Today I was practicing a piece for an upcoming recital, and I decided to finally attack “that one little lick.” You know that lick, right? The one that just never goes exactly as you want it to go.
Before I share with you the [not so great] ways that I practiced that lick, let me tell you a little bit about the way I approach new material. When I learn a piece, I tend to have a process that I follow as I prepare for a performance. It’s kind of like peeling an onion; there are lots of layers!
My first broad brushstroke tends to cover learning notes and rhythms. I try to do this as quickly, correctly, and efficiently as possible. If I make a mistake, I stop and fix it before I move on. If I’m not sure if I played the right note, I check it against a piano. There is a lot of singing involved so that I internalize the new material.
Second, I find large phrase direction and shape. There’s more than one right answer in this step, so I tend to try out several ways to turn a phrase before I settle on my favorite. I make a lot of marks in my music so that I can pick up where I left off when I come back to the piece the next day. This step also involves determining where to breathe…and writing it in!
Third, I find smaller nuances that I want to make within each phrase. It’s around this time that I find little technical inconsistencies that I may have missed when I peeled off that first thick layer. And that’s where I found “the lick.”
[See my full list of steps for learning a new piece at the bottom of this article.]
You see, this particular lick is really difficult because the figure goes between eighth notes and triplets, and it has four notes in four different positions, but the positions are really close to each other, and in fact you have to play two different 3rd positions to adjust for tuning and, and, and…
Well, at least that’s what I told myself for the past week or so. That’s probably why I haven’t gotten very far with this lick.
So today, it was time to take care of “that one little lick.” (Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of other “little licks” throughout my recital program. But today was the day for that one.) What did I do first? The wrong thing: I didn’t make a plan. I just made a goal. My goal was to fix it. I had no idea how I was going to do it because it’s really difficulty lick because the figures goes between eighth notes and triplets, and it has four notes in four different positions, and….
All I had in my mind were the thoughts “this is hard, it doesn’t sound good, I need to fix it.” Somehow, I still fixed it, but only afterwards did I realize that I went about it backwards. My mental approach should have been more planned and more positive! I probably could have saved twenty minutes and some chop fatigue if I had taken a second to think about my approach.
That being said, this is what happened: I played it over and over. The same way. At least forty or fifty times. If I hadn’t made it clear yet, this is what NOT to do!
What was I doing? I was waiting for one of those repetitions to give me the answer. I was waiting for it to sound good so that I could capture that approach and sound, and then replicate that. I was using the lowest level of problem solving: trial and error. Unfortunately, I was also practicing it incorrectly…over and over.
Nothing changed until something in my brain said “play it longer.” Aha! A style change! Imagine that!
I played it longer, and it definitely helped. Then something in my brain said “direct the phrase to the last note.” Aha! A musical change! Imagine that!
I played it more musically and it was instantly 100% better. You might even say it was fixed. Looking back, I realize that it only took me one creative thought and one repetition carrying out that thought to “fix” my technical problem. I wondered why I had just mindlessly practiced the lick fifty times. Why didn’t I just stop to think for a few seconds?!
And then the echoes of one of my teachers, Carl Lenthe, rattled in my mind. A musical solution to a technical problem. Of course. It makes so much sense. Why didn’t I listen to him more often? No, why didn’t I just do what he said more often?
I practiced the piece for about 45 minutes today, but I took away much more than that. I learned a very valuable lesson, one that I have learned before and forgotten, many times: making music and learning how to play your instrument is not a technical pursuit. Rather, it is a mental pursuit. You have to learn how to learn. You must learn strategies that guide yourself to improve efficiently and mindfully. That is the answer! Yes, we all have technical shortcomings that we would like to improve, but the first step is not finding out which exercise to play. The first step is knowing yourself, making a plan, and teaching yourself how to learn.
If you are an artist and you are trying to really improve, I strongly encourage you to take this approach. Really take a look inside yourself and figure out how you learn. Teach yourself to learn well. Listen to your teacher, because they are giving you the answers all the time. You can only benefit from them if you are ready to learn.
The other lesson that I learned (again) is to just try something different. If a lick isn’t working, you’ve got to attack it from all angles. If you’re not sure what else to do with it musically, start with technical approach variations. Play it slower, faster, lower, higher, louder, softer, change the articulation--anything that will pull you away from playing it the same, boring way that you always play it. There is virtually no benefit of playing something over and over again unless you’re doing it well every time (correct rhythm, notes, intentional musical direction, etc.).
I hope my practicing woes and triumphs will help you bring a new angle to your practice, even if it is to simply incorporate more intentional thought into your precious practice time. We are all busy people, and we owe it to ourselves to get the most out of our practice by planning, learning from our mistakes, and making conscious musical choices every time we pick up the instrument.
How to Learn a New Piece