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Lee W. Kikuchi - Essay

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I wrote the following essay to help advanced students practice, and as a guide to any interested teachers.

November 1, 2003

 

 

 

 

 

How to Learn to Play Music Perfectly
(The 10 Processes)

The ability to play music at a performance level is not a mystery, nor magic, nor is it a secret talent you must be born with. Learning music to the level that you can play it virtually mistake-free in a concert or competition is a deliberate step-by-step process with all the work and details of building a house.

To build a house, you must dig a hole, pour concrete, build a foundation, build walls & floors, run utilities, apply plaster, install fixtures, trim out windows & doorways, paint, lay flooring, finish woodwork, carpet, install appliances, buy furniture and then finally appoint with personal touches & ornaments. You cannot cheat this process! No one can leap to the final step, nor skip any intervening step in order to get to the end more quickly. Every one must do everything in the proper order, or there is no house. When a lot of quality materials and effort are given to the early steps, the house will last for centuries. When the opposite is true, the house begins to crumble in a few short years.

The same is absolutely true for music. There are important learning and practicing processes every musician must go through to make a piece performable. The more attention and effort devoted to the earlier stages, the better and more lasting the final product. When we try to cheat or skip through these processes, we end up with an inferior product and one which does not stand the test of time.

Each of these building-block processes are described below, in the order they must be applied. Learn them thoroughly, and apply them arduously to all the music you ever learn, and in a few short years you will develop a spectacular repertoire of music you can play at a moment’s notice for yourself, friends and even in concert!

1) Familiarize yourself with the piece either by listen to it on recording or when someone else plays it, then play through the piece once to assess it for form, style and technically difficult parts or passages. As you play, make sure to notice which phrases or passages are technically difficult, or where you find that your fingers do not play the notes easily. This could be due to an awkward sequence of notes that needs a special fingering, or due to the need to learn new technique, or because you do not yet fully understand the harmony or form. If necessary, stop playing and mark them for later work. After you have played through once, play through again while thinking through each phrase carefully to see if you need to learn a new technique, or to practice them in a special way so you can execute them within the piece’s overall style. For example, a scale may be easy to play forte and legato, but maybe you have to do something special to play it piano and staccato.

2) Analyze the piece thoroughly for form, style, phrasing and harmonies. If you are taking lessons, most likely each piece you learn exemplifies a style you have not yet learned, and your teacher will explain it thoroughly for you. Pieces from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods can differ greatly in so many ways – from how the articulations are executed to what elements of expression should be employed. As you learn the piece, think through the elements of style which apply to this particular piece, and mark them carefully into the music: phrasing, tempos, expression, etc. Mark the measures that begin sections or subsections of the form. Notate the harmonies which are not apparent or obvious, e.g. the oblique keys in a development section, atonal chords, colorful or expressionistic uses of harmony, etc. Does this piece have harmonies, notations, phrasing or other elements that are new to you? Do you fully understand the Sonata form, the Minuet-Trio and the Rondo? (90% of all classical music falls into one of these three categories.) Does the piece seem to have elements that deviate or vary from the standard form? Investigate them from a musicological approach and notate your music accordingly.

3) Work out the fingering and write it directly into the music. Apply standard techniques for ensuring the fingers can hit correct notes when playing the passages up to speed. Fingerings should always be designed which avoid clumsy motions and/or limit hand fatigue in music of high virtuosity. Do not write in finger numbers for every note! Just write the ones which you need to remember. Favor fingerings that follow the standards for chords, arpeggios and scales. If these turn out to be clumsy, apply the alternate and advanced fingering techniques. Remember, the only way to play a piece mistake free is to play it the same way every time! Also, while you are working out the fingering, start planning the specific finger, wrist and arm motions needed to effect the correct articulation and phrasing of the music. Before you learn a piece you must have every possible motion you plan to make fully worked out, just as a dancer choreographs a dance in detail before actually learning all the steps. It is many times more difficult to superimpose hand motions after notes have been learned, than it is to learn both the notes and hand motions at the same time. Plus, you will need to know exactly how you plan to move your hand in order to make wise decisions about fingering. If necessary, mark the motions in the music using arrows and curved lines. While you are learning the piece, if you find that something does not work, think it through again and develop a new fingering that does work and that works every time you play it. Always try to do this before you fully learn the piece, but if after you have learned the piece, you do find that a fingering no longer works (esp. at faster speeds) you may have to change it. But if you do, make sure that the change is absolutely necessary, that the new fingering is actually better, and be sure to practice it carefully because at this point you are relearning that part of the music. Note: These steps can be done in conjunction with number 4 below.

