How I Optimize My Practice

In a previous blog I discussed how you to determine the length of your practice, and I recommend reading that alongside this blog, either before or after. The way to practice differs depending on who you talk to, but I think that there are elements that they all cover, or at least should cover. These elements rely heavily on the amount of time allotted to complete them, and on the efficient use of that time. I won't say how to use this time, but I hope to give a general approach to how to make that decision using one example from an excerpt from Ligeti's Piano Concerto. 

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The first time I saw this excerpt, I was very confused as to how I would learn it. I didn't really have an established plan on how to learn new pieces, but rather I'd jump in and begin learning notes. Often that strategy would be very frustrating, and I soon had to figure out a better way to tackle new music. So I began structuring my practice based on these things:

  1. What is my goal
  2. What needs to be accomplished to reach the goal 
  3. What of those tasks are more difficult for me
  4. What of those tasks are easy to me
  5. How much time do I have in the practice room
  6. How much time do I have outside the practice room
  7. When do I know I've completed a task

I've found that having clear goals helps me avoid an endless cycle of refinement, and allows me the freedom to stop practicing a certain element when it has satisfied my requirements (numbers 1 and 7 rely on each other). Depending on the type of situation, those requirements can change, but overall you should resolve that each task be done to a point where you feel both comfortable and confident with the execution and product of that execution. A more tangible method could be, being able to play the piece a number of times in a row with little to no mistakes or problems. I personally try to play the piece ten times in a row with no mistakes and with an audible musical idea each time. What needs to be accomplished in order to do that? 

  1. Listening to the Piece
  2. What's the Role
  3. Sound Concept or Quality
  4. Tempo
  5. Phrasing 
  6. Learn the Notes
  7. Ways to Execute
  8. Intonation
  9. Rhythmic Integrity
  10. Dynamics
  11. Embellishments or Articulations
  12. Memorization

This may seem like a long list, but many of these aspects work in conjunction with each other, and knowing when these occur can save you time, and even effort in some situations. When going through this list it's important to know how you work, and be open to finding that out if you are unaware of it. In the introductory list, we discussed numbers 1, 7 and 2. When considering how we work individually, we have to consider what of these tasks come easy and which are more difficult for us (numbers 3 and 4 of the introductory list). It's important to be ok with having trouble with something. If not you risk avoiding that aspect, not spending adequate time on it, and approaching it negatively or with hesitation. Keith Aleo, percussion director of Interlochen Arts Academy, once said, "Every challenge is a gift, an opportunity to learn something new." I think nurturing that mindset will make approaching such situations in a healthier way. I'll give myself as an example and discuss which of 1-12 are easy to do and which are not.

 

Listening to the Piece/What's the Role/Sound Concept or Quality/Tempo/Phrasing

Starting out I did not like listening to the piece before I began learning the notes. It took a while to develop that discipline and cultivate that desire to listen before I began note learning. I soon realized that learning notes was easier to do when I knew how the piece sounded, and knew how my part fit into the orchestra. Was I a solo voice, accompaniment, rhythm section, background noise, part of a chamber sized group, a duet, etc.? The tempo is pretty self explanatory, but it may be necessary to listen to more than one recording to get a better sense of what is going on. In the first recording, the xylophone is very hard to hear, but you can tell what the atmosphere and approach to the piece could be, even sound concept and quality. The second recording is a lot clearer as far as the xylophone's presence, audible phrasing idea and concept of sound. The tempo is slower than the first excerpt, but this gives you license to do the faster, slower or an in between tempo. This doesn't mean you should copy either recording, but this can be used as a guide to make your own decisions on the direction of the excerpt going forward. I encourage that you establish those aspects before learning the notes.

 

Learn the Notes/Ways to Execute/Intonation

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Once I've established numbers 1-5, I begin tackling the music. I highly recommend slow practice when starting out for several reasons. It allows you to analyze multiple things at once, and correct mistakes and bad habits as they happen. You can learn the piece note by note, but I encourage you to entertain the idea of learning groupings of notes. You can determine these groups based on the sheet music itself, phrasing, bar by bar, beat by beat, whatever feels appropriate to the situation. Here, I would consider learning these two bars either splitting both bars in half, or learning each barred group of notes (the first 4 notes, next 3, next 2, next 3, etc.) As I learn the notes, I have to determine what the best sticking (fingering, etc.) is. Here, the best option is to begin with the right hand, and alternate through the second bar. In case you are unsure if this sticking will work at tempo, do speed up the bar once you get a handle on the notes and execution to see if it is possible, or if another sticking is possible. 

