Breaking down practice

To follow up on my last blog post, Practicing: run-throughs vs. small chunks, here are some ways to break down your practice to get more work done in less time. I’ve chosen an example from the Rubank Elementary Method for Flute, but these ideas apply to all music at all levels of difficulty.

Copyright by Rubank, Inc.

First things first: Check out the key signature and time signature. In this case, we’re in the key of G Major, so we have an F-sharp. (No B-flats here!) We’re in common time. These seem easy, right? It’s still important to take a look at these before starting, so you don’t play a B-flat in the first measure.

Next: Just scan the piece. What do you notice? I see three sections, which are offset by double bar lines. The first line of the piece is the first section. The second section includes the second line and one measure of the third line. The third section picks in the second measure of the third line and continues to the end of this example. It looks like the first section and the third section are quite similar. Why does that matter? Well, if you learn the first line, this means that you’ve also learned the majority of the last line. Now that’s pretty efficient!
Take special notice of how the two lines differ; there are only two notes that aren’t the same between those two lines.

What about the second section? How is this one different from the others? Well, the notes are faster. Instead of half notes and quarter notes, we primarily see quarter notes and eighth notes. Make sure you choose a tempo at the beginning that will allow you to play both the half notes as well as these later eighth notes comfortably. It’s no fun to pick a tempo that works well for the begining and then causes you to stumble when you later reach faster notes.

Other things to notice: What are the first three notes of this example? Right – it’s a G Major arpeggio. (Yes, this is why we have to learn scales and arpeggios!) If you’ve been practicing scales and arpeggios, your fingers will already know what to do at the beginning of this example. What happens after the arpeggio? We basically have notes taken from the G Major scale. We ascend to an E, and then descend stepwise to G and then go up a few notes to end on B. If you know your G Major scale, this is very easy. Look at the rest of the example to find areas that move stepwise and places where the line might be arpeggiated. If you have trouble with those jumps, mark them with a bracket to help you anticipate them.

Some final thoughts:

– There are no dynamics notated in this example. Otherwise, you would want to do a quick scan of the music to help you plan its dynamic shape.
– The form of music is made through repetition and contrast. Our ears crave both of these things. We like familiarity (the repetition), but we also get bored and require new sounds (the contrast). Realizing this concept will help you in your practice because you will find that lots of musical ideas are repeated throughout a piece, whether it’s from Rubank or a complex sonata. Instead of having to approach the entire piece like it is made up of new and completely different sections of music, you only have to learn it once and then apply those ideas the next time that section is encountered.
– After you’ve become acquainted with the example, you will want to introduce the metronome to your practice. This is just a quick look at how to start approaching a piece, so I haven’t included any metronome tips here.

What else do you notice about this example?