Deconstruction is something that I find myself teaching more and more in lessons.
Deconstructing is the process of separating the various components of the music; a sort of elementary analysis. Although this video is showing how to deconstruct the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata (a deceptively complex piece), this technique can be easily applied to any piece of music. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that deconstructing is just as useful with beginners as it is to more advanced students. Although advanced students can (and should) be introduced to musical layers, voicing, linear progressions, harmonic sequences and cadences, beginners will also benefit from this type of thinking. Musical concepts are only as complex as the music allows them to be, and so simple music will restrict themselves to very simple structures and patterns.
So what is the point of all of this? On the face of it, it looks like teaching in this manner can only succeed in making more work for the student, not less. But, in reality, understanding the music is a shortcut to learning and memorising the notes, and understanding the dynamics, the performance directions, and ultimately the music itself.
After all, how do we as performers know how to balance the three parts in this sonata if we do not know how to play them and shape them individually?
How do we know the direction of the music if we do not know where the cadences lie, or where the music modulates?
How do we memorise it if we do not know which key we are playing in and which key we will be playing next?
How do we realise the relationships between the sections if we do not know precisely what is happening in each section?
How do we know how to colour the music if we do not understand what exactly what the music is doing at any point in time?
I have already posted a video demonstrating how improvisation can help in the learning process. Deconstructing Beethoven show clearly how a basic grasp of harmonic theory, analysis, and their practical applications are invaluable in practising.
I teach many young children, and the vast majority of them would have problems practising if they were simply expected to repeat bars over and over until they have got the hang of them. So how do we, as teachers, motivate young beginners?
We know that young children learn best through the medium of play, and we know that the best way to motivate a child in lessons is to engage them with games and puzzles (the best theory books for youngsters are often full of sticker games, and puzzles, and the students barely know they are doing any actual work when they do the exercises).
But what games work for practising? And which ones work well enough to be continued independently at home?
As part of The Practice Project, I will be exploring different practice games for younger children. The first in this series is The Jigsaw.
If we think for a moment about how we manage to do jigsaw puzzles, we can see a close analogy with learning music;
- We look for the outline, or the corners
- We put small chunks together first
- We attach the smaller chunks to other smaller chunks, making bigger sized chunks
- We attach the big chunks together by finding smaller connectors, or bridges
How would this work with music?
- We can first make sure we know the outline of the piece (understand structure, identify any repetition, work through hands separately)
- We then look at polishing small chunks of music (single bars, for example)
- Attach those smaller chunks together (making 2 bar chunks)
- We work on building up into larger and larger pieces, by practising the ‘connectors’ (getting from the end of one section to the beginning of the next)
But this doesn’t sound like much fun, it’s not a game!
Or is it?
Just doing the process doesn’t make it fun… What turns this practice method around is making a physical representation out of the piece, and then sticking it all together with tape, turning it into a massive jigsaw.
1) Cut a piece of paper into small segments – as many as there are bars (or half bars etc)
2) Number the bars (or half bars) on the score. You can get engaged in discussions here about which bits are already easy enough to warrant them starting out as larger sections.
3) Number the corresponding segments (1 segment for each bar, or half a bar etc)
4) Put the segments in a pile, and gradually work through each one; when one is complete, put it in a separate pile (learning the small chunks)
5) Pick 2 consecutive segments, practise them together, making sure the transition between the segments is smooth and solid (making a bigger chunk)
6) Tape the 2 corresponding segments together
7) Keep going like this, picking two segments, practising them as a single larger one, and taping the pieces of paper together as you go.
Eventually, your student will be left with 2 or 3 long segments, rather than the many individual ones they started with. The challenge to get these last few segments into one becomes achievable and within the student’s grasp. The final stage of taping the last segments together can often give the young beginner a massive boost of confidence, and a huge sense of achievement. Get the student to show you their string of paper the following week, comment on the length of the paper, and how much they have done. If they have not managed the whole thing, keep going with it until it is achieved.
I personally love this method. Unlike any other practice method or game, it gives a clear display of progress that is not only visual, but also tactile. The child can literally see what they have achieved, and they can feel the length of their achievement, it is tangible to them. “Look! It’s massive!” or “WOW! I’ve only got 4 BIG pieces to tape together now!”
Try it, I’d love to know how you get on.
This video is one I shot at RWCMD in between lessons. Although I have been doing these small ‘snatched’ practices for years, it’s only when I started this project that I realised a) how many of them I do, and b) how useful they actually are. This practice, for a ‘between lessons’ one, was quite long; often my mini-practices are less than ten minutes, sometimes literally only a minute or two.
I think this flags up a couple of really important ideas about practising;
The first is that although we all need some sort of practice structure, grabbing five minutes here and ten minutes there at our instrument is just as valid, and that these ‘snatched’ minutes add up over the course of a week.