For wind, brass and string player, intonation has a very clear meaning, but what does it mean for us drummers? Intonation has to do with the accuracy of pitch, which has an affect on their approach to sound quality as well. For us, what affects our sound quality is our motion and movement from note to note. If our motion is too fast or too slow it will change the quality of sound. Practicing slow allows us to be aware of how we get from note to note, whether we are hesitating, or moving prematurely to the next note. Efficient and accurate movement essentially is our version of intonation. 

 

Rhythmic Integrity/Dynamics/Embellishments or Articulations

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Now we get to the details of the page itself. Generally, as you are learning the piece, you should be paying attention these things as much as you can. However, these aspects can be a lot to focus on at once, so they can be tackled after you've established the notes and their execution. You want to make sure that the rhythms you are playing are correct, for obvious reasons, but it also ensures that you are not rushing or dragging during your performance. It's not only the fact that you are playing a sixteenth note, but that you are giving that sixteenth note its proper length. Next are the dynamics. In the first pictured example, the dynamics are shown to be based on the accented and unaccented notes (accents getting a fortissimo marking, and unaccented notes a mezzo forte marking.) In this example, this remains the same, but the second measure has a diminuendo poco a poco (get softer little by little.) You will have to take this into consideration when gauging the dynamic difference between the accented and unaccented notes as they get softer through the remainder of the excerpt. 

Next are the embellishments and articulations. For this piece, the sheet music only gives accents, but that doesn't mean there are no other articulations to consider. Listening to the piece, is the over all texture articulate, legato, something in between? The answer to that question informs the general articulation that you will use for the excerpt. After that, anything written in the piece adds on to that. Personally, I wouldn't play this too staccato, or short, but not too long either. Something clear but with a little bit of length. Here, there aren't any embellishments, but in a piece like Messiaen's Exotic Birds for instance, taking care of the sound and execution of the embellishments really livens up the piece, and gets it that much closer to being a more complete product in the end. 

 

Memorization

This is kind of an extra step. You don't necessarily have to memorize everything that you learn, but this step occasionally happens naturally as a result of your work on and repetition of the piece. There are many ways to intentionally memorize a piece. Links to two other options can be found here and here. Here are some tactics that I have used.

  • Playing each bar until I feel comfortable, and then playing it without looking at the music
  • Singing each bar as I learn and play them (either out loud or in my head)
  • Singing the part without playing (either out loud or in my head)
  • Visualizing myself playing (with or without the sound)
  • Audiating or imagining hearing the piece
  • Focusing on the motions I do/need or the choreography of the piece
  • Playing the piece with only one hand, either air playing or dropping completely the other hand
  • Playing the piece with my eyes closed (focuses my attention on movements and sounds)
  • Learning it phrase by phrase, and repeating it until it's familiar (great for Bach solos I think)

 

This may seem like a lot to handle at first, but hopefully seeing these grouped together this way lessens that overwhelming feeling. These aspects all influence each other in some way, and can be moved around to suit your strengths and weaknesses. I personally had a hard time with memorizing pieces starting out, but I was very good at working on my movements and intonation. So, by focusing only on that, it helped me memorize what my body needed to do to get to each note, eventually memorizing the entire choreography and consequently the piece. What are your strengths? How can that influence another aspect of your learning process? You can put your focus in those areas, and by finding those commonalities, they can help you strengthen your weaknesses.

Another example is articulations. If you have trouble executing articulations as they appear, you can think of them in a different way. An articulation influences the sound in a certain way, and if focusing on sound concept comes naturally to you, you can think of the articulation as an addition to the existing sound concept. If the physical execution is difficult, putting focus on the motions, or sticking choice could help as well. Maybe neither tactic works, and it's more of a mental challenge. You can sing, audiate, visualize, etc., wrapping your head around the event.

Knowing how you work, what you need to accomplish and knowing when something is complete will inform how long you spend practicing anything. If you know that it takes a while to learn the notes, dedicate more time to that. If you know that learning motions helps you learn notes faster, incorporate that in your practice, and that will save you time. Through trial and error, you will find your strengths and weaknesses, your habits, your personal short cuts or groupings that work together, etc. and with time you will be able to make your practice more efficient. Do not focus only on the amount of time you spend on each item, but on their completeness. If it takes you 5 minutes or 50 minutes to complete a task, that's fine. The key is to be aware of it, and know when to move on. 

I really hope these tips help you in some way, and that your practice becomes more enjoyable and efficient with time. Thanks for reading!