Friday, April 20, 2012

Practicing examples

In a previous post I discussed the 10,000 hours theory.  I've also outlined my most recent practicing regimen involving scale work using Messiean's modes from the Lacour 28 Etudes and weekly practice of an etude from that book.

I thought it might be interesting to examine the practice methods I use when tackling these studies with a special focus on Study #6.

Here is the first page of #6:

After looking it over for the first time, I had to wait a few minutes for my eyes to uncross!  This one looked hard.  The metronome marking (quarter=120) looked nearly impossible.  Lots of jumping around and low tenor clef reading.

I took a deep breath and started by practicing the scale that is used in the study.

Yikes!  A nine-note scale!   Luckily, I found that it fit the Herzberg scale patterns I hoped to use to build my skill with this scale. By practicing this scale in the permutations used by Herzberg, I was ALREADY practicing the scalar parts of this study!

But how to figure out this scale?  It didn't fit any pattern I'd seen before.  Looking at it closely, I could see it was a symmetrical scale just like the octatonic scales I'd practiced a few weeks ago,but this one was based upon repeating one whole step and two half steps twice to get through the octave.

This didn't help me when trying to play it, so here's what I came up with:  1,2,3 of a minor scale three times.  That is, the first three notes of Ab minor, followed by the first three notes of a minor, then the first three of e minor.  That's the best I could do.

I found that after a few days of practicing the scale this way, I could manage even the top speed of the Herzberg patterns, so I gained some confidence.

By the way, I was tempted to write out the scale for the complete range of the instrument, but decided not to.  I wanted to engage my ear and my finger muscle memory to help when I read the real notes in the etude.  Technique involves three of your senses; sight, hearing and touch.  If one fails you, the other two should be able to compensate.  Developing all three when practicing builds consistency and strength.

Now I was ready to tackle the etude!

First I looked it over to see what special problems might be waiting for me.  I swallowed my pride and wrote in some accidentals I knew I would miss and wrote in the note names for the low tenor clef pitches that I rarely read (low Gb!!).

I then read the etude through at half tempo (quarter = 60) noticing where I felt the most challenged and where I felt the least challenged.

After the read through I spent some time practicing little spots that looked especially thorny.

Here is how I practiced this passage.  I chose a speed at which I could play the bracketed notes perfectly five times in a row.   For me, this was quarter=100.  I then moved the metronome up a notch and tried five times at that speed, until successfully reaching the performance tempo of quarter=120.

This is what I call "burst" practicing.  In every etude there are sections that the player can play near or at tempo from the start.  By identifying and practicing those places you discover two things:

1. The places that don't need to be practiced, thereby saving time.
2. The places like the one above that need attention, but improve quickly.

It is important to choose small enough sections for this method to work.

Here are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Those that study expertise in musicians, athletes, etc., say that to achieve mastery a skill must be successfully repeatable.  Thus, the five times perfectly rule.  It's great to have a "mountain top experience" while performing sometimes, but really most performing is about repeating success already attained through deliberate practice.

Speaking of which, it's also important to emphasize that just putting in 10,000 hours at a skill doesn't get you to mastery.  Repeatability and several other elements make up the kind of practice that achieves success, so no flailing!  That's why it's important to identify sections of a piece that don't need practicing and save them for later when you're ready to run through. For me, it was the scale passages in this etude that didn't need the work.  The jumping lines were the ones that needed my attention.

This takes self-knowledge, and it may not be realistic to expect a younger person to choose so wisely.  I know I flailed around quite a bit when I was a young practicer.

Back to the etude!

After practicing little sections like the one above, in the same session I also spent time putting together segments to make a larger section.

 Using the same rule of five times perfectly, I inched up the speed until I felt the challenge was too great.

How do I know when to punt on the speed?

Colvin talks about three zones in "Talent Is Overrated".

First is the Comfort Zone.  This is the speed at which you could play a passage perfectly while watching TV.  No learning or advancement occurs here.  The Comfort Zone may be beneficial for building calmness and confidence, but it's easy to get stuck there. Some students who have trouble attaining performance tempo over a period of time with a piece are spending too much time in the Comfort Zone!

Next is the Stretch Zone or the Learning Zone.  This is the speed (or also the amount of music) at which your brain feels gently stretched or challenged, but not overwhelmed.  You've got to pay attention to a few things, but you're not going to crash and burn. This is the zone in which improvement occurs.  Finding and staying in this zone by choosing the right speed or right amount of notes/measures for a passage makes your practice session most effective.

The next zone is called the Panic Zone!  This zone can be a lot of fun - a white-knuckle ride through Marriage of Figaro, for instance! 

What will happen, will I get it?  For success, these are questions that shouldn't be on your mind during practicing.  Practicing should be about building confidence and gently stretching your abilities.

Life in the Panic Zone can be destructive.  A failed run-through can build frustration and make you want to try it again at top speed to "see what will happen".  Well, what do you think will happen?  Maybe you're successful once, but once isn't repeatable, and isn't acceptable in a professional world of repeat performances.

Don't practice mistakes!

Back to the etude.

In a few days, I started putting together larger sections of the etude.

And then, finally the last half of page one was complete.

After I was able to play this section five times perfectly at quarter = 100 and after having worked in a similar fashion on the rest of the etude, at the end of the week I felt confident about trying a run-through at quarter = 90.  This was successful, so I tried 100 which was less so.

Note:  I had not allowed myself a run-through since the initial reading!  If you need a run through during this time, do it without the music!  Run-throughs are overrated.

I worked on the etude for another week, using the same methods.  I wasn't able to achieve the printed marking of 120, but made it up to 110 at the end of that time.

There are many other methods of practicing, of course.  This is the one that's working best for me now.  It allows me to solve problems quickly, repeat success, stretch gradually until reaching a goal of performance at a respectable tempo.

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