Strategies for Music Learning
"If you practice, you get better.
You have a new piece of music to prepare. Where should you begin? It is important to realize that proper fundamentals are a pre-requisite to efficient music learning. When challenged with a new piece of music students are often consumed with fingerings and rhythms at the expense of fundamentals. But if you are not breathing effectively it hardly matters which valve combination is being used. That notwithstanding, efficient music learning can be broken down into three simple steps: 1) The Basics: Pitches and Rhythm, 2) Survival: Time and Air, and 3) Music Making: Expressive Devices, Terminology, and Style.
Learning pitches and rhythm is the most frequent starting point when practicing a new piece of literature. When working on the basics, slow practice is a must! Once the tempo is adequately reduced, deconstruct the music to focus on specific variables that are of concern. If a passage is in an uncomfortable octave transpose it up or down as needed. If the rhythm is difficult clap it, play it on one note, write the rhythms below, or draw lines above the strong beats. If the fingerings are challenging, practice them alone with a metronome. The rhythm of the valves should resemble the music. If the pitches are challenging, first start by playing them on a piano. Then sing the pitches and buzz them on your mouthpiece. Once this is mastered, play it on your instrument. If you can hear a phrase, you most likely are able to play it. If the articulations are difficult, practice saying them on your preferred syllable such as “toh” or “doh.” Try “wind patterning” first away from the horn, then through the instrument without valves, and then add the valves. Eliminate the tongue all together and practice a passage slurred. Start by listing the skills necessary to master a passage, conquer them one by one, and then assimilate these elements into the piece.
Once a phrase is successfully learned, repetition is important for retention. Typically three successful repetitions at a particular tempo are sufficient to increase the speed gradually. From there, phrases can be expanded into sections by chunking them together. As you continue to learn the piece do not always start from the beginning. Make sure every measure is equally polished and to give special attention to the more tricky spots. This can be accomplished by working backwards section by section.
The next step in successfully learning a piece of music is Survival: Time and Air. A metronome is vital even beyond the preliminary stages of practice since it can become habit to add time when breathing. The breath must be taken from then end of a note so that subsequent notes may begin on time. In addition, all of these breaths must be planned, marked in the part, and practiced. The purpose is two fold: not only must the musician survive the phrase with a characteristic tone, but the breath must be taken in a location that is musically tasteful. Lack of breath support causes more errors than any other factor. Therefore eliminating this variable will reduce mistakes.
"The worst thing you can do with dynamics is nothing." Roger Bobo
Lastly, we will discuss Music Making: Expressive Devices, Terminology, and Style. I must first give credit to Dr. Skip Gray for sharing these concepts with me. We have three basic devices for expression on our instruments, the modification of dynamics, time, and articulation. Music can be given character and excitement through the use of crescendo and decrescendo, acceleration and rallentando, and by manipulating the attack and length of a note. These tools should be used to capture and communicate the spirit of the music and tell its story. All musical moments are not all created equal, thus the largest of gestures should be saved for the most significant moments. The musician should strive to create contrast with nuance, grandiose gestures, and everything in between.
The ability to demonstrate musical expression is one that must also be developed over time. In constructing a musical plan start by playing the ink in regards to all of the expressive markings and terminology. Should a term find its way into your music that you do not know, look it up. Don’t forget, you probably have a computer in your pocket! When in doubt, Google unfamiliar terminology! Next, analyze the theoretical syntax as a means to determine where important moments exist. These occasions are often framed by a tension and release which must be communicated to an audience. This can occur on a small scale, such as cadences within a phrase. Tension and release also occurs on a large scale, most often through the departure, manipulation, and triumphant return of the primary tonal and thematic material. It is crucial to listen to other musicians in order to emulate these techniques and to absorb its characteristic style. Often musical expression can be trial and error, but when that moment of genius strikes, mark your music and make a plan! Finally, be sure to exaggerate every gesture. It may seem like you are “overdoing it” but given the low frequencies of our instruments and the physical space in between the performer and audience, it is necessary to clearly dictate your musical concepts.
While these methods can be tedious they are successful. We have all had experiences that have inspired us to make sacrifices for our art. And while such a methodical approach to practice may seem in contradiction to these inspirations they can help the individual make music to the best of their ability. Do not just work hard, work smart. You will make mistakes along the way. We all do! With an organized approach to practice the individual can reach their goals efficiently and turn their talent into ability.
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