STRUCTURED APPROACH TO PRACTICE
I see it all the time in students in general. I will work with them on a piece/passage using a very structured approach. This means that we follow a number of steps in a specific order, so one leads to the next, and you acquire skills in a gradual manner. In short the practice is not random. However, when left to their own devices, or many times with me watching, students will not follow the master plan, but rather practise in a quasi-random fashion. I truly cannot understand this, since these methods should appeal to the lazy: they take less time, less effort and you do not even need to think (that is, my students do not need to think because they get it all in writing – all they have to do is to follow the steps). Yet they persist in doing it their way.
Chang actually mentions this phenomenon in his book, he calls it the “appeal of the intuitive method” or something like that. And right he is!
A good example is the repeated note-groups routine. I will do it with them, and they will completely master the passage in 20 minutes. However, they seem unable to – on their own volition – to transfer the method to another piece they may be learning by themselves (I try to get them independent as soon as possible). Sometimes I will let them struggle with a simple passage for a couple of months, and then in a single ten minute session with them achieve the results they could not achieve in two months. I point it out to them that for lazy people they like to work a lot, but to no avail.
Basically everyone wants to play the piece form beginning to end on automatic pilot and from memory. Common patterns:
1. Instead of reading the music when getting a passage wrong, the student prefers to “guess” what the note is by pressing randomly several notes until s/he gets the one that “sounds right” (but is still usually wrong). Everyone tries to avoid reading/sight-reading.
2. No one likes repeated note-groups even though it is the most powerful method in the bag.
3. Everyone wants to go hands together straight away.
4. No one likes to overlap sections – in fact no one likes to do small sections.
5. Everyone hates repeating sections and are usually dismayed when I suggest that they must repeat something seven times. To them seven times is the most absurd request they ever faced. The usual pattern is to repeat a section the minimum number of times to get a passable rendition of it, and then resent any suggestion that now is the moment to start repeating. “But I got it right!” (after 10000 wrong ones).
6. Once they get something learned, revolution is in the horizon the moment I suggest that we should go through all the steps we did the day before.
Yes, this is an excellent idea. I call it a practice journal. You should detail in it the way you are learning the piece in great detail. I make several copies of the score and cut the sections I am working on and the way I join them and the tricks I am using. I also write my feelings about it: how hard/impossible it is, or how easy it is, or where I think the difficulty lies. Our memory is notoriously unreliable. If you spend a month learning a piece it is quite enlightening to go back and read your comments. You may be very surprised that you actually felt that way.
Another thing I do is I always put the time I start and the time a finish a session, and I write what I should do the next day. Again, the next day we tend to forget what we noticed needed more working on. So a “what to do next” section is very important. At the same time you should be economical with words or you may end up using all your practice time doing the journal. As with everything, the more experience you get the better you get at it.
Yes, it is perfectly acceptable. However you must always have accomplished something at the end of a practice session. If you cannot accomplish anything (for instance by trying to tackle a piece you don’t know form beginning to end) then that practice time was completely wasted. Even if all you can master is a single bar HS, this is all right, because you are getting there step by step. But it is perfectly possible to practice 5 or 6 hours and not get anything done.
So it is important that you are not overambitious. With experience you will soon be able to figure out what is feasible and what is not. But always strive to have mastered something at the end of a session.
HT is a big problem. The three most powerful ways to deal with it are small section work, repeated note-groups and dropping notes. Another way to do it (particularly useful in counterpoint) is to have your teacher playing the RH while you play the LH (and vice versa) because this gets your ear used to it without you having to worry about HT If you have a digital piano with a recording facility, you can record one hand and play it back while you play the other hand.
Yes, it all depends. As I said work towards achieving something. If you achieve something, fine. If you do not than you need to make it easier by either tackling a smaller section, doing HS, outlining, etc.
The size of the passage HT again depends on what you can get away with. For myself, I usually make a difference between baroque music (counterpoint) and everything else.
With everything else, I join hands straight away. Let us say I am working on a Chopin waltz and I have just done half a bar HS. I will immediately join hands. I will not acquire a sizeable section hands separate. Rather I will join hands straightaway after mastering HT on the small section, and join section HT straightaway. That is, I will not do bars 1- 2 HS then HT, bars 2 – 3 HS then HT, then bars 1 – 3HS then HT. I will do bars 1-3 HT without further ado. Of course if it all falls apart, then I may have do go back to HS. But this is rarely the case. In fact usually if there is this sort of problem working some more on Bars 1 – 2 and Bars 2 – 3 HS and HT has better results than working Bars 1 – 3 HS. I believe this is because – for me personally – the LH does not make much sense by itself, it is just a chord progression.
