this principle, I:
  • save time and energy,
  • feel more successful on a daily basis,
  • increase my confidence going into a performance situation,
  • increase my enjoyment of music-making and performing, 
  • which helps the audience feel more at ease and enhances their enjoyment of the performance
I call this my, "Leaving Las Vegas" theory because I feel that practicing with the mindset that accuracy and consistency will naturally occur with repetition and hours of slogging away at our instrument is somewhat akin to playing the slot machines.  True...if I repeat something enough times I am bound to get it right at some point.  With the slot machines, if I keep putting in those quarters and pull the handle enough times, I'm bound to get something back, right?.  But is that "jackpot" really much of a jackpot?  

So what are the signs someone has taken that highway to Las Vegas and is practicing based on luck and randomness?  He or she:
  • keeps hitting wrong notes.
  • is guessing a lot of the time when it comes to playing rhythms.
  • has to stop a lot.
  • does not keep a consistent pulse because of musical stuttering. (Here's a post on musical stuttering.)
  • plays at too fast a tempo.
  • uses inconsistent fingerings, bowings, or breaths.
  • does not play very musically because the brain is too busy worrying about details that aren't consistent or solid.
  • uses mindless repetitions of a passage with the hope that eventually it's bound to be right.
  • plays straight through pieces a lot.
  • starts at the beginning of the piece over and over again because he/she can't get past a hard part.
  • practices for hours and hours without a lot of improvement and consistency.
  • feels like they have to be playing right up until they perform in order to increase the chance that they'll hit the jackpot at the right time on stage.
  • has an unpredictable track-record when it comes to performing.  Sometimes he/she does brilliantly, sometimes he/she crashes and burns.
  • doesn't enjoy performing, largely because he/she isn't truly confident that the technical aspects are secure.
So why do so many people have these habits?  I think there are several reasons:
  • We feel like we don't have enough time to practice or we feel rushed so we have the mentality that it's better to practice some than not at all, even if that practice is not efficient.
  • We haven't been taught how to practice in a structured, mindful way.
  • We get so excited about playing the music that we gravitate towards playing through music rather than working on it.
The good news, of course, is that we can learn how to practice and see improvements very quickly.  It is just a matter of recognizing how our brain and body process information.  Practicing in a random way does not help our brain in any way.  In fact, I feel that it is detrimental to our learning process both physically and mentally.  Our brain learns by making neural connections when something is repeated the exact same way multiple times.  Unfortunately that means if you keep playing a given passage differently each time, the brain doesn't have anything to recognize - neural connections cannot be made.  Or if you play a passage with wrong notes several times in a row, this is the neural connection that is made and that is taken to the concert hall.  As the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in his fabulous book, This is Your Brain on Music

The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced...Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience.  Neurochemical tags associated with memories mark them for importance, and we tend to code as important things that carry with them a lot of emotion, either positive or negative...Caring may, in part, account for some of the early differences we see in how quickly people acquire new skills.  If I really like a particular piece of music, I'm going to want to practice it more, and because I care about it, I'm going to attach neurochemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important: The sounds of the piece, the way I move my fingers, if I'm playing a wind instrument the way that I breathe - all these become part of a memory trace that I've encoded as important.  (pgs. 197-198)
This leads me to one last thought before I end this post...for me, it's all about getting in a different mindset.  If I approach practicing with the desire to really care for each note, for the music that I get to play, I practice in a different way than if I enter my practice time as if it is a daily chore.  In the next few posts, I will talk about the specific techniques I use whenever I practice.  I am excited because these are all techniques that are easy to implement and their results are immediately electrifying and dare I say, addictive?  Quoting Levitin again:
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these factors; caring leads to attention, and together they lead to measurable neurochemical changes.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, is released, and the dopaminergic system aids in the encoding of the memory trace.
So let's get off the road to Las Vegas, shall we? And together we'll find a healthier addiction.

