Thursday, May 1, 2014

Practice Techniques

-From the studio of Dr Courtney Crappell at UTSA -

Practice sessions/marathons can easily get repetitive - here are some different practicing approaches:

Learning a new piece
1. Hands Separate Practice – Especially useful during the first day of practicing a new piece--use 3x3 at this point: 3x RH, 3x LH, 3x HT (Lysinger)--and then the month before performance. This is an indispensible technique for accurate learning of classical music.

2. Count Aloud – Be able to count at many different levels: subdivisions, beats, measures, and phrases. This is a crucial prerequisite for true artistic expression. Also, prepare to count the harmonic rhythm.
3. Metronome – Alternate sometimes with counting aloud. Work from slow to fast. Also, prepare to play with the metronome beat on weak beats or syncopated beats instead of on strong beats.
4. Rhythms – Related to group drills, but based on smaller groups (L=long; s=short): play L-s-L-s, s-L-s- L, L-L-s-s, s-s-L-L, L-s-s-L, s-L-L-s, L-s-s-s, s-L-s-s-, s-s-L-s, s-s-s-L; for triple divisions, L-s-s, s-L-s,s-s-L, etc. After groups of 4 or 3, double to groups of 8 or 6. For longer groups of rhythms, say letters for longs (A-B) and numbers for shorts (1-2-3-4-5-6) to keep track (e.g. “6-A-B-1-2-3-4-5”)
5. Blocking – Play all of the notes that fit into a single hand position. Supplement this with block-shift point practice—find the note that ends one block, and begins another, then create smaller blocks that are connected by those single notes. Often, the thumb plays the single notes. 

Tackling trouble spots 
1. Flexible Tempo (Gates) – Slow down your playing when you feel your mind cluttering. Be able to change your tempo while playing at the pinnacle of musicality.
2. Varying Tempos – Use flexible tempo, then slow, then moderate, then fast. You can also use a metronome to work from slow to fast (see “metronome” below).
3. Group Drills – (A variation on rhythm drills) For particularly challenging passagework (e.g. cadenzas), practice playing the first three notes as quickly as possible, then the next three, and so on. After groups of three are simple, try fours, fives, sixes, and sevens.
4. Accents – Instead of changing the rhythm (as in “rhythm” practice), add accents in the same patterns as those listed in rhythm practice. An accent replaces long notes. Short notes are unaccented. Also, useful to accent a specific finger number (e.g. finger 4) for awareness (Thompson).
5. Use the Aural Image (Gates) – For clarity in voicing within a single hand, play a chord or pattern with two hands to get the “perfect” aural image, then focus on the sound and play it with the single hand.

Striving for artistry
1. Voicing – In polyphonic passages (N.B.: homophony, e.g. chorales, is also polyphony), be able to voice each melody line.
2. Sing – Be able to replace any voice within the texture with your own.
3. Experience Dynamic Contrast (Gates) – Be able to play before and after dynamic markings.
4. Shaping – For more control and awareness, play passages while counting crescendos, decrescendos, ritardando, and accelerando. Also, while watching score, conduct dynamics, then play.
5. Play the Chords – Play the harmonies alone (for contrapuntal works, play the implied harmonies—for homophonic works, simply remove the melody) to get a sense of tension and release within the progression.

Techniques for solid learning and memory
1. Stop and Start (Thompson) – Add pauses or play even and odd measures.
2. Backwards by Sections – Divide the piece into manageable sections (6-12 measures long). Play the sections in reverse order by memory. e.g. play section 10, then 9, then 8, etc.
3. Random Sections – Similar to backwards by section, but sections are selected at random.
4. Hands Separate – Should be used at each stage in the memorization process, but is especially useful in preparation for performance. (Can begin process by ghosting RH or LH, then placing it in lap.)
5. With the Metronome, Counting Out Loud – Prepare to count at different divisions of the beat (e.g. sixteenths, eights, quarter, etc.)

Want more?  Here's a link for the entire document - it is a useful handout for reminders on varying your practice sessions.  Dr Crappell also wrote a great MTNA article on Preparing Students for Vibrant Sonatina Performances