I have always had a sneaking suspicion that I might need a twelve step program for new music. I didn’t think that it would turn up in the form of a practice plan. Alas, here we are. When I think about practicing, my brain races to images of me in elementary school sleepily practicing piano before school (there were also years in which my piano lessons happened before the first bell) because it was the only time to fit it into my schedule. Contrasted with that image are other memories of getting the luxury of “the big practice room” in my undergrad music building. I got that luxury because I was literally the only one in the building that late at night.
The more that I thought about this, I realized that practicing has always been a battle between myself and the clock. Like some weird, real-life game show, I am competing against time to see if I can learn all of the notes, rhythms, phrasing, dynamics, and physical gestures before the deadline of performance. With school, jobs, and other responsibilities that come up in the course of life, I had gotten better at “beating the clock” by becoming more efficient at my practice steps.
But then, my voice teacher said, “Do you ever just practice something because you’re curious about it? Or, want to play with some music just for fun?” The question stunned me. I had so many things on my plate. How could I practice things for fun?” The fun was in accomplishing goals, right? The fun was in being incredibly efficient. Right? Those questions lingered and would barge into my thought process more regularly as time went on. I kept wondering, “Where was the joy?”
If the adage “how you do one thing is how you do everything” holds true, then I was bringing a lot of stress and imposter syndrome to the table before I even got to my music-making. A career or lifetime of feeling, “I should have practiced this more” is not my overarching goal. I needed (and still need) to make some changes about my personal practice. I want to make sure that I’m enjoying the exploratory process of practicing. This post is about how to get terrifically efficient at practicing but in an effort to experience practicing with more joy. I know how to learn music. This is about how the process of practicing heightens my overall life experience.
How to Practice New Music in 12 Steps – Part I
1. Check the Score
First things first: figure out logistics. Looking at a new score, I am doing a glance for the roadmap of the piece. Knowing the roadmap means looking for things like repeats or a da capo. Then, it means, looking at things like range and tessitura. My eyes continue to scan for rit, rallentando, fermata, luftpause or caesura, meter changes, dynamic range, and more.
To be completely honest, one of the very first things I do is look at the text. I am a text-motivated person. I look for whatever connection points I have with this particular text. I’m asking, “what does this text mean for me?” This doesn’t mean that I don’t or won’t sing pieces without text. It is simply one of the first things that compels me.
Then, I’m also looking for anything unusual. Does this piece require any other equipment or instruments? I’m going to have to start sourcing other instruments, props, and equipment early in the process so it is important to know that information right away. Perhaps there is an acting or dancing component required for the piece? That will factor into how and where I practice the piece.
Does this piece utilize non-standard notation? I will need to absorb those cues into my working knowledge. Those non-standard representational images have to become part of my own musical language. Like when learning any language or code, there is a portion of time in which your mind is consistently translating the information of that representational image into your conscious understanding and application. Over time, that process becomes more streamlined until your eye perceives the image and understands the message without the translation. That is basically the process with all of our music literacy. If I find that my brain isn’t consistently recognizing certain cues in the printed music, it is important to put that specific element into my practice plans until I instinctively perceive it in all music. For example, if a conductor mentions that I missed a dynamic change, or a ritard, or a rhythmic figure, then I add that as a category to the practice plan for a while until it becomes instinct rather than direction.
2. Analyze the Form
When I’m working with my younger students, we do not always talk about forms in the most formal language. As their experience increases, we make sure that we’re able to identify and apply as many of our vocabulary terms as we can. However, no matter your familiarity with the technical terms, your responsibility is to figure out your role in this musical work. Are you the soloist? Is you line always the solo line? Do you ever function as accompaniment? How? How will you apply that knowledge to your technical production? Do you highlight any specific musical element? Do you align with another vocal or instrumental line? When do you trade rhythms or have a constant rhythm? Does this piece allow for rubato? Will it be your responsibility to take control or follow?
These are the very beginnings of our score study ritual. Maybe it fills your heart with joy to mark up your scores in colored pencil. Or, you know how great it will feel to lock in those parallel intervals with your ensemble colleague in the first rehearsal, so you’re practicing for that future joy. One of the most enjoyable aspects for musicians is recognizing how all the parts and pieces of music comes together in rehearsal and performance. Analyzing it from the get-go is one of the ways to enhance that experience.
3. Complete Play-Through at Tempo
Consider this your wandelprobe for your practice time. I’ve also heard people call this “the hack-through.” That sounds a little agro for me. The point of this is to get a sense for the kinesthetic feeling of overall form and emotional content. We’ve already done the visual read-through to check out the logistics, look for non-traditional content, and analyze the form. This is going to give us that bodily feeling and awareness of our practice priorities.
After you do your read through (or while you’re doing it if you like that better), break down the work into practice sections. Yes, the score may already be marked with rehearsal letters or numbers. This is about parsing out those practice priorities. After I do the initial read-through, I make a note of what needs more practice time. Whenever I open those practice scores, I know exactly where to get started to make the most progress.
I make a special point of marking musical transitions for their own practice focus. Transitions are a big memorization danger zone. Lots of singers have had that experience of flying along, smooth sailing, only to finish that section and come up blank with what happens next. Save yourself the heartache and practice those transitions!
There’s Always More
I know, I know, that’s only three steps of the plan so far! Here we are with an apt metaphor for being in the practice studio: it’s about getting started on the plan, setting some goals/intentions, working toward them, being able to stop in the middle of working, come back to it at another time, and pick up where you left off without losing the work you’ve already done. I’ve got more practice plan goodness coming up next week. I hope you’ll join me then.
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