4) Memorize the music a measure at a time, working backwards. Start at the last measure of a major section or long passage. Keep learning the notes measure by measure backwards until you reach the beginning, or the previous section you have already learned. If one measure is too much to memorize – due to number of notes or complicated finger patters – then work one beat, or one note at a time. Play the new measure very slowly and deliberately, making very sure you are using the correct fingering, and playing the correct notes. Exaggerate the finger, wrist and arm motions you have planned to effect the correct articulations and phrasings of the music. Watch your hands and arms, to make sure that your motions are exact, concise, and free from extraneous actions. It is very important that you learn the finger, wrist and arm motions in conjunction with the notes. After you have played through the new material once or twice by looking at the music, close your eyes, close the book, or do something to make sure you are not looking at the music, and play it again from memory. If you make a mistake or are unsure – look at the music again – but before playing close your eyes again. Do this over and over until the new material is very firmly engraved in your memory. Then play the music starting at the new measure and proceeding through the measures you already know. If you make mistakes, look at the music to identify them - but do not play while looking! Then, replay that part without looking at the music. Only once you can play these few measures through without mistakes do you proceed to learn/memorize another measure. The reason why working backwards is so effective is that you are actually always moving toward familiar territory instead of away from it. When you have learned 20 measures, and you are playing through them from the first to the 20th, each measure you come to will be easier than the one before.

5) Establish the connections between passages or sections. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a piece of music is only as strong as the continuity between its phrases and sections. If you hesitate, or make mistakes whenever you begin a new section, the piece is not cohesive. The audience will know this, and you will know this - which compounds the problem by creating insecurities in your mind that only lead to even more errors in performance. To eliminate this vicious problem, preserve your confidence and build the piece’s cohesion, work through each of these connecting passages carefully: play the last measure of one passage, then the first measure(s) of the next, concentrating clearly and strongly on the transition and the physical actions needed to ensure that the connection is seamless. Continue practicing by starting at an earlier and earlier measure, and continuing through to a later and later measure, until finally the two passages can be played seamlessly together in their entirety. If the transition also calls for tempo change, or a change in character, be sure to plan that carefully and exactly as well. Each time you play the transition, there should never be a hesitation or doubt of exactly what the change is. Work through all the seams of your music until the piece takes shape as single work of music.

6) Practice technically difficult passages until they can be played flawlessly. Every piece has one or more passages that are written to be “flashy”. These technically demanding sections must always be learned separately and very carefully. Use all the standard techniques for breaking down the music: hands separate, grouping/breaking chords, dotted rhythms, playing slowly, using a metronome to increase velocity incrementally, etc. In these sections it is especially important to analyze the motions your fingers, wrists, and arms make between notes and phrases, and to design deliberate motions to ensure that your hands and fingers are always in right place to play the next note. Remember that on the piano EVERYTHING takes place in the motions BETWEEN notes, because once the note is played the only thing left to do is lift the finger and stop the sound! Practice everything in slow motion (with great exaggeration) before trying to play faster. Evaluate what you do to ensure you do not have extraneous motions, and that your actions are the most efficient for the technique. Often a passage will require a technique that is unfamiliar to you. While a student, your teacher will present these new techniques in a lesson, and give you clear guidance in how to learn them. If you are no longer studying regularly, you may have to seek out occasional coaching sessions with an advanced teacher. But ultimately, if neither of the above are possible, you will have to work it out on your own. This requires slow and intense thinking through of the technique: try different things, be creative, refer to technique books to find examples that seem similar, ask a friend or colleague, etc.

7) Practice to ensure seamless, consistent and accurate playing, and the elimination of memory lapses. A memory lapse is anytime your mind forgets notes, or articulations, and also whenever your mind wanders in the middle of a piece. You can think of it as white spots or fuzzy places in a picture, where the viewer cannot see the image clearly. The goal is to have no spots or fuzzy parts of the music in your mind. The ability to focus continually from start to finish, remembering everything you know about the piece with every motion your fingers make, is a difficult one to develop, and is essential for all music making. Starting from the earliest lessons, when pieces are shorter and easier, is the best way to begin developing this important skill. Applying it arduously for the rest of your life will reap unbelievable rewards in ways you cannot imagine, even if you never become a professional musician. This is how you do it: first, play an entire section in constant tempo to identify where you make mistakes: wrong finger, slips, hesitations, wrong notes, etc. A metronome is in a excellent tool for pointing out such mistakes. Then, work on each of those spots specifically and carefully, using the standard techniques: playing slowly with a metronome, play a phrase stopping at the note just following the mistake, breaking down the phrase into smaller and smaller groupings of notes, breaking down rhythms, grouping phrases or parts by chord structure or finger pattern, using dotted rhythms, etc. Once worked on, replay the section again in constant tempo. If the same mistakes persist, or new ones appear, repeat the break down steps again. If you find you reach a point that you are not improving, stop working on it for now, and continue another day. This process is the longest one, and it can take days or months to get through, so maintain your patience and persevere. Do not give into temptations of quitting, or accepting a less than perfect result. Never play through music without a clear and specific goal for what you want to accomplish, and never repeat music when you keep making the same mistakes! The more often you play the same mistake, the more you commit that mistake to your memory instead of the correct music - and this is the kiss of death for learning any music to a performance level!

