Mountain Climbing and Wild Horses.....Maintaining a Piece Darlene Irwin June 02, 2014
Maintaining a piece for performance is a lot like mountain climbing.....I tell my students this all the time.
It's also very much like trying to tame a wild horse!!
This is the time of year when students are busy preparing for exams or recitals. They work very hard to learn and memorize a piece and get it up to tempo. However, sometimes students struggle with keeping that piece at performance level. The faster the speed of the piece, the harder this is. And so we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses.....
Having the piece ready to go is like finally making it to the top of the mountain. But what happens then? If you are not very careful, that piece will start to slide down the other side of the mountain! Jelly Fingers will set in!! You need to get out the musical ropes and pull that piece back up to the top of the mountain.
What are the ropes, you ask? Why, the metronome, of course!
So what does all of this have to do with wild horses? If a student practices a piece over and over again at a fast pace, that piece can turn into what I call a 'wild horse'. We talk about that horse galloping across the field, totally out of control! What we need are reins so that we can get that horse under control.
And what do the reins represent? You guessed it.....the metronome!
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
The metronome should be your best friend. I encourage my students to name their metronome.....I call mine George V!! I've gone through a few metronomes in my time!
George V is a much more sophisticated model than his predecessors. I LOVE this version (Korg KDM-2). I especially love the middle button on top. I can tap along with a student and know exactly what speed they are playing. I can also tap the exact speed that I would like for a piece and it will tell me instantly what that speed is. And unlike a traditional metronome, it goes up to 256 (which I actually used this week with a student!)
This past January, I had 3 students do Royal Conservatory of Music exams.....two Grade 7's and one Grade 8. All of them did quite well.....one received First Class Honours and the other two First Class Honours with Distinction. I also had two Grade 10 students audition for University and College programs. This June, I have students doing exams for Grade 1, two Grade 4's and Grade 5. For each student, the challenge is the same....how to maintain the faster pieces.
Here are some effective ideas that I have used with my students:
- Preparing to maintain a piece starts on the very first day the piece is introduced. I work with the student to divide the piece into logical sections, according to phrases and form. (I will talk more about this in a future blog post). I label these sections with capital letters and circle the letters. If there are more than 26 sections, we use double letters. I also have the students figure out the basic key signature of each section, making special note of sections that modulate to a different key. If the piece is in a certain form, then we label these sections as well. i.e. Exposition, Development & Recapitulation.
- Draw a box around any tricky areas that needs extra practice and label these as Box #1, Box #2 etc. These should be practiced separately until they are fluent.
- Learn the piece in small sections, using the metronome as soon as possible. Consistent metronome practice helps to keep the piece in control. Learn it correctly the first time....it's so much easier than having to fix things later. Of course the rhythm and notes are important. However, also pay special attention to all the details such as fingering, articulation, phrases, rests and dynamics. Learn one section at a time. You can add more sections once you have mastered the first one.
- Once the piece has been learned correctly, then you can memorize it in small sections, preferably hands separately. Be able to start playing at any section. This gives you safety nets all the way through the piece. You can also compare sections to see which ones are the same and which ones are different.
- My students love to play the musical card game. I have a set of file cards with letters which correspond to the sections in their piece. I shuffle the cards and hold them up, one at a time. They love playing the mixed up version of their piece!! For an extra challenge, ask for the left hand only!!
- Always have a maintenance speed and work at the slow speed several times before attempting allowing yourself to it up to speed. Four times slow and once fast works well! Exaggerate the arm motions at the slow speed.Be very careful not to over practice at the fast speed.
- Remember....Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
- Putting a song on a shelf is a good strategy for maintaining a song. I actually draw a little shelf on the student's lesson page in The Student Music Organizer. I put it right underneath the lesson practice chart. Putting a piece on a shelf means that we leave the piece and don't play it for a while. This can also be called plateau learning. Then, when we revisit the piece, we can take it to the next level!
- Table practice is a good way to maintain finger strength and articulation. Play the piece away from the piano on a flat surface. It helps to play with a little 'bite' in the ends of the fingers, using correct arm motion.
- Another valuable technique is to "mind play" your piece. Find a quiet place away from the piano. Read the score as you would a book, while you 'listen' to the music and imagine yourself playing the notes. Observe and make note of all articulation and dynamics. This can also be done in sections. It is also a great way to reinforce memory.
One of my students is working on a piece called Intrada by Graupner. It is her Baroque piece (List A) and she is doing it for a Grade 5 exam later on this month. Click to see how I divided it into sections and prepared it for her to learn. It is now memorized hands separately in sections. She played it for me at her lesson last week and it was quite good...just about ready to go. But she doesn't play her exam for a few weeks. So we go into maintenance mode and we talk about mountain climbing and wild horses!!
Here are a few of the pieces that my students have maintained or are continuing to maintain for exams, auditions and recitals this year.
- Prelude & Fugue in E+ (Bach) Grade 10
- Prelude in c#- (Rachmaninoff)
- Sonata in C+ K330 1st movement (Mozart) Grade 9
- Etude in c- Op.29 #7 (Bertini) Grade 7
- Suite #8 in G+ HWV 441 IV: Aria (Handel) Grade 7
- Sonatina in C+ Op. 55 #31st Movement (Kuhlau) Grade 7
- Sonatina in C+ Op. 36 #3 1st Movement (Clementi) Grade 7
- Suite #1 in D+ VIII: Gigue (Krebs) Grade 7
- Wound Up (Norton) Grade 7
- Intrada in C+ (Graupner) Grade 5
- March of the Terrible Trolls (Niamath) Grade 1
You need to control the music....you can't let the music control you!!
Slow practice is really fast practice in slow motion!
♥︎ Great Music Comes From the Heart ♥︎
Photo credits: "Wild Horses" by firelizard5
"Moraine Lake" by Darlene Irwin