Practise, not play through.
At the end of each lesson we ask you to practise. What many of you do is go home and PLAY THROUGH and I'm afraid this isn't good practice. Here is why....
Now think about your favourite sport, for example football. Do they just go and play football matches from start to finish every time they train between the matches we see at weekends? OR, do they train on specific aspects of the game that they need to improve so that the following match will hopefully be better. They will have analysed the good and the bad aspects of their performance in the previous match and worked out the things they need to wotk on to improve. Are some of you at this point now realising how this relates to your 'playing through' practice routines?
You go home after your lesson, my students (and I am sure many others) with their notebooks full of helpful information pinpointing areas that it would be of benefit for them to work on. In the notebooks might even be information on how to work at the areas of your pieces or scales that you have problems with. Now, answer honestly, Do you read what your teacher has written in your notebook? I don't mean sometimes, I mean every week and maybe even checking it each time you practise! We honestly don't write in these notebooks for fun and they really are helpful as we don't expect you to remember every detail that was discussed in the lesson.
So, many of you go home and in a standard practice session you get your instrument out, maybe warm up for a second by blowing a few notes without really thinking about why you are doing this. Then you might play a scale or two (we really hope you do!) and then you find a piece that you are learning and start at the beginning and play to the end. You may even play it again from the start to the finish. You may even spot that you are playing a wrong note and so when you played the wrong note you stopped, changed to the right note and then carried on. Well I am pleased that you spotted a wrong note but your practice technique can be improved a lot!
You may think professional musicians learn music quickly because they have been playing for a long time but really the main thing is we have learnt HOW to practise. We've had to as we sometimes don't have much time to learn the music before we are performing it to an audience! (You'd be surprised how often we turn up to a rehearsal at 3pm and are then giving the concert at 7.30pm the same evening and didn't know what was being played until we arrived at the rehearsal!) So when we give you hints and tips on how to practise they really are the quickest way of learning things and improving.
Definition of the word Practise
Perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to aquire, improve or maintain your proficiency in it.
Carry out or perform (a particular activity, method or custom) habitually or regularly.
So, how should you practise?
As I've already mentioned , first if you have one, read the notebook that your teacher wrote in. Remind yourself what the teacher was saying you might need to work on for the next lesson. Once you've warmed up its worth practising some scales next and then you are really warmed up when you start tackling your pieces.
Feel free to play through your piece, I know I've said this isn't practice but this is just the start. While playing through really log in your mind or pause and mark it in the music where things went wrong. Now you've played through and reminded yourself of the areas of the piece that cause problems you can start working your way through them.
Don't play through again..... pick out the first problem area of the piece.
Choose a small section around the area that caused the problem and play it but really think about what you are doing, try and work out why it is going wrong.
Now do the same again, but slower as you probably played it up to speed so didn't give yourself chance to really think about it.
Now do the same again but EVEN SLOWER. Not one student that I've asked has ever played something slow enough on the first time of asking!
Have you now pinpointed what the problem is?
Now what do you do?
Are you having problems learning the notes?
Play slowly the section you are trying to learn. If its a long section break it down into small chunks.
Play it slowly, and I really mean slowly. Give yourself chance to really think about the notes and what you need to do to get to the next note.
Start the section you are having problems with and play the first two notes, if those are ok play the first 3 notes. If they are good do the same but keep adding one note at a time. Start by doing this quite slowly then when you have made it to the end of the section all correct try it a fraction faster and repeat the process. It may seem a long way of doing it but in 10mins you will have it firmly under your fingers for a good long time!
Slowly again, try playing the passage in different rhythms, this will also help you get used to the finger patterns required to get through the passage.
Now I haven't gone mad but if you are finding that you think you've got it sorted and then it goes wrong again try it backwards! Do it slowly and it doesn't really matter about the rhythms its the process of doing it that will help! Try it.... you may well be surprised!
Are you having problems with something technical like getting a note to speak or getting to a note even you know exactly what it is?
Again play a small section and really listen.
Play it SLOWLY.
Think about what your fingers are doing between the notes that you are having problems with and think about what your mouth is doing.
Check to see if your fingers are close enough to the keys. A common problem is that fingers are too far away and one finger may not be pressing the key down quite when you think it is.
The problem is sometimes not where it actually shows, sometimes it is a knock on effect from some wobbly technique a few notes earlier so if you can't work out what the problem is check the bit before and make sure that is secure.
In this I have only covered a few basic ideas but the main point of this is that PLAYING THROUGH is not PRACTICE and that repeated work on small aspects of your music is really essential to progress. If you start doing this you will actually find the speed of your progress increases compared to when you just spent each session playing through. One important factor is to always think and always listen to what you are doing.
Always do INTELLIGENT PRACTICE!
The music clip I'm including with this blog post shows Francois Leleux performing an arrangement of Dance of the Blessed Spirits written by a composer called Gluck. Now when you listen you might think its not difficult as there aren't many notes, nothing fast and nothing too compicated. This arrangement though is permanently in the high register of the instrument and it is played with such amazing control and phrasing. Listen and then see if you can make your top F's sound this beautiful!