Previous post in this series:

A new lease on life, music, and practicing

Subsequent posts in this series:

Project Capriccio: learning to practice by learning a new piece of music
Project Capriccio, day 2: the fun begins!
Project Capriccio, day 3: dealing with doubts

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A new lease on life, music, and practicing

Although I am loathe to admit this much of the time, I am thankful for life's challenges.  And now that I am a parent and find that the challenging times have grown exponentially both in number and in charged emotions, I believe I am finally beginning to grasp how to live through these moments with more of a forward glance.  Through experience I have discovered that out of these rough patches grows new knowledge, convictions, and patience.  Right now, as my daughter is approaching her fifth birthday, I find myself in a period of relatively objective reflection - I am beginning to see how my struggles with motherhood have reshaped how I approach life, music, and most pertinent to the next few blog posts, practicing.  

OK, OK...some of you out there might be thinking, "Practicing?  Come on, aren't you being a little dramatic?"  Well, yes, perhaps.  But I build so much of my life around practicing, it would be hard for me not to be consumed with the topic.  I also feel strongly about the subject because I work with so many musicians, young and old, and I see on a daily basis how their practicing affects how much joy they get out of music-making.  Although I wouldn't have said this a few years back, I genuinely feel that if one practices with an engaged and inquisitive mindset, ready to problem-solve, there would be a lot less frustration, faster acquisition of new skills and music, and here's where I get really excited, more pride and joy in making music.  

In the past 10 years, thanks to hand problems and motherhood, I have been forced to examine how I practice.  In the next couple of weeks, I want to look at the changes I have made and the things I have learned along the way in hopes that maybe some small part will help someone else out too. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I think I've finally lost it! Putting Bach's book 2 of the WTC on YouTube

Last year I managed to learn all 24 of the preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier.  It was challenging, inspiring, and incredibly interesting.  But of course as with any project such as this, I found myself asking, "Now what?" as soon as I had finished what I had set out to do.  Unlike most musical projects I work on, this was one that I couldn't easily present as a neat and tidy package at the very end - 24 preludes and fugues?  Who wants to sit through all of that?  I toyed around with several different ideas about how I could perform them but I never found a solution I was happy with.  But I'm back at it again and I have figured out my next move.  Starting today and ending within a year, I am going to videotape each and every prelude and fugue and put them up on YouTube.  I'm using a Flip video camera, which doesn't have the best sound, but that's ok.  This is just something I feel I have to do.  And when I post each video on my blog, I'm going to try and say a few words about the music because this music is incredible and I want to share why I feel that way about each individual piece.  

I do think I've finally lost it.

All right then...ready...set...GO!

Prelude and Fugue in C major
The Prelude in this set makes me smile because Bach was his typically clever self when putting this one together.  It took me a while to figure it out, but about halfway through this prelude, Bach takes the first part, excluding the introductory measures, and repeats it only in a different key and, here's the kicker, he shifts everything by two beats.  In other words, what fell on the first beat in the first section, now falls on the third beat; what fell on the third beat in the first section, now falls on the downbeat.  I don't think this is really perceptible to the listener and as I suggested before, it took many hours of practicing before I even knew what was going on.  But to me, that makes it all the more clever.  I feel like Bach is one of my kindred spirits...he takes such great joy out of challenging himself, playing games, and creating a lot out of just a little.  If he still lived today I would tell him he's a very "green" composer.

The Fugue is a pretty straight-forward three-voice fugue.  Basically Bach just plays around with the two different figures that make up the subject.  There's the opening motive that dances around the interval of a perfect fifth and then there's a string of sixteenths that weaves around the notes from that first motive.  What I love about the subject is that Bach managed to squeeze in two very different feelings within such a short subject.  Again, I consider him a green composer because he is so compact in the way he presents the material.  For the remainder of the fugue, he composes sequence after sequence, using the first motive first and then using the second motive to build on in the next sequence.  What I love about this fugue is that it is simple, not profound, and that it is incredibly light and bubbly - a nice way to start off this mammoth work!

With that said, here's Prelude #1, in C major:

And the Fugue: