How to go About Choosing and Learning a New Piece

In my last blog post I previewed what I call my “process”. This is the method I have developed to plan, learn, practice, balance, and schedule my time to prepare pieces. In today’s post I will discuss the first part of that which is choosing a piece (when you have that ability) and how the first few days of practicing are approached. Essentially, the beginning of the journey!

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The reason I feel this part of the process is so important is because I am a huge believer in putting yourself in a position to succeed. NEVER put yourself in a position to fail before you even begin. Sure we will all have failures in our career. It’s a part of being a musician. What I am encouraging is to avoid situations where failing is almost certain from the beginning. I have learned very valuable lessons from my failures. The only lesson I have learned from my failures in which I was never in a position to succeed from the start; was to avoid that scenario at all costs. Don’t misunderstand that I am not encouraging ambition. Ambition is great! Being unrealistic is not. Sometimes putting off learning a piece for a month or two is smarter than adding one more piece of music to your plate. It’s a lot easier to say yes to everything. Learning when to say no is very important!

Deciding to prepare a piece that you do not have the technical ability to play yet or the proper amount of time to adequately prepare may seem like an ambitious thing to do. To reach well beyond your grasp to try to improve yourself. I see over-reaching slightly differently psychologically. In sports this can be called fake hustle. Fake hustle is when you know you are going to fail but you pretend to work really hard so at least it gives the impression you gave it your all. It’s like diving for a loose ball going out of bounds when it is already 6 feet away from you. The ball is going out of bounds no matter how hard you throw yourself at it. Some people may admire you for diving for the ball, just like they might admire you for trying to play a piece well outside your current ability. I see this as psychologically damaging because deep down inside, you know you have no chance and your performance wasn’t good. It’s easier to dive for the ball when it is out of reach than to do the speed and strength training to get faster so the ball IS in reach next time. It’s easier to play Variations on Lost Love by Maslanka and miss 20 % of the notes and not play the rhythms accurately than it is to do the 200 hours of Stevens exercises in front of a mirror that will give you the control needed to really nail it!

The reason I bring this up is that I believe success and winning is a learned behavior. It also breeds and builds confidence. Having lots of small successes along the way gets you in the habit of succeeding. Even if the success is small, the next time a slightly bigger challenge appears, you can rely on your experience of succeeding and confidently attack the next challenge.

This is all important to consider when choosing a piece. We don’t always have control over what we are working on or preparing. What that does mean is that the decisions we can make, need to be good ones. If our ensemble and chamber music commitments are overwhelming, maybe this isn’t a good time to tackle a 20 minute difficult solo work. If you have a big recital coming up, maybe say no to that really nice composer who wants you to play one of their works on their recital. The two biggest factors I consider when deciding to commit to a work are:

  1. The time needed to perform the work correctly and at a high level and do I have that time in my schedule.
  2. Is the potential work a reasonable stretch to my ability or unreasonable?

Again, ambition is a good thing. Choosing a solo that is a stretch to your current ability can motivate and challenge you to improve your playing. Understanding the difference between a stretch and well out of range is another.

Once you have your piece, now it’s time for that first day in the practice room. Boy that can be the toughest day of them all for me. You have no experience yet, all the work is ahead of you. It’s really important to be patient at this point of the process as progress and success will be slow at this point. Don’t rush through important milestones, just to pretend to be making progress.

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In my experience I have found many students practice by simply repeating things over and over hoping they get better. They also increase the tempo as soon as any small amount of success is reached thinking it is time to move on. This will seem to work and give you what I have started calling an approximate version of the piece. It’s ok, not bad, but not really good either. It’s approximate. The next time you hear someone play a piece outside of their ability you will hear what I am talking about. The problem with this approach is you will end up making lots of very small mistakes initially that will become habits. They will need to be corrected later on as the work gets closer to tempo and you are expecting a more polished product. The next problem students encounter is that they generally don’t know how to solves these issues this late in the process. In the long run this actually takes MORE time than if those issues were spotted initially. Remember we want to work smart and hard; not just hard.

This approach also tends to separate learning the piece technically and learning the work musically. Separating these two parts of the process is a common practice of beginner players but should be abandoned as quickly as possible. The quicker you can learn works technically and musically at the same time, the more success you will have. However, this can make for very slow progress in those first few days of practice.

Here are some guidelines and thoughts to help you through those first few days with a piece.

  1. Will this work need to be memorized, partially memorized, or read completely? This is important in the long term because if you know a work will need to be memorized, it is easier to start with the goal of memorization from the beginning.
  2. Next is looking at what resources I can use to help aid my preparation. Those can be scores, recordings, different editions, or other arrangements or transcriptions. These can be valuable tools as questions arise.
  3. Where should I start when learning the piece? Beginning, middle, end? If the beginning is very straight forward but the end is difficult, skip to the end. Read through the piece and give your best guess to where is going to be the most challenging.
  4. Focus on solving sticking problems that will come up at faster tempos. A sticking that could work fine under tempo may pose a serious issues at tempo. Start to develop a “radar” for sticking issues early on to avoid practicing troublesome stickings.
  5. Even though your learning process is focused understandably on small sections, keep the larger work in mind musically as you make musical decisions.
  6. Find a tempo you can play the work (or sections) at consistently. No matter how slow, make sure your accuracy is high (90-95%). My rule of thumb is don’t increase the tempo until you already know before attempting, that you can play it at the next tempo.
  7. Think less about learning and memorizing early on and more about solving problems. The more problems you solve early on, the easier the learning or memorizing will go.

The next post will focus on how to practice and what to work on at different parts of the process. Obviously “how to practice” could be a doctoral thesis. Don’t worry, I will keep it a reasonable length. But there are some key points I want to touch on, especially on how to be more efficient and how to pace yourself properly so you are ready for the performance. As always, leave comments if you want me to cover something specific and thanks for reading!

WJ

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