Once upon a time, my teacher put a few strips of colored tape on the fingerboard of my little 1/16th sized violin.

A well-intentioned move, but one which led to some mother-son conflict in the ensuing week of practice. My mom noticed that I kept putting my finger slightly off the line of tape. My mom got increasingly frustrated, insisting that I put my finger ON THE TAPE. But, stubborn little kid I was, apparently I didn’t budge, saying that it wasn’t the right place.

So, my mom asked my teacher about this at my next lesson. And as it turned out, I was right – the tape was in fact a little off.

For better or worse, intonation was just one of those things I fixated on from an early age. Because so much of music was a complete mystery to me, I liked that at least this seemed to be pretty black and white. A note was either in tune or out of tune.1

So despite what my teachers would have wished, I spent much of my time working on intonation – procrastinating on score study, interpretation, and all that other “musical” stuff.

I figured that practicing ought to be like building a house. Get the foundation poured, build the walls and basic structure, and when that’s finished, there will be time to do some decorating and make everything look pretty.

It’s a nice enough analogy. Except that I was wrong.

How so?

Leon Fleisher on technique

A student once asked Leon Fleisher how much time one ought to spend working on technique every day. His response was that “You only need as much technique as is necessary to say what you want to say.” He went on to say that in order to be able to determine what kind of technical work is necessary, we first need to figure out what we want a piece (or phrase) to sound like, and then work backwards from there.

Indeed, the speed of a passage may determine what fingering works best. Knowing the exact kind of sound quality that makes a particular phrase evoke the mood you are going for may dictate your bowing choices. Shaping the line just right may require 3 different kinds of vibrato and 4 different bow speeds – all in one bow.

If we don’t work on the piece with a bigger artistic vision in mind, at some point we will have to unlearn our old way of doing things, and spend more time, in essence, relearning a different version of the piece. After all, a piece played with no shaping, nuance, direction, and inflection, is much less technically demanding, than playing it in a way that says something.

And even in building a house, it turns out that the first step is not pouring the foundation and framing the walls. It’s creating a blueprint. A detailed plan of how many rooms there will be, the layout, the location of plumbing, electrical outlets, etc.

Silly me – I’d been skipping the most basic step.

Three stages of preparation

It’s not just Fleisher who has advocated for a music-first approach either. In a Russian study2 of 10 eminent pianists of the day (including Svatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels), most articulated a clear process for learning and preparing new music for performances that entailed three distinct stages.

And guess what came first?

1: The “scouting” stage

The first task is to get to know the piece. To gain a big-picture overview or “sketch” of the piece and develop some ideas about how it should sound.

2: The problem-solving stage

Once you have an idea of how the piece should go, the focus shifts to more technical work. Specifically, problem-solving. Troubleshooting difficult sections, working out the kinks, and making sure the mechanics can consistently support the overall vision.

3: The finishing stage

The last phase is like a mashup of stages 1 and 2. Zooming out and zooming in again to focus on the big picture, and arriving at a final performance-ready version and interpretation of the piece by doing a number of “trial rehearsals” or “practice performances” to make sure everything works and makes sense as a whole.

Indeed, case studies and survey studies suggest that this is how many other professional musicians approach new pieces too.

A case study

For instance, one study analyzed the learning approach of a concert pianist3 who was preparing new repertoire for a CD recording. The researchers deconstructed the first 11+ hours of practice that she devoted to learning the third movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto 4, and found that the pianist used the same general stage-based learning approach.

The very first thing she did was to get an overview of the movement by sight-reading – slowly – from beginning to end.

Then she spent about 5 sessions smoothing out technical issues. But not just any technical issues! Her practice commentary made it clear that much of the work served her larger artistic vision (e.g. “Actually, I want to put the accent here…and that’s much harder to do.”).

Sessions 7-8 were devoted to running the movement. To see if she could get through it from memory, even if it was a little ragged in spots.

Sessions 9-10 were focused more on interpretive issues. On bringing out more details and nuances in the context of longer run-throughs, and seeing what new technical issues occurred as a result.

Sessions 11-12 were again devoted to running the movement, and fixing the little things that went awry, but ultimately trying to consistently achieve her larger vision for the piece.

But… #1

But what if we don’t know exactly how we want something to sound? Do we have to be 100% certain before we start working on a piece? 

I think it’s totally ok if we’re not 100% clear. We just need an outline. It’s easy enough to tweak and refine our vision as we go. Because we’ll probably change our minds as we work through the piece anyway.

But… #2

But how do we work on inflection when we can’t even play up to tempo?

James Byo is Chair of Music Education at Louisiana State University, and in a sweet 2004 paper, described a practice protocol that addresses this question. It ensures that students are always working with a larger artistic vision in mind – even when playing below performance tempo. It goes something like this:

The “Work Place” Practice Protocol

Step 1: Choose a “work place”
Identify a section of the piece that is giving you difficulty or doesn’t sound quite right.

Step 2: Find an error-free tempo
It’s probably too fast. Slow it down until you find a tempo at which you can play it more smoothly, without errors.

Step 3: Use a metronome
Figure out what that tempo setting is, where you can play it without mistakes.

Step 4: Play the tricky spot twice in a row without mistakes
You can aim for 3 in a row or 5 in a row (or whatever) if you want, but with two, at least you know that the first time wasn’t just a fluke.

Step 5: Play the tricky spot twice in a row without mistakes – with expression
Adding in the musical nuances, shaping, etc. makes things more difficult. So it’s sort of cheating to move on if you can’t play the passage with expression. Plus, how fun is it to play totally straight and dry, like a computer?

Step 6: Increase tempo
Try to increase the tempo and continue to add expressive details until performance degrades again. Take baby steps.

Step 7: Decrease tempo as needed
If you get stuck, it might be helpful to take a step back again, so you can do some more troubleshooting ensure that you solidify your mechanics, get in some correct repetitions, and set the stage for another step forward.

Step 8: Put the “work place” back into the music
It’s one thing to play the passage in isolation. It can feel very different (and be more difficult) to play it in context of a larger phrase or section.

Step 9: Note the final metronome setting
It’s ok if it’s not totally up to tempo by the end of the practice session. But write down where you left off; it’ll give you a good target to exceed tomorrow, and like a bookmark, give you an indicator of where to start.

The one-sentence summary

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” ~John Wooden

Footnotes

  1. Of course, I later learned that intonation isn’t quite as black and white as I thought, but that’s a whole different story for another day…
  2. Wicinski, A. A. (1950). Psichologiceskii analiz processa raboty pianista-ispolnitiela nad muzykalnym proizviedieniem [Psychological analysis of piano performer’s process of work on musical composition]. Izviestia Akademii Piedagogiceskich Nauk Vyp. 25 [Moscow], p. 171-215.
  3. (Romanian pianist Gabriela Imreh)
  4. In total, 57 practice sessions, and 33.5 hours over a 39-week period were devoted to learning the movement.