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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Multifaceted practicing - a key to sparkling performances

Tucked away in our bedroom closet I have what's got to be one of the ugliest rocks enclosed in a plastic bag and nestled safely in a box full of cotton.  It's been there for almost 10 years now and it's something that my daughter asks to see every now and then as a special treat.

What's the deal?  It's just a rock, right?

Well, yes...and no.

The rock is actually a raw garnet that my husband and I found ourselves in the depths of the Idaho wilderness when we lived there.  Obtaining it was a quintessentially Idahoian experience - vague directions, gravelly and unmarked back roads, no clear signs indicating where we were to go once
© jonnysek -
we were there, but bustling with activity and people clearly in the know.  Donning high rubber boots we entered a giant mud pit bearing a shovel and screens and joined in the fun of making more of a mess of ourselves than anything else.  To our surprise we did find one decent sized garnet even though it certainly wasn't glamorous.  We could only take the word of the forest ranger that was there that what we had did indeed have some potential because I certainly didn't see it.

I think new pieces that we have yet to learn are similar to those rough garnets;  we know that they have the potential to sparkle yet we're not quite sure how to get them to that point.   I think so often our strategy is just "to practice."  We think that if we practice it will get better and eventually we'll have something polished.  To compare it to our rough garnet that we started out with it would be like asking a gemologist to polish up our stone.  The rough edges would be gone, it would be cleaned up a bit, and there there would be a tantalizing hint of how brilliant it can be.  But it's still not something I would show off on a piece of jewelry.

So how can we take it a step further?  By approaching our practice the way a gemcutter does - by strategically making facets, with each new facet bringing us closer and closer to a brilliant, sparkling, unique, breathtaking jewel.  Here are the facets I consider with any new piece and the order in which I approach them:

  1. Musical investigating - done away from the instrument with score in hand I look very carefully at all different aspects of the piece asking myself various questions - what is the form of the piece? What, if anything, repeats?  If something does repeat is it exactly the same or is it slightly different?  If it is slightly different, how so?  Are there any passages that I can tell are going to be especially difficult?  Has the composer given us any clues as to the mood(s) of the piece?  Has he/she written any indications in the score to help us with interpretation?  What is the meter or meters used in the piece?  What are the highest and lowest notes and when do they occur?  What is the background for the composition of the piece?  The list of questions goes on and on and can be completely different based on the piece and the musician studying the music.  Anything goes!  The most important thing is to get acquainted with many different aspects of the music before launching in.  A gemcutter would never start hacking away at a rough gem without investigating it very carefully first to determine the best way to start making the facets.  If he or she didn't do that they may miss the best way to cut it.  They might even destroy the gem with one small move. 
  2. Note learning - this is when I go to the instrument and put what I've already learned through my musical investigation to work.  I set aside about one week to learn a given movement or piece, divide it up into equal parts, and start from the end, working backwards through the piece.  At this point I don't worry about tempo.  My main concern is learning what the notes are and making decisions regarding the details - fingerings, bowings, shifts, breaths, etc... I also make sure that I understand mathematically and can reproduce every rhythm that is on the page.  I do all of this work with my ears open to musical possibilities but I don't let myself dwell too long on musical decisions.  
  3. Working out bugs, refining, and bringing up to tempo - once I am confident that I have everything in the right place I begin the work of polishing things up and making any adjustments to decisions I had already made.  If something isn't working I change a fingering, a bowing...whatever needs to be changed to allow me to play without mistakes. Thoughtful repetition is a big part of this step which offers me many opportunities to explore musicality, try out different ways of phrasing, and find different colors I might want to use.  This is a really fun step!  It is when I really feel I turn that rough gem into something that can actually be used.  
  4. Memory work - this one isn't always necessary depending on the situation but if I do need to memorize and if I've done the previous steps in a thoughtful, creative way, memory work doesn't feel like starting from scratch.  Using the observations and decisions I've already made I work to play the music by heart and usually I do this in the same organized fashion in which I did in the note learning stage, working both backwards through the music and also from the beginning.
  5. Practice performing - this is what I call my "letting go" step [cue song from "Frozen"].  I perform the piece, sometimes recording it, sometimes not, from beginning to end with no stopping and with as much musical intention and engagement as possible.  I practice recovering from mistakes, turning away from negative mental tapes, and dealing with distractions while having fun trying to take myself over the edge emotionally with the music - this is the "letting go" part.  I figure the practice room is the place to see how far we can go before going overboard.  Afterwards I take note of what I think worked, what didn't, which spots need further fine tuning, and the thoughts that kept distracting me so that I can address them in the next practice session.  I try to keep these observations as objective as possible, practicing saying things in an encouraging but productive way since that's how I'd like to be during and after a performance as well.  This step is the equivalent of a gemcutter picking up the stone and holding it up in different lights to see how the light moves through the different facets so that he can make any further refinements to make it as brilliant as it can possibly be.   
© mindelio -
In following these steps, or a variation of them, I avoid generic practicing.  Instead of just returning to the music time and time again with a polishing cloth, which wouldn't get me a gem I could set,  I am looking at each piece with the eyes and hands of a gemcutter.  What I strive to end up with is something closer to a brilliant finished product.  My hope is that when it's time to set it in a piece of jewelry, when it's time to perform, the gem will work its magic.  

As for our rough garnet?  One of these days it will undergo a transformation, hopefully in the hands of a gemcutter that wants to discover this rock's hidden beauty just as much as we do! 

Happy cutting and polishing!