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.

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!  


  1. Thanks for sharing your practice/learning techniques. These are valuable (not to mention well written) and I can't wait to experiment with them.

    It sounds like you do alot of analysis of the music before playing a note. Do you analyze the whole piece from start to finish or work from the end and analyze each chunk as it comes? Do you apply the same techniques for large scale pieces (for some reason the Liszt B minor sonata comes to mind)?

    Again, thanks and I can't wait to (a) start experimenting and (b) read your next posts.

  2. Yes, the analysis part is probably one of the most crucial components to how I learn music. I like to tell people that I believe it's crucial to not have any mysteries in the music. I'm not talking about musicality - we want to keep music mysterious and magical - I'm just talking about the actual logistics about playing a piece of music. If we can find ways to see tricky passages/rhythms as something more tangible than a bunch of tricky notes, we won't have to guess as much and leave our playing up to chance. Thanks for your comments, Dale...I'll definitely make sure I include some of this in another blog post!