Edit 06/13/16 1:20 PM: Added #7, now 8 total
There are endless ways to practice a piece and they all depend on your own playing style and learning strengths. But if you hit a wall, it’s useful to have a repertoire of practice tricks. The following are some tips I’ve picked up in lessons that can help you sort out passages you stumble on. I learned these methods on the flute playing classical music, but the processes that make them work can be translated to almost instrument or style.
Before you try these, try playing through the piece and circling sections that need extra help. Good organization is the best way to make sure you don’t get tired, bored, or overwhelmed too early.
1. Start from the end, and move backwards.
This is always the first one I try when I’m tripping up. It can work on a whole piece, or just a difficult section. Just start on the last note of the section and move back one by one. You can probably play the last note already, but try it anyway. It helps to start on something that feels good. Play the second-to-last note, and the last note. Play the note before that, the second-to-last note, and the last note. Keep adding the note before it and never add a note until you’ve completely mastered the strand you’re working on. Try looping it. Play it until you can’t play it wrong. Or, if you’re rolling your eyes at that cliché, just make sure you can play it comfortably three times in a row. You can reset at phrases as long as you play through the phrase breaks periodically to make sure you’re not getting stuck on transitions.
This method is useful for long passages where your fingers aren’t moving fast enough. The goal is to facilitate transitions and build up muscle memory. If you do it thoroughly, you should only have to think about two notes at once, and you have plenty of time to prepare because they’re always the first two notes you play. In translation, I’ve found it’s also useful in figuring out quick guitar riffs that are too much to remember for the first time from start to finish. If you’re playing along, it’s always easier to jump back in than it is to struggle to keep up.
This is also a good method for when you don’t know where to start. You will encounter more specific problems pretty early on as you start moving back.
(George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, score for concert band by Ferde Grofé)
If you’re stuck on one specific transition, do it back and forth slowly, and then with increasing speed until you’re used to the change.
This is useful for the same reason as the last technique, but has a less linear application, and sometimes doing the transition backwards helps your brain connect which fingers should move, and which should stay put.
3. Understand what you’re playing.
(C. P. E. Bach, Sonata in a minor for solo flute, Wq 132 (H 562), 2. Allegro)
Most classical music is made up of blocks that you’re actually already used to playing. If something surprises you or seems out of place, figure out why it’s there. The most obvious blocks are scales in a temporary key that you might not have recognized, and arpeggiated or inverted chords.
Analyzing the piece makes you better at playing it because you can anticipate sections that might have otherwise surprised you, and more importantly, a major scale suddenly feels a lot less foreign than a bunch of accidentals in a row.
4. Play the skeleton.
(G. F. Händel, Flauto Traverso Sonata No. 1, 2. Allegro)
Some sections have a very clear pattern you can recognize, but still have a hard time playing. In these cases, you can pick out key notes in the structure and add the other notes to fill it in as you get more comfortable. You don’t have to know theory to pick out the right notes. If it’s not obvious to you which ones they are, try a different method until you know what it should sound like. Always attack each note on the proper beat so you keep rhythms intact, and you don’t have to reinvent the phrase every time you add something.
This method will often leave you with the first and last notes of quick phrases, especially if you’re having trouble with wide leaps. This is also useful for connecting a melody around pedal tones that get disruptive if they’re not played fluidly. When sight reading, I almost always remove the grace notes the first time around.
5. Shift the beat.
Sometimes we get a little too caught up in how we think things should sound. Our muscle memories won’t let us play what’s on the page because our heads get in the way. When this happens, try shifting the section one beat (or half a beat, or a sixteenth, etc.) at a time. Shift it one more. Keep moving it until you’ve come full circle.
By erasing the context, you can make sure you really have every note down in an unbiased way. When you finally play it again, the “right way”, not only will you have all the framework ready to apply the proper stresses and nuances, but it’ll feel really good to finally hear it as it was intended. This practice can also help eliminate tempo issues like lingering on one beat or rushing through another.
6. Take a breather.
(C. P. E. Bach, Sonata in a minor for solo flute, Wq 132 (H 562), 1. Poco Adagio)
Literally, you might want to just take a breath before committing to a something you’ve built a bad habit on. There are breath marks written in all over my sheet music before middle-range Es, because I tend to leave my first finger down (technically, only correct for the E an octave down). Write a breath cue anywhere you know you’re likely to make a mindless mistake so that when you get to it, you can stop yourself, check in, and be sure to get it right.
You won’t always have someone to point out your absent-minded mistakes (or maybe you don’t have someone to do that at all). The best way to catch it yourself is to confront it in a systemized way. Only use this method on habits you have across all your playing. If the trip up is specific to the piece you’re playing, that’s a sign that something else is wrong, and stopping every time before you play it will just become another bad habit that will hinder the flow of the music.
7. Read ahead.
Try to keep your eyes trained at least one or two notes before the ones you’re playing. This can be tough, but when you get used to it, it’s a great habit to have.
Reading ahead is good for sections you know you can play, but tend to stumble over a little. It sounds like a lot of work, mentally, but if you read music fluently, it actually feels very natural. If you’re practicing with someone, have them trace the music you want to be reading with their finger.
8. Rewrite it.
Nobody’s perfect. There’s no limit to the number of editions and revisions a piece can go through before even reaching a performer on paper. If there’s something you really can’t get past, something you don’t feel is worth it to take personally, just put something else in that feels better. This can be an exercise in creativity, and while it’s frustrating to accept defeat, you can actually gain a lot from using the critical thinking and gut instinct it takes to improve a piece of music and make it your own.
Keeping a list of tools for practice is the best way to stay sane when tackling a difficult piece of music. Hopefully, it’ll also help you learn your strengths and weaknesses by really confronting the music that gives you a hard time and discovering what makes it easier for you. If you have any tools you like to use that I have mentioned, please feel free to leave them in the comments! I’ll add more as I think of them, too. Good luck! Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent, so practice mindfully!