Counterpoint on the other hand is a completely different matter. With counterpoint I will learn and memorise each voice separately, and I will be constantly paling the voices separately even after the piece has been mastered to keep each voice fresh in my mind.
Then there are also pieces that may not be advisable to play HS. For instance, Grieg’s Arietta, Schumann’s Strange lands and people and Mendelssohn’s Song without words op. 19 no. 1 all have a similar structure and form: they have a melody on the top voice, a bass voice and an arpeggiated middle voice that is shared between the hands. I will practise the top voice and the bass voice by themselves, but the arpeggiated middle voice has to be played HT straightaway, since HS will be not only very difficult as it will destroy the flow of the music. In such a case you may simplify it by doing separate voices, but HS may not be feasible. Another piece that comes to mind is the first part of Rach prelude op. 23 no. 5. The best approach there is to outline (that is to get rid of all unnecessary notes) but still keep HT. The second part on the other hand should be done HS. So it depends. The general rule is always: If what you are doing is not working, do something else.
Yes, that is correct. If you cannot do it the next day – perhaps not straight away but after 4 – 5 repeats – then you must repeat the procedure that lead you to mastery the days before. The procedure got you there once, it will get you there again. So don’t waste time trying to save time by skipping steps. It does not work. The fastest way is simply to repeat the procedure (whatever it was – as I said it will depend on the piece and on the person). Especially because you will get there in a fraction of the time it took you first time round. Again do not believe me. Try it out with two pieces of similar difficulty. This is truly the only way to decide if some great idea will work or if it is just some great idea.
As I said above, it will depend. With counterpoint, I take whatever time is necessary to truly master the whole piece before I even think of joining hands, so yes, HT will be a session in itself and should really come only after the whole piece is mastered hands/voices separate.
But with most repertory, I aim to have the section HT at the end of a session. If that is not possible, then yes, just do another session in the day for HT (provided HS has been mastered – you should never move to HT if you are still struggling with HS).
Also there are pieces that you will be able to do HT straightaway. I tend to do Mozart sonatas HT straightaway for most of the sonata – and only do HS if truly necessary. Also beginner pieces I usually do HT straightaway. And there are pieces I am able to just memorise after sight reading through them. Some styles/patterns come very easily to me, others are a real nightmare. Haydn sonatas somehow never presented a problem. But Bach and Scarlatti require a lot of work – mostly figuring out fingering. Then there are many modern pieces that are very easy to play – but deciphering the score takes a huge amount of time.
Again it is all very personal, and you must apply the general principles to your particular case.
Yes, this is correct. Patience always pays off. A lot of people move too fast to larger sections, while the smaller sections are still full of problems. You cannot fix the small section if it is inserted in the large section. All you will be doing is practising mistakes. This is really like fixing an engine. You must switch off the engine remove the part that is giving you problems, and fix it, and then put it back into the engine and spend some time adjusting it. Trying to fix a piece with the engine running is a very bad idea.
The bare minimum is three sessions per week. Any less than that and there will be no progress, so you may as well not waste your time.
The more sessions you can manage, the faster you will learn and the more repertory you will accumulate. Now the problem I see with the schedule you described, is that you may end up neglecting pieces. If so the time you invested on the pieces you neglected will have been wasted.
Consider this: On Saturday you have time for 10 sessions. So in each you tackle a different piece. However on Monday you can only manage 6. So 4 pieces will be neglected and the time you wasted on them could have been better used mastering other sections of the other 6 pieces. Does that make sense? So plan your work by referring to the minimum of practice sessions you can do. Let us say it is four. So aim to work on four pieces. On the particular day you can only do four sessions you dedicate one session per piece. You will progress slowly because the section you will be able to tackle will be relatively small. But the day you can do 12 sessions, devote three sessions per piece. On these days you will be able to advance rapidly and cover far more ground. You can also use the 4 session day to play larger sections already mastered and work on musicality, and the other days for the nitty gritty time consuming work.