It's that time of year again. Students are preparing for Regionals, County Honor groups, All State, etc. Nutcracker is in full swing. A lot of us are preparing music for the upcoming year. I know I'm preparing a recital of my own, plus performances at the Meg Quigley symposium and (potentially) IDRS. So, naturally, practice habits and techniques have been top of mind for me in a very big way.
For years, I've been telling students the things I was told when I was their age: "Practice this part slowly. Don't move on until you get it. Isolate the problem areas." This got me to thinking about the way in which I practice. And when I connected my practice habits with my instruction, I noticed the ineffectiveness I was engraining in my students.
The first time I told one of my students not to practice slowly, she looked at me like I was crazy. "But, my band teacher always says to play things slowly." My response to her was that slow practice is a great tool to have and I use it occasionally. But, I find it more effective, particularly for situations involving high stress (e.g., auditions, recitals, etc) to practice in alternative ways. I heard her concerns echoed amongst the majority of my students. But, when they actually applied my practice strategies to their etudes, scales, excerpts, and the like, there was marked improvement. Many of my students made improvements on sections they had struggled with for weeks and months. I wasn't such a crazy teacher after they realized they had improved.
The Lego Approach
Practicing is like building with LEGO bricks. The finished product is a sum of its parts. So, why not practice like that? My favorite way to practice is to strip the passage or phrase down to a base level and then slowly build from there. However, I always keep the metronome at the tempo I want to perform at. My justification for this is that, when playing at the intended tempo and not slower, you develop the appropriate muscle memory. It is true that slow practice also develops muscle memory. I find, though, that slow practice develops slow muscle memory. That is why many of my students (and myself included when I was younger) can play something great 10-20 metronome markings under tempo, but struggle when the tempo is brought up. They are playing the whole phrase under tempo and, thus, developing muscle memory associated with that tempo and that tempo only.
Let's apply this to an excerpt I recently coached a student on for college auditions:
The first phrase of the Overture to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. One of those excerpts that must always been in my ready-to-go pile. So this student had been struggling with the tempo (obviously) and getting everything to connect seamlessly in order to match the celli. He slowed the whole thing down to about half speed and could play it well...until he brought the tempo back up. So, this is what we did to mitigate the difference in tempo and increase the effectiveness of his practice time.
First, strip the passage down to the barest bones. In the case of Figaro, it is the downbeat of every measure.
This is very easy to play in tempo and the success rate is 100% all of the time. Doing it this way also reinforces where the articulation is to be placed. Many students (and professionals) roll their eyes at this point because this is so easy. But that's kind of the point. Make the thing so easy you knock a lot of the psychological blocks which prevent you from playing the excerpt correctly in the first place.
PHASE TWO (A CROSSROADS)
Once you start to add more elements to a passage or excerpt, you need to be judicious about how to do it. I take two basic approaches. The first being to add thing to the end of the bar, then the front, and so on until you've built the entire thing back to together to the middle. The other being to add things sequentially until you've built the passage up front to back. For the Figaro excerpt, I add things from the back of the measure, back and forth, until I reach the middle. This creates connection between each measure, rather than having each measure be isolated. One thing to mention about this: articulation in the initial stages becomes a bit ambiguous until you get to a point where you can reintroduce articulations. For Figaro, the first couple of stages require the slurs to be eradicated. We add them back in later, but that is one slight pitfall depending on the excerpt.
So, by this method, step 2 would look like this--again, still at performance tempo:
From here, you simply add notes back to the measures. I strive to for myself (and my more advanced students) to add consistently, meaning add the same thing to each measure at performance tempo. Here's an example of what I mean:
And so on and so forth until you've pieced the whole thing back together. All at performance tempo.