8) Establish the piece’s overall character and performance presentation. At this point you are able to play the piece in its entirety with all phrasing, style, and notes in place, with only the rarest of mistakes or memory lapses. Now, you must establish the piece’s overall presentation: 1) permanently ingrain in yourself the tempo(s) of the piece so that you begin it correctly each time you play it, and you can transition to the new tempos correctly throughout the piece, 2) create a clear picture or image in your mind of the overall shape of the piece from start to finish: dynamics, colors, etc. and make sure it is so ingrained that you never forget it, 3) know for yourself exactly what you are communicating to your audience: mood, emotions, character, story line, etc. , and 4) know for yourself which places require special care and foresight so that you never accidentally stumble into them and hence play them incorrectly. Whenever you sit down to work on the piece, always do so in one of two modes: A) to work only on the problematic sections, or B) to play the piece in its entirety. When playing the piece through, always play it with the FULL intent and concentration of a performance for an audience or competition, keeping all of the above in mind, focusing with the greatest concentration so that you never lose your place or fall into the trap of “just playing through” without purpose. If you identify problems, never stop to fix them - save that work for later or another day. Do not let them get to you. Just continue playing the piece to the very end, and keep yourself in character. Performing music is exactly like acting in a play - if an actor forgets or flubs a line, he must keep going and he must stay in character. Usually, only a few people ever notice even the most glaring of mistakes, and with any hope, the mistake is small enough that no one will even notice it -- except you!

9) Nothing is ever perfect, and can always be improved. Even after you perform a piece, there will always be elements you will wish to improve. Maybe under the stress of performance you discover a phrase or passage that was weaker than you thought, and must be strengthened before your next performance. Maybe some difficult passages are still problematic. Maybe you still have occasional memory lapses. Maybe your technique is not yet capable of the extreme pianos, legatos, staccatos, rapid notes, endurance, or other special executions required. You may not perform the piece again for many years, or you may be scheduled for another recital or audition very soon. Or, it may simply take several years before either your technique or maturity advance enough to impact very significantly on the piece. Whatever the situation, you will want to work continuously on improving those elements in your playing until the next time you plan to perform it. Work on some passages separately applying the above techniques. Create a “keep it in the fingers” routine that you can use regularly without playing through the whole piece, so that you do not lose the technique or character of the piece. For example, in one piece you may play through certain difficult passages slowly one time, then up to speed one time at least once weekly, which can take just a few minutes, rather than playing the whole piece. Of course, at least on occasion, you should play through the entire piece as if giving a public performance, just to keep it all in your mind. When you are young, it may seem impossible, but eventually the music you learn will be so much a part of you that with just a minimum of effort, you will always be able to play it at public performance level.

10) Reviving old music. Whether you become a professional musician, or just play for your own enjoyment - having discontinued piano lessons sometime in high school - you will someday want to play music that you learned years ago. If enough time lapses, you may find you have forgotten a lot, and might have to start from scratch, working through every one of the above processes as if you never learned the piece. Of course, each step will be easier and quicker than when you first learned it, and of course the piece will seem much easier to you over all. This is because you are more mature, and capable of a deeper and more meaningful understanding of music. Hence your performance of the piece will reflect this maturity. Maybe you will be content just to play the piece for your own enjoyment using music without re-establishing the memorization, or maybe you want to perform it somewhere from memory (party or concert) which will require some serious work. At this stage of the game, you can do whatever you want or need to, depending on the goals and expectations you set for yourself, and not those of anyone else. When you find yourself in this position, which was only made possible because of the hard work you devoted to learning this difficult process so well while you were younger, then you will be forever thankful for your amazing ability to make and enjoy music, which will reward you for the rest of your life.

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