Learning New Material

Let’s say that you’re about to practice a new piece of music: What’s your typical plan of attack?

Researchers have observed that expert and student musicians display profound differences in their approaches to new material, and those differences lead to huge disparities in performance quality.

Nonetheless, I’ve found that students can employ high-level practice strategies and perform expertly. But those strategies have to be learned.
The Three Practice Activities
Chapter 3 of The Musician’s Way, spells out a range of strategies for tackling new pieces.

The chapter first highlights three fundamental practice activities: discovery, repetition, and evaluation.

That is, when we pick up an unfamiliar piece, we discover its expressive and technical ingredients; next, skillful repetition instills fluency; all the while, we evaluate the quality of our work.

To become adept practicers, then, we must develop expertise with discovery, repetition, and evaluation. The six chapters that comprise Part I of The Musician’s Way are designed to help musicians do exactly that. Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll find in Chapter 3.

A 4-Step Path to Mastery
The process that I recommend for starting on new material contains four essential steps:

Starting new material
1. Get an overview
2. Map an interpretation
3. Map the technique
4. Execute your map

Note that I emphasize building interpretive and technical awareness before executing – my aim is to enable musicians to be precise and creative from the outset of learning. Naïve practicers, in contrast, often run sloppily through new pieces; they ingrain copious errors and subsequently struggle to replace their chaotic habits.

Expert musicians reinforce in practice the habits they’ll need on stage.
Simply put, to perform accurately and expressively in public, it’s best to be accurate and expressive in practice.

Step 1: To get an overview of a piece, I propose that we establish an aural model, research background information, and prepare a score. Score preparation entails dividing a piece into sections, identifying difficulties, translating any text, and numbering measures.

Step 2: To map an interpretation, I apply the Principles of Artistic Interpretation detailed in Chapter 2, and I advocate expressively vocalizing rhythms.

Step 3: I provide separate guidelines for singers and instrumentalists to map the technical requirements of a piece. For singers, those strategies include clarifying diction, speaking text in rhythm, and singing a melody on ah. For instrumentalists, they involve aligning fingerings, breaths, bowings, tonguings, and the like with the interpretive map.

Step 4: With an intepretive/technical framework in place, I describe ways in which we can play or sing with ease and expressiveness. In particular, I discuss how to oversee tempo, ensure quality, and learn efficiently.

After delineating those four steps, Chapter 3 delves into tactics for managing repetition, evaluating our work, and solving problems.

Ultimately, my objective is to outfit musicians with the tools they need to be independent artists who can absorb music quickly, enjoy their practice, and perform fearlessly.

Preview The Musician’s Way at Amazon.com.

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein

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4 Responses to “Learning New Material”

  1. rachel said:

    Nov 15, 09 at 04:19

    This is a great post for all music student to read and then to be made constantly reminded of. I know from personal experience that when you initially learn a piece wrong you then are in for some extremely boring and tedious work that never should have been needed

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Nov 15, 09 at 09:07

    You are so right, Rachel. Repairing avoidable learning errors can be tedious. It’s always preferable to start with accuracy and expression than to begin learning haphazardly and then have to spend hours in practice trying to undo mistakes.

  3. Patrick Smith said:

    Jan 12, 10 at 22:40

    I compose my own music on the guitar. This tends to have me trying out many different solutions and making many errors in the process. By the time a piece is “finished” I frequently already established bad practices in my hands. Any suggestions?

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 12, 10 at 23:17

    Great question, Patrick. Composing necessarily involves trying out options and abandoning some ideas while retaining others. So it’s easy for playing habits to become scrambled.

    Here’s a thought: When a piece reaches its final form, restart your learning process. Work in sections and at a slowish tempo – clarify your interpretive map, pinpoint fingerings in each hand, and then join sections and manage repetition as described in The Musician’s Way so that you reinforce excellence at all levels. Most of all, have fun with the process.

    Bravo to you for being an original.