With examples for clarinet, piano and viola
How do I practice for joy in music? How can I ensure that I can play the piece by heart? How do I manage not to tense up when I practice? What should I practice first, the notes or the sound or the music, or something else entirely?
These are some frequently asked questions in my seminars and individual sessions.
In this article I describe my approach, how I practice musical pieces that they get into my system "by themselves" and I stay relaxed and fresh. It consists of four simple steps, simple yet powerful, that can make a big difference in your practice. I apply them also with my piano students, and the best of it: they are really, really fun.
Consequences of separating the notes from their musical content
It's especially the approach of "notes first, music second" that I regard as one of the central problems of today's musical education: this approach is too little process oriented for my taste. It turns us and our students into little robots, that can execute notes in the correct order but feels utterly un-alive and can't express their emotion. If anything, rehearsed agogics appear, which is not at all what I mean by emotion.
We see the consequences of separating the two: it divides our attention, it feels uncomfortable, it demands too much or too little of our brain, it allows for body tensions to creep in. For some of us, this may express itself as stage fright or tensions, for others it may be an emotional dissociation from the music, or discontentment with their own creativity, etc. All of this has either appeared in my own musical life or in my experience as a teacher.
My offer: sensory-oriented musical practice
Therefore, my approach is not to separate the notes and the musical content, but to process everything (the text, its emotional content and my feeling about the music) in one integrated process, at the same time. This may sound like a lot - paradoxically, this approach reduces the number of material to be processed and animates our senses: practicing becomes literally easier and is at least double the fun.
You're guessing it correctly: I'm suggesting sensory-oriented musical practice. A developing of the piece which unites these three elements: movement, sound and emotion.
How I do this, you can read below, in my four steps that I take myself and my students through, anytime I start a new piece (or anytime I refresh a piece). Especially amateur players benefit greatly from this approach. In each step I've added some comments which are specific to them and their teachers.
First step: the overwiev
You open up the music: play it through to get an overview. This can look differently for different people. The important thing is not to get too hung on the details, instead to get a feeling of how the music is moving through time. Do this a couple times, if comfortable, also in the final tempo.
Mindset The mindset, already at this stage, is: I give out sounds, into the room or to the listeners. This is about getting acquainted with the big waves that the piece is made of.
Advice for amateurs: With amateurs, this step can mean just to play through all notes slowly and get to know the material.
Second step: the perception level
These steps are, of course, sliding: as soon as you notice that the notes are just about "adhering" to your brain, get interested immediately about other aspects of your playing, for example, ask yourself: how does it feel to play this piece?
Since the brain can only remember a limited number of informations, choose the amount of music in a way that doesn't overwhelm you. Only you can know. While you play, just perceive how it feels in the hand, how the instrument feels, how it vibrates with the sound, how the sound is like, how the weight of the instrument lies on your hand/arm, etc. In other words: turn your playing exercises into a feeling exercise.
Mindset At this stage, we may feel tempted to just repeat the notes until we know them well. Apart from the fact that this may, too, be fun sometimes - I invite you to look one level deeper. Here, "knowing the piece" will be the by-product of perception-oriented practice. Each repetition should help you delve deeper into different aspects of feeling and listening.
Advice for amateurs: Focusing on the "what" (the notes) only brings frustration and the feeling of having to solve a mathematical problem. It's very important for amateurs to spend time on the perception level, because especially here, focusing on the "how" can bring great joy and also a deeper understanding of themselves as a player.
Third step: deepening the feeling, emotion space, sound work
Together with the third step, and some will find themselves here very quickly, it's time to deepen the understanding and feeling of the music, with the help of musical (and not technical) means.
Musical means can be:
Harmony and harmonic progression
Pulse which travels through the piece
e.g. piano, guitar, accordion, etc: Processing one unified sound (as opposed to processing different sound layers simultaneously)
Working out thematic material that appears in different form throughout the piece
Mindset The more musical means you shine a light on, the closer you're getting to the emotion space of the music. Then, you're connected to the piece's emotion the whole of your practice time.
Advice for amateurs: Here, working with a teacher that can convey those musical elements to you becomes very important. As amateur, I mostly see notes, and the task is to go beyond the notes, or better: to look between the notes. It's essential to understand and feel the pulse as the leading power of the music. In my experience, this is a skill that underlines all other skills. So I'd start with that.
Fourth step: finding the flow, allowing the piece to mature (actively and passively)
The fourth step will be about finding an even deeper flow and finding the gesture with which the music begins to make sense.
E.g. with keyboard players: For keyboard players, there is one rule about fingering: some fingerings only work if they're connected to a certain movement or gesture. Then, the fingering is the result of a whole-body movement and not a mere moving of our fingers. Merely moving our fingers divides our body into 1) fingers and 2) rest of the body and is absolutely exhausting. If you find a gesture that is one movement, you will just play one gesture and not 17 fast notes.
Maturing the piece actively or leaving it to mature on its own? Meaning, should you repeat until it works or should you let it rest and trust that the system continues to practice on its now? Both of those things, in a balanced way.
