Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Daily routine, with variety

This blog was started in May, the beginning of my summer practice season. Since I've only had one concert this summer, I've been using the season to set groundwork on a lot of new pieces. This has meant that my practice has been almost exclusively about establishing, as opposed to retaining, memory.

I'm nearing the end of this section of the blog ("In For the Long Haul"), so it might be
valuable for readers to see what I do on a daily basis while most of my practice is about establishing memory. Once the fall arrives, I'll still use most, if not all, of these techniques, but my relatively pure practice schedule will be muddied by the need to prepare for performances. If I haven't written it before, I'll write it now: I much prefer the learning process over the performing process! But more on that in subsequent chapters...

I begin my daily practice routine by writing down my goals for the day. This gives me a sense of what I'm going to do, of course, but it also helps me come up with a realistic time frame, and it keeps me from practicing with little regard for my own endurance. Breaks need to be scheduled!

Currently, my daily goals include several numeric indications:
  • a ratio-like marking, such as 15:10, indicating for me that I'll do 15 minutes of mental work and 10 at the instrument;
  • metronome markings, usually one for mental and one for instrumental work.
By creating daily goals, I can work toward creating variety in my practice. It's so easy to get stuck in a routine, and routines result in unproductive practice. I often find inspiration for variety by looking at my notes from the previous practice session. I can not stress enough the need to maintain thoughtful, varied practice, and establishing your daily goals is a very good way to do this.

I like to use a table for mental practice. I used to use the sofa, but my poor posture equaled poor results. My practice space also includes a music stand. The stand sits next to the instrument, and it's where my score sits when a piece is becoming really solid. This assures that my eyes aren't on any music, but it allows me to easily refer to the score if I get into trouble.

At the earliest stages of memory, I'm either working completely away from the instrument, or I'm dividing my time between mental and instrument work. I work by landmarks, as I've already written aboutIf you've attempted to interpret my online practice log, you might have seen that I like to jump around a lot with my landmarks. This is part of my drive for variety in practice. If I were to always start from the beginning, I wouldn't be developing a fully dimensional understanding of the piece.

One of my big summer challenges has been the third movement of Bach's D minor Concerto. It's quite long, and there's a lot of just-about-but-not-really-repeated material. That's very Bach! With this movement, I've had to take landmarks to the next level. Because so much of the musical material seems repeated, I've classified the landmarks into several categories:
  • those that resemble the first half of the ritornello;
  • those that resemble the second half of the ritornello;
  • those that follow a deceptive cadence;
  • completely original episodes.
Since I used letters for my landmarks, these groupings look like this:
  • A, D, [F, G], J, L, P, T
  • [B, C], E, O, P
  • H, M
  • [I, I1], [K, K1], [M, N, N1], [Q, R, S]
Earlier in my learning process, I would play each landmark up to four times, stopping when I felt that the landmark was minimally acceptable. I'd write that number down in my log with the goal of reducing that number over subsequent practice sessions. At this point, I've got all of the landmarks down pretty well, so I'm working towards differentiating each by grouping, thus creating a mental map of the movement. I'm also working towards playing the entire movement slowly with that map in mind.

My description of the Bach movement isn't really intended to be understood by you. It's there to show you some of the ways I use variety to keep my practice fresh as I march towards the goal of total memorization. 

One of the great challenges in the early stages of memorization is time. When starting a piece, a lot of time isn't required. You're working mentally, possibly at the instrument, but you can only do so much. But once the piece gets closer to total memorization, you need more time to think through and play through all of the landmarks. Fortunately, once a piece is totally memorized, the time window contracts, and you'll need less time. This reality may make you want to stagger your work so that everything isn't reaching maximum time at the same time. 

In my own summer routine, I've found myself needing more and more time for practice as many of my pieces have reached their maximum time at the same time. For this reason, I've now dropped a few pieces for the time being and also relaxed some of my goals for the season.