Preparation Methodology

Many of you are facing new projects and recitals. Others might only be practicing etudes in an effort to stay in shape. Whatever it is that you’re working on I hope that you’re plowing new musical ground and that this will be an enjoyable year.

Each of us has a method of attack when learning a new piece. Below is mine.

I believe that there are six levels of listening when preparing new repertoire and recommend that you tackle them in this order (please note that levels 1 – 4 are objective – subject to the standards of your ear– and levels 5 & 6 are subjective – subject to the performer’s imagination):

1) Decipher the rhythms
This work should be done off the horn. Take whatever time is necessary to wrap your brain and ear completely around every rhythm – even the simple ones. I expect my students to take days staring at the score of Sequenza X to completely understand each cell before tackling the next step. This goes for a Charlier etude as well (days might become a single hour, but you get my drift).

2) Add the notes
Make sure that each interval is properly heard before playing it. Slow and patient intervallic practice will mean fewer missed notes later on.

3) Add the dynamics
Don’t be afraid to play really soft in piano and really loud in forte. You’re imprinting the music every time you play it and if you play everything at mezzo piano your performance will be mezzo unlistenable.

4) Add the editorial
Carefully add details such as accents, articulations, crescendi/diminuendi, etc. The composer took the time to attempt to notate what (s)he heard while composing the piece. It’s vital to respect every bit of notation. Please take a moment to translate verbal instructions. They’re from the source!

5) Add yourself
This is where your own imagination joins the fray and the fun begins. What sort of color will you add to a particular line or phrase? Are you making a statement or asking a question? Will you play with a straight tone or add vibrato? How wide is your personal dynamic range? How clear are your articulations? How long will a fermata be held, etc. Your choices cannot be questioned if you’re fully committed to them.

6) Mind the architecture
Every composition, even a short etude, has shape. Be aware of the armature that the notes are hanging from and convey the shape of that line (or where you are compositionally) to the audience.

Written August 23, 2009

Last updated October 22, 2010  

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