Mindset In the fourth step it will be especially important to experience, through your hearing, the emotion space of the music throughout the piece. We're, again, looking for the overview, the whole experience, holistically.
Advice for amateurs: We're now getting into amateurs' most enjoyed stage of practice. Often, they arrive here after getting over countless (and often mindless) repetitions, which they have understandably enjoyed less, and now earn the fruits of their "hard labour". Why not also enjoy the whole of the process from the beginning? (Please refer to steps 2 and 3.) The deeper we get into this stage, the more important it becomes to be supported by a competent teacher.
I hope that through this text and the following examples it will become clear how practicing can become a joyful and enjoying activity at any stage of competence. The by-product of it will be that at the end, you will know the piece. Also, you have played trough all of your senses and you have taught yourself to listen to your body - then it becomes a habit, to give to yourself what you need in each moment: also in front of the judges at the audition, also in concert, also during the live-broadcast.
On the example of the 1st Clarinet Concerto in f minor, op. 73 by Carl Maria von Weber (1st movement):
A clarinetist (and by the way, not the one pictured above) came to have a lesson with this piece. She was playing in a way that sounded as if she were playing inwards, not outwards. Some would call this "shy". For this reason, her sound didn't carry through, also she had great difficulties playing the fast passages "fast enough". Her movements were, in general, rather static; her sound rather soft, although she was trying to play loudly.
Clarinetists will agree with me that some of the challenges in this Allegro moderato are to have enough breath to play through the fast passages, as well as enough power and freshness to arrive until the end of the movement.
My offer for this player was initially to turn the fast notes into a musical gesture, and having flexibility within it, while staying in touch with the pulse. This freed her from the burden of having to put all the little notes into a small grid, also it allowed her to be free with the musical material.
On the other hand, I offered her to turn the whole movement (and the clarinetists will forgive what I'm about to say; she did it for sure) into a long belcanto aria. Like this movement, long belcanto arias consist of "shorter arias" or themes, contain more than one cadence and are true long distance pieces. Further support for this approach is the similarity of the musical material and the wish to place the bravura passages in the service of a story or the description of a character, so that they are not "mere" bravura passage, but "bravura for…". Under this perspective, practicing this piece can be so much more fun than trying to process the fast notes as quick a possible. The playful aspect of it (play from theatre play) allows the body a faster regeneration in the rests and a continuity in the power. Also: the player is in constant connection to their musical emotion, and that is, effectively, what we want to practice.
For the client, this approach was a fortunate find. I took the themes and gave them an imaginary text or text content, which could be expressing the emotional content of the music. I also invited her to come up with her own text or content. She understood immediately her position as a soloist, she could put herself in the imaginary figure's shoes and had instantly many more possibilities for her artistic creativity. She began to fill the room completely with her sound (and in this case, it was a big room), she was moving more freely and playing from the inside out. And the most beautiful thing: the fast passages became easier and easier to play, the whole thing was costing her much less effort than before. And she was radiating.
On the example of the Song Without Words op. 62 no. 2, for piano, by Felix Mendelssohn
A pianist brought this piece with the wish to find more ease in an already masterful performance. Often, this can be achieved easiest by turning to the atmosphere and emotion of the piece. For me, this work has the flair of charming salon music, and of a certain festivity, which awards it something playful and casual in and of itself.
Connected with this, it's very important to have a good feeling for the gravity points (or gravity downbeats), so that they can be felt both physically and musically. As a consequence, it rises the flexibility in the music - in the case of this client, this lead to a higher elasticity in his performance, easing out his playing in an enormous way. Thus, he could effortlessly set a swifter tempo which was more in tune with his feeling for the piece. His mastery turned into charm, wit, and joy.
On the example of the orchestral excerpt for viola "The Bartered Bride" (Overture) by Bedrich Smetana:
The overture for The Bartered Bride comes regularly to my Resonance Training lessons, and like so many orchestral excerpts, there is one trick to approach it. It consists in asking yourself why this piece is chosen for auditions in the first place.
Here, we're dealing with a literal cascade of notes which seizes the listener from the very beginning. Before we jump into practicing all of the many notes until we faint, I encourage you to ask yourself, what it is that a panel of judges wants to experience listening to your performance of it: the certainty that you as a candidate will be able to experience, actively and autonomously, the pulse of the music - to feel it and lead with it and play with it.
This won't be about playing all the notes as fast as possible, but to show the gravity points that form the syncopations (also in contrast with the other instruments) - we're dealing with pulse and gesture. The judges can hear if the candidate is able to feel the whole piece in their body - or not. Likewise, they can hear if the playfulness of the syncopation with the other instruments is felt - or not. And that's what it's ultimately going to be about.
Because it's the pulse that makes the piece tangible and understandable in its movement. For this, a feeling for the whole of the body is essential, also that the bow plays quite the active part: when the bow (right side) gives a clear signal for the left side, it can align itself better.
The more the piece makes sense for you on an musical and a physical level, the closer you get to the musical emotion, and the closer you get, the more joy you will find. One leads to the other and back again.
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