A faster way to progress when learning a piece
October 22, 2019
R.M.’s second lesson on the “Black Key” etude.
When you first read the notes of a new piece, don’t take any notes for “granted”. Don’t make assumptions about that note’s relationship with the note before it. Don’t look for patterns, especially ones that you may then be tempted to think repeat, when often in fact they don’t.
Don’t look for patterns, repeats, analogies, not right away. Start by
doing due diligence on every note:
The first time you read the piece, if you read it even slightly too fast, your brain will not be able to keep up; you start taking guesses or hesitating. Allow the eye to focus in on the visual image of each note and wait for the brain to be one hundred percent confident as to its identity. Thus, always find a slow enough tempo in which you can remain feeling totally in control.
Leave enough time to process not just some of the notes but all of the notes. Any mistake, even the most silly or trivial mistake, becomes immediately ingrained into your playing mechanism. It will multiply the overall time you need for learning the piece. Just never make a mistake to begin with and you will save an enormous amount of practicing time.* One important benefit of this procedure benefit is that will lead into being a much better sight reader.
As for the total length of time from first reading a piece to having it ready for performance, I can best express it by describing two curves on the same piece of graph paper, both starting from a common point on the graph. The curve that represents the sort of progress that we make when not following the advice given above, is a straight line. It gets gradually gets higher and higher till it reaches a certain goal in height, but proceeds at a very slow rate of incline (slope).
By following the advice, we get the other curve, which also grows higher in its y value as you move along the x axis (the x axis is actually the time axis (t axis) which is measured off in the number of practicing sessions as days and weeks (or more) go by. This curve has the feature that it starts climbing higher on the graph much slower the does the straight line described in the previous paragraph. However, it has the property of climbing higher faster and faster as time goes by. After a while it intersects and crosses over the straight line. However, then, the vertical distance between it and the straight gets greater at a faster and faster pace, until it reaches the original ‘goal’ height much sooner (in practice hours / in time) than the straight line.
The process we’re advocating leads to confidence, a sense of security, a knowledge that you have what it takes to solve many pieces. Welcome to the C.E.O club – you’re now in charge!
On the verge of sounding new age (a possible effect of living too long in California after moving from Brooklyn): enjoy your brain, enjoy everything about how it works. Its capacities, its reluctancies, Its tempo. Its ability to see things in normal ways when it does so; its inability to see things normally. It’s hidden recesses. How it colors you understanding of things; its approach to learning things. The point here is not to improve your brain but to come to terms with it just as it is. Find its hidden resources. Don’t compare it with the brain of another individual; the differences can mask your uniqueness rather than have the latter stand in relief in your eyes.*
* After a hesitation, or a mistake you, and many others, consciously or unconsciously suddenly speed up. It is either an unconscious habit to compensate for the shame in your eyes of making a mistake in front of others, or to consciously catch up with the tempo – which has moved on notwithstanding. On the other hand, once something goes the way you want it to, don’t repeat repeat it and test it out for ‘consistency’ or ‘reliability’. This is an automatic habit with you (and again with many others). Leave it alone, move on to something else, and you will increase rather than decrease the probability that at the next session with the piece, when you arrive at the same passage, you will be at or close to the point you had gotten to in the last session when you did it the way you wanted, and then progress even further. Repetition to test consistency is for many a guarantee of returning to the state it was in before the improvement. We spend so much time trying to fight this effect.