1.Treat sight-reading or memorising as a fast track to learning
2.Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview
3.Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test”
Now here is some detail about each of these headings:
Treat sight-reading as a fast track to learning -
If you are learning a piece from the music it will be a lot easier to do so if your sight-reading is good enough to make sense of it by a third reading. If your sight-reading is not good enough to do this then I suggest another approach here below.
The good sight-reader fast track:
1st time reading: read through it slowly but rhythmically, and never mind the mistakes.
2nd time reading: read it through again, and try to keep going in slow time without hesitations, and never mind the mistakes. Try to make sense of the music in your playing with phrasing and dynamics. At the end revise and play even more slowly the difficult bars, the bars with mistakes, or the bars where you couldn’t keep time. Now move on to:
3rd time reading: make a special effort to incorporate the improvements which you have just been practising, and be more demanding of yourself regarding keeping time, avoiding errors and making it musical.
The poor sight-reader memorising fast track:
Learn the piece phrase by phrase, and don’t move on to the next phrase until you have learnt and half-memorised the first one. To memorise effectively remember the fingering patterns and frets, repeat the rhythmic shapes until certain, and try to figure out the harmonies. Once you have half-memorised the piece try to understand the structure and shape through the harmonies, rhythms and melody. This will help fully memorise the piece.
Alternate close-up detail with long-distance overview -
This applies to every learner, whether a poor or good reader.
The close-up moments require you to extract just a phrase or a bar or even just one difficult jump and repeat it very slowly until you can play it smoothly, after which you can try it faster. Then you should play the passage in question from a bar before and see whether it still works. And then again, from another bar before that, and so on. After a few minutes of concentrated close-up detail work the brain tires so you now move on to:
Play through the whole piece ignoring mistakes and not stopping. The priority is to create a smooth musical performance in spite of errors. Play through the piece several times and remember where the errors occurred. Now go back to close-up detail work and repeat the process.
In any practise session, whether it be 30 minutes or 3 hours alternate close-up practise of difficult passages with the long-distance approach of playing all the way through the piece. The time you spend on close-up detail may be a few minutes or 10 minutes. Time yourself and you will see how long 2 minutes of concentrated very slow close-up detailed work really is. Only continue for as long as you can concentrate. Then proceed to long-distance overview work, which is more relaxed.
Close-up detail work is like breathing in, while long-distance overview work is like breathing out.
Close-up detail work is like looking through a microscope, while long-distance overview is like looking through a telescope.
Allow time for you to improve the piece and the “5 time test” –
Playing music so that you sound completely at ease takes time. You may have to live with the piece for some months, and with really demanding pieces maybe for years. Pablo Casals, the first cellist in the 20th century to revive and play the solo suites for cello by Bach, waited 8 years before playing them in public. Don’t worry, you need not take so long with the piece you are learning!
And here is an interesting thing: you may not practise the piece for weeks, and yet it may sound better when you pick it up again. All the while the music has been bubbling away in your subconscious.
To prove to yourself that you have mastered the piece subject it to my “5 time test”. For this, take any difficult passage and play it through five times in a row without a mistake. If you succeed congratulations, you are on top of it. If you can’t play it correctly 5 times in a row, it’s like snakes and ladders, go back to number one and repeat very slowly.
This has been my rough guide as to how to learn a piece. Good luck!
J.S. Bach cello suites played by Pablo Casals