Mar 15, 2011

The Emperor said, "Too Many Notes!"

These days, it seems like people are playing more notes than ever before. Players are getting through tons of material at breakneck speeds, as if the player with the most notes accumulated wins!  Unfortunately, many times a player will finish all those notes at the same skill level they started with, and that's really not the object of an overall practice routine.

I understand that in some schools in Russia the method of preparing repertory for conservatory instruction was to memorize all material. That is quite a departure from what is the norm in the west. As with most things, the optimum might be somewhere in the middle. There's always a dilemma over how bad something has to sound before a player stops and goes back to fix whatever problems were discerned. Of course, as I've mentioned before, this can be overdone to the point of never being able to get through 2 measures without stopping, which is almost as bad as never stopping to fix anything.

I remember many years ago when a series called the "school of sight-reading" came out. The instructions were to read through the exercise completely without stopping. Then, the player was to go back and remember any mistakes made, make a mental note of them and once again read through the entire exercise without stopping. This routine would be repeated until the player could play through the exercise easily without any misreading of the actual notes on the page. This method had one and only one goal in mind: to develop a player's skill in the rendering of new or unfamiliar repertoire (sight-reading). While this was an excellent concept in it's own right, it did not address the fundamental idea that every practice session should have a goal of getting a player to sound better, which is something that work on sight-reading, as valuable as it is, doesn't do. That poses the question; how much of our daily practice is geared toward reading accurately, and therefore possibly at the expense of sounding better?

When I work with someone, or myself for that matter, say on a Rochut etude, which I, like most players think is the bible of our practice repertoire, I might spend 10 minutes working on the 1st phrase because my feeling is; if they or I can play the 1st phrase with a great sound and legato, we can play the whole etude and maybe the rest of the book at that level. Conversely, if they can't, then they can't, get my drift?  Just as working on the very beginning of an etude determines the quality of the entire piece, working on the quality of the 1st note of the 1st phrase will determine the quality of that phrase. I think we are starting to establish a pattern here, at least I hope we are.

Remember that old saying: "For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for want of a horse, a message was lost; for want of a message, a battle was lost, for want of a battle, a war was lost; for want of war, a kingdom was lost; and all for the loss of a nail."  Now we can add our own version of this; for want of a good first note the phrase was lost, for want of a phrase the piece was lost, for want of the piece the audition was lost.

I said in a previous article some of the most valuable practice time I've done was what I call "noodling."  By this I mean just sitting there and playing random notes or phrases and trying to specifically work on one facet of playing, such as sound, legato, articulation, loud playing, soft playing, high, low etc. This means not looking at music, which might take my attention somewhat off of the product I am producing. I'm not saying this is what is always the preferred method of practicing, but a certain percentage of practice time should be solely devoted to developing the way we sound and not to covering material.

This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

This article has been translated into Spanish by Adrian Najera-Coto.

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