Do you ever find that you do all the tasks on your ‘to do list’ except the ones that are more challenging? Then when you finally get around to those challenging tasks, do you find that they were not that bad after all and did not take that long either?
I had a student this past week who had only practiced the same passage of music as the week before in a new piece because the next passage was deemed to be in ‘the too hard basket’. Given that it was an exam piece and we were now under a bit more pressure than I intended, we needed to conquer it head on. So, in the lesson, we went over the tricky bar that was standing in the way of completing the piece. It was important to use our time wisely to stay on track with everything else needed for the exam, as well as to have time to learn and establish this piece.
How does it help to work through these difficult passages first?
- It gets them sorted while you are fresh at the task. Get stuck in early and don’t procrastinate! Don’t let the thought of the challenging bits hang over you. Think of it like a hike that starts with a hill. If you put the leg work in while you are fresh you can get to the top and enjoy the view with an easy walk back. If you practice the difficult parts of your piece first, you will enjoy the overall piece played correctly much sooner.
- It helps you to increase your skill level more quickly. If you apply the tips below to every new piece, you will find that your skill level goes up every time you master something new and difficult. The quicker sense of achievement will encourage you to keep improving and moving on to more music.
- It helps with sight reading. Sight reading uses skills of looking ahead, note reading, counting rhythms and keeping the beat, among other things. The more you read music and practice, the better you become at reading new material.
- It helps you learn the whole piece. If you only practice a piece of music from top to bottom, the beginning passage is often good while the ending is more neglected. This is what happens when you simply start at the beginning again when you make a mistake, hoping you will make it to the end “this time”.
Let us look at some practical key tips for working on the difficult parts of your music first. Even if you are already aware of some of these, think through which areas most apply to you. These are brief and general. There is more you can do with each point depending on the passage of music, level of learning etc.
- Have a look through the piece to see what will be the most challenging.
You can do this by just looking through, if it is the first time you are playing it, or, if you have already played through the piece, you could have a complete run through and see where the problem areas are. That first run through is quite helpful for this. Then, ignore the nice easy bits to play and go straight to the difficult part, or where you made the most mistakes.
- Break it into small chunks.
There are various ways to chunk your music. A good principle is to break it down into separate hands. The area may be just a couple of bars long or even just one. The smaller the chunk, the quicker you can achieve a perfect result. Just make sure you have the same tempo for each hand in the practice, even if one hand is easier, so that it can be correct when you put it together. Then move on to the next chunk. When that is sorted, play the 2 chunks together to establish what you practiced earlier.
- Decide on the fingering.
You need to play the practice selection with the same fingers every time you play it.
- Count aloud using the smallest note value in the selection.
If the smallest note value in the selection is a semiquaver (16th note), you should be counting “1 e and a” for the whole bar as in the example below. If quavers (eighths notes), you would only need to count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” or if the smallest note value is a crotchet (quarter note), you just need to count 1 2 3 4 in each bar.
- Practice it a set number of times.
I would start with at least 3x correct. Once you have done 3 correct playings, move on to 3x correct in a row. You can always do more if you need to, but 3x is a good starting point. It is helpful to have a focus of a particular number to aim for. If it takes too long to get 3x correct in a row, you are probably going too fast overall. Slow the beat down and try again.
This stuff really works! There was a happy ending to the story I started with. As I listened to a full rendition of the piece this week, the troublesome bar my pupil struggled with had been totally sorted. Diligent practice had produced a delightful performance, along with the sense of satisfaction that comes with hard work. For me, that was a true measure of success.
This principle of dealing with the difficult passages in our music first could equip us with more than making a beautiful sound: maybe it could apply to accomplishing other skills in life too.