For those of you left curious by my last post, here’s my score-study process:
1-If I’m dealing with a digital score, I crop and straighten every page so that I’m not dealing with straining to read tiny notes or crooked pages.
2-I slash out all the tied notes. (I don’t remember where I learned this. I didn’t like it when I first saw it, but this has turned out to be a crucial time saver for reading: I have realized that it allows me to skip processing unessential notes; when they are not marked out, I spend time determining whether it is a note to be replayed or not, whereas if they are marked out, I just hold the note and mentally move on to processing other notes.)
3-I look through dynamics and if there are long crescendos/diminuendos I plot out check in points for when I should reach the different dynamic levels along the way. (I am a fan of color-coding my dynamics, too.)
4-If I’m playing with an instrumentalist, I mark out their tied notes; their notes are usually smaller than mine, so this really saves me from having to determine if that note I’m seeing is going to be something I have to line up with or if it will just be sustained.
5-If I’m playing with a singer, and the text is in a foreign language, I translate the text. Even if that accompaniment is boring old boom-chick, I will play it differently if they are talking about tiptoeing through the tulips versus galloping through a storm (hopefully anyone would, but if you don’t know what they are singing about, you won’t know to make the distinction!). Prime example: Schubert’s Heidenröslein – super boring accompaniment, and it’s the exact same for 3 verses, but the story goes through different story-tellers and emotions in each verse, so there’s room to change how you’re playing that boring accompaniment between and within each verse.
6-If I am playing chamber music that involves multiple instrumentalists, after marking out the tied notes, I look for moments when multiple instruments have the same melodic and/or rhythmic ideas and I box these so that I know when things need to align.
That seems like a lot of steps, but not all of them are applicable to every score, so it really goes by pretty quickly. And I’ve started marking the front pages of scores that I have already prepped this way so that if I am revisiting a piece that I have already prepped, I know I don’t have to re-do this work. Often I listen to the piece while I am going through this process (depending on where I am) and that makes it even more efficient, especially if I’m playing an orchestral reduction – it’s good to know what instruments you are imitating.
After I’ve done my score study, I’m ready to launch into my practice process:
Essentially, after an initial sightread to find tricky places that need fingering, and devising a fingering plan for said places, I start every piece at half tempo and gradually work it up to full speed. If it’s too difficult to play hands together at half speed, I start hands separately and work it up to full speed hands separately before dropping back to half speed to try again hands together. If things are going smoothly, I increase the speed by larger amounts, if they are not, I increase the speed by smaller amounts; sometimes things can go well in the initial speeds and then I start to have more trouble – I just drop the tempo back a few clicks and start moving forward again. I ONLY increase the speed if the current speed feels easy. If after that initial sightread, I find that the piece is mostly fine and just has a few trouble spots, I’ll apply that process only to the trouble spots, not the whole piece. No need to spend time really practicing what I could read without issue.
After I have worked through a whole piece this way, whenever I need to come back to brush it up, I re-apply this process to any lingering trouble spots. Of course, I do have a few other tactics and tricks that I use here and there to spice up my practice and get out of ruts, but this is the process I use 95% of the time.
Allowing myself to practice this slowly and thoughtfully allows me to process more of the music all at once from the beginning and turn the printed music on the page into motions. By contrast, here’s the process I see so many inexperienced students try: learn the notes, then the rhythms, then the fingering, then the dynamics, then the articulation, etc., essentially learning every element of the music as a separate layer. This ends up wasting time in the end because, as I tell my students, if you can hear the notes you are playing, then you are playing them with some kind of rhythm, so you might as well learn the right one, rather than getting good at the wrong one and having to forget that way and relearn the right one. And if you can hear the notes you are playing, then you are playing at some dynamic level, so you might as well play them at the right one. This applies to every element of the music. Just because you are not paying attention to a certain musical element doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t learning the motions you are using; unlearning and reprogramming motions is so much more work than learning it the right way from the beginning.
It’s such a simple process, but it does require discipline to keep things slow to give yourself time to think through every motion, and it requires 100% of your attention to really think through everything you are doing. But it gets you to the enjoyable phase of being able to play the piece so much faster than playing the piece over and over again cementing in mistakes ever would.