What I aim to learn on a day to day basis are these passages – organised in time from the most difficult to the easiest, and always adding up so that at the end of a month (say) I will have either the whole piece mastered or a substantial chunk of it.

Here is an example using three pieces:

1. C.P.E. Bach Fantasia in D minor (Wq 117/12)

Here is my suggested plan to learn this piece in 8 practice sessions:

Session 1: Bars 5 – 6 (these are the most difficult bars)
Session 2: Bars 1 – 2
Session 3: Bars 2 – 5
Session 4: Bars 1 - 6
Session 5: Bars 6 – 9
Session 6: Bars 1- 9
Session 7: Bars 10 – 14
Session 8: Bars 1 - 14

Each of these sessions should take 20 minutes at the most to learn (if not you will need to break them further). But assume it does.

So on day 1, you start practice session 1: bars 5 – 6. At the end of the session you should be playing these two bars like a pro. (How do you do that? It is not simply repeating the 2 bars for 20 minutes, you know. There are all sorts of approaches and tricks – but it just will take to long to go through all that). Anyway, during these 20 minutes you will do a number of things that will result in you totally learning these two bars.

On day 2, you are going to tackle session 2: bars 1 – 2. But before you even think about doing that, you should start by going over bars 5 – 6 again. Three things may happen:

a. you can play it perfectly straight away. If so, play it 3 or 4 times and move on to bars 1 – 2.

b. You cannot play it perfectly at all. Wrong fingerings get on the way, you sort of know it, but not at all at the level you achieved yesterday. If so, forget about bars 1 – 2 and again dedicate this practice session to bars 5 – 6. Relearn them without skipping any steps and without cutting any corners by going through the same activities you went through the previous day and that led you to mastery (this is the bit that no one wants to do). To your surprise, what took yesterday 20 minutes, may take only 4 – 5 minutes today to accomplish. If so, you still have 15 minutes left over: use them to learn and master bars 1 – 2.

c. You completely and totally forgot it. In this case, just repeat practice session 1. I assure you that the next day you will be on [b] above, and by the third day you may well be on [a].

Assuming case [a] above, when the 3rd day arrives, you start by going through bars 5 – 6 and bars 1 – 2. This should take no more than a couple of minutes (unless you are on [b] or [c]) but I will assume [a] to keep this short. So use the rest of the practice session to tackle bars 2 – 5.

When the fourth day arrives, use the practice session to join everything together: Bars 1 – 6. Now you will not need to repeat the previous practice sessions everyday, just repeat this session since it encompasses every single session so far.

Keep going like that until you reach day 8. By then the piece should be perfect.

So if everything goes right, in 8 days you should have mastered this piece. Don’t stop practising it! keep reserving a 20 minutes session until the end of the month to polish and do any further work that needs to be done on it. At the end of the month this piece will be a part of your repertory. If you did everything right (no one can do that), then you should never forget this piece, even if you stop playing it for 10 years. If you do forget it from neglect, just repeat the process.

2. John Blow : Sarabande in C.

Session 1: bars 1 – 4
Session 2: bars 5 – 8
Session 3: bars 1 – 8
Session 4: bars 9- 12
Session 5: bars 13 – 16
Session 6: bars 1 – 16

Everything I said above applies here. The difficulty of each section is more or less the same, so you may as well learn the piece from beginning to end (all bars are equally difficult or equally easy).

3. Chopin: Cantabile.

Session 1: bars 3 – 4 (add first beat of bar 5 – bar 3 is the most difficult bar)
Session 2: bars 1 – 2 (add first beat of bar 3)
Session 3: bars 1 – 5
Session 4: bars 5 – 8 (add first beat of bar 9)
Session 5: bars 1 – 8 (add first beat of bar 9)
Session 6: bars 9 – 14
Session 7: bars 1 – 14 (the whole piece)

I have chosen three short easy pieces. And I am assuming a total beginner with no technique. The point is simple: any piece of any difficulty can be learned this way. But some advanced pieces when broken down to allow a beginner to learn them may turn up to have 200 or more practice sessions, and many of these sessions will have to be repeated for 5 – 6 days before one can move on to the next practice session. So it is not really a matter of difficulty, but of time. So it is far better to work on pieces that allow quick progress, so that when one does get to advanced pieces, the sections tackled in the practice sessions can be much larger, and you can master a pieces after a number of days/weeks, rather than months/years. Just make sure that whatever piece you are learning is a worthwhile addition to your repertory (the 3 pieces above are).

This example is completely hypothetical. Different people at different levels may need to break down the sections even further. Other people may be able to tackle even bigger chunks. This is just to explain the procedure.

You must always finish a section on your 20 minute session. If you cannot, the section you chose to practise was too large. Cut it in half. If you still cannot finish it, cut it in half again. Eventually you will get the right size. If you apply these principles consistently over a few months on a number of different pieces, soon you will develop enough experience to know straightaway how much work, and how much time it will take you to learn any piece.
Now let us organise the 3 pieces above in a table over ten days (the numbers refer to the specific practice sessions):

This table summarises around one hour of practice (give or take 10 minutes), split in three practice sessions of around 20 minutes.

The bulk of the practice session (15 – 18 minutes) is always devoted to a new practice session. At the start of the session, 2 or 3 minutes are devoted to review the previous day’s work. Because the sessions are so small, you do not need more than that amount of practice. But consistency is the key. Do it everyday and at the end of the week you have three new pieces in your repertory. Of course none of these piece is very difficult (Sarabande: grade 3; Cantabile: grade 4; Fantasia: grade 3). But they are all superior pieces of music.

Now the table above, shows us the plan. But we know that things rarely go according to plan. So a table that shows the actual progress of the student might look like this:

(a) It took the whole of the section to remaster the difficult session 1.

(b) Session 1 still not good, and session 3 also nothing to talk home about, so instead of moving on, the student repeated the same work of the previous day.

(c) Although session 4 in general was holding together well (session 4 includes all of the previous passages), there were lots of problems on the difficult passage of session 1, so this was again repeated this day.

(d) Again, the passage in session 1 was still sort of falling apart, so the student continue to work on it. (So as you can see, the most difficult passage gets practised the most naturally due to it being tackled first of all).

(e) Even though session 3 includes session1, the student is insecure enough about the passage to spend some of the practise session working on it by itself.

(f) Session 1 is a real pregnant dog, so the student keeps at it, while using the bulk of the session to tackle a new passage. S/he may even break down session 1 further to concentrate only on the problem area – which sometimes may be as little as 2 notes.

(g) The light at the end of the tunnel: Session 1 is truly mastered and seamlessly incorporated into session 5.

(h) This piece went according to plan. At this point one may replace it with a new piece altogether. So that the table at any month shows a variety of pieces at different stages of completion: some have just started, some have been going on for a couple of months, and some are about to be completed.

Remember that for reasons of brevity I have made the table with only 10 days, and three pieces; it should really cover a whole month. And it is always a good idea to keep working on the piece everyday – even if you have mastered it – until the month ends. After that, all you need to do is to play the piece as often as you like. So the best way to practice pieces you have mastered is to perform them. Keep a list of pieces to perform with you and rotate them, so that you are not always performing the same pieces, and so that you rotate your repertory pieces in a way that all get performed equally.

Believe me, if you follow this approach, in no time at all you will find yourself with 10 – 15 hours of repertory.

One last thing: Nothing of this is written in stone. You will have to adapt and experiment with it until you find what works best to you.


1 comment:

  1. Very nice article and like the approach and will definately give it a try. I can't see the table you mention in the article though any chance you could re-include it in the post?