Many music students confuse the process of practicing with the ultimate goal. The goal is to have good technique - it is not to practice technique. If we correctly identify the goal, then it is obvious that we should try to find the quickest and most efficient route to excellent technique. This means that it is crucial to spend as little time as possible practicing bad methods and as much time working on something that is effective in bringing about improvement.
This is the first of two posts in which I evaluate different methods of practicing passages that are difficult because of their speed. Over the course of many years, I have tried to find the best methods for developing good finger technique. Below is a review of some of the methods I have used to “discipline the fingers” and increase finger velocity.
1. Rewriting even sixteenths as dotted rhythms (whereby four sixteenths become dotted 16th-32nd-dotted 16th-32nd and vice versa)
I was taught this method when I was 15 or 16 and I did it almost every day with fast passages in the Mozart concerto during my adolescent years. Now that I have learned other methods, I have found that this is not very helpful in achieving clean and seamless transitions from one note to the next at a fast tempo. In fact, I have found that this technique works a lot better on piano scales than on the clarinet. While I don’t know precisely why, I think the reason might be that we are often coordinating the movement of more than one finger at a time on the clarinet whereas a scale for piano involves movements only from one finger to the next. Dotted rhythms don’t teach the fingers this precise coordination. In fact, they often reinforce clunky movement and slapping of the keys.
2. Practicing the entire passage at a slow tempo with the metronome, raising the metronome a click and playing it again. Repeat until you have reached the tempo of the piece.
This is the method I used with the greatest frequency while I was in high school and college. I practiced technique religiously with this method, and I often felt swamped when I was learning a lot of repertoire because this method demanded that each passage be played numerous times at differing tempos. I cannot malign this method (which was the first one that I stumbled upon) too much, since I think it is at least partly responsible for my relatively fast and even finger technique. But, it is a huge time waster! In addition, it never helped me master the trickiest bits of the Nielsen concerto or of excerpts like Stravinsky’s Firebird. A system that prescribes the same routine for every passage failed to take advantage of my natural talent. Indeed, a rigid system like this is almost too dumb for anyone’s innate talent. It forces you to play an entire passage repeatedly when you usually only need to practice the transition between two notes of that passage. As a result the fingers often get tired and begin making mistakes by the time that you have worked up the tempo from half-tempo to concert tempo. Another method which requires less time would not have the same problem. The amount of time I spent practicing this method is evidence of how I had not clarified what my practicing goal actually was. The goal is to have great technique. The goal is NOT to spend a lot of time practicing technique. Once you realize that the two goals are not equivalent and that the former is preferable to the latter, it becomes obvious that you want to spend as little time as is necessary to learn your technical passages thoroughly. Because that is what great technique is: expending little effort and achieving maximum effect. I can recommend this method, but only with the caveat that you must use your brain constantly and analyze whether it is effective or not.
3. The Moscow method
This is another method that will induce eye-rolling with its requirement of militaristic hard-headedness. With this method you always begin with the first note. You will start by playing the first two notes and stop. If you were satisfied with these two notes, you may play the first three notes. If you are still satisfied, have a go at the first four, and then five, and six, all the way until you have finished the passage. This method may be done slowly or at concert tempo. Does it work? It depends on the passage, but, generally, yes. For the student who can learn to suffer through boring things (as I can), this can be an effective method for learning tricky passages that are not too long. But, it must never be so boring that the student forgets to think, and fails to notice when he or she makes a mistake.
4. The Moscow method starting at the ends of pieces
I have found that this is even better than the original Moscow method. If you do not want to work on only one note at a time, then do intervals of four notes. Start with the last four notes of a passage. Then go backward and play the last eight, last twelve, etc. (or if the passage has triplets, practice groups of 3). This helps you learn a passage even faster than the normal Moscow method, because the fingers always know where the next note is because you have already taught them the end of the passage. If you start a passage from the beginning you could get out of shape for a difficult leap later on. If you have already practiced the difficult leap by the time you get to it, your fingers will be in the right position to execute it.
Stay tuned for the next post in a couple of weeks in which I describe several other methods, and (crucially) how to select the method that will be the most effective!