The second is to do with the goals of these mini-sessions. When I know that I only have 5 minutes, I aim to do something with that time that isn’t too complex – perhaps just working on coordination, or trying to get through the piece without stopping, or doing a very small amount of very slow playing. This simpler style of practising leaves me with one or two smaller goals achieved that I can then ‘tick off’ my mental to-do list, (maybe some fingering that has been niggling at me, or a few bars played at speed) but also just the act of playing the music, for however short a time, leaves it slightly more ingrained than before the practice (the notes are slightly more ‘known’).
So yes, organised practice is excellent, invaluable even, but don’t forget to just wander over to the piano and spend a few spare moments playing some passages here and there, or running through a piece to see what happens.
The third video is 20 minutes long, and is a first attempt to coordinate the two voices correctly (2 hands) into a rudimentary hands together ‘draft’.
I make many mistakes, (a great many.) But because my aim during this session is to learn the musical in its technical sense (coordinating notes), I correct every mistake as I go, making sure I can play each fragment before moving on.
You can clearly see, however, that although I achieve my goal of playing the entire piece ‘correctly’, I often slow down dramatically to do this, and am still unable at the end to play the entire piece through in one go without any errors.
This video is proving to be the longest video I have shot to date. It is, however, I think one of the most interesting ones I have recorded.
The first section is purely technical – me working out and finalising fingering in each hand. Because my aim here is to get the Fantasia ‘note-perfect’ so that I can work out exactly what fingering I need to navigate the music, I am pretty much correcting every single wrong note or wrong fingering.
The middle section is mostly made up of improvisatory techniques; and this an extremely important area where I really do feel that too many students are too scared to delve into. Improvising, for me, is all about discovery and experimentation, and this is where I really start to find out about the structure of the music, the harmonic sequences, the direction and shape of the music, and the sounds that lie behind and underneath the notes. Students (and parents) are often worried that this is not ‘really practising’, that it is ‘just mucking about’, or that they do not know how to do it, or that it might be ‘wrong’ (just listen to the sheer number of mistakes I make whilst I am improvising; it often takes me 4 or 5 tries to find the harmony I am looking for!) They could not be more mistaken; discovering new things about music is never a ‘waste of time’, and there is no right way to do this, the process of experimenting is far more useful than the result itself. When I go back to playing the ‘right notes’ after improvising like this for a good session, I feel like I bring a new understanding and new knowledge to the music.
Improvising is never a waste of time, it benefits the performer in ways that ‘normal’ practice can’t even get close to.
The final section is another technical one; this one shows me attempting to co-ordinate the two voices and get my hands working well together (with varying degrees of success!)
This is the first of the video uploads of my own practice session. I am working on the Fantasia from Bach’s Partita No.3 in A minor, and videoing all my practice sessions on this piece from the beginning to its completion.
The videos are completely unedited, except to delete small insignificant sections (e.g. to answer to door, or grab a cup of tea etc.). You can see my practice methods, my mistakes, my repetitions, my improvisations, my at times desperately slow tempos.
This first episode is roughly 20 minutes long, and is very much about discovering the music for the first time… the notation, the counterpoint, the general ‘feel’ of the piece. I am not worried too much in this session about playing accurately, I am just getting an idea of what Bach has written, and where the technical ‘black-spots’ are. My fingering is pretty much guessed throughout, and there are a great many wrong notes, stumbles, hesitations, tempo changes, etc. Despite this, there are moments when I am feeling confident enough with my knowledge of the music in small areas to begin a little elementary experimentation with articulation, dynamics, shape, and general musicality.
The Practice Flowchart was borne out of, again, watching students struggle with making enough progress from week to week. I had many discussion with students, discovering not just how long they practice for, but how they practice, and whether they were working as effectively as they could be.
The flowchart was conceived when asked myself what I actually do when I’m practising. To be more precise, I asked myself specific questions, and made a chart out of my answers…
- How do I decide what to practice?
- I sometimes have some ideas already in mind when I first sit at the piano, but if I don’t then I play through the music whilst listening critically, and make decisions then.
- How do I decide how to split it into sections?
- I very quickly work out how much I can manage at one time that would give me a reasonable challenge without making it feel like an impossible mountain to climb. Sometimes that’s as little as a bar, or even half a bar. More often, it’ll be a phrase or group of phrases, or a single hand, or a single voice. Sometimes my sections can be thought of as horizontal sections rather than vertical (i.e. an entire left hand, rather than a single bar of something).
- Sections are often worked out on the hoof…. I’ll be playing through something, and when it gets to a point where I’m not achieving what I want to, I isolate the problem area and treat that as a section.
- How do I know when something is ‘good enough’ and when it needs more work?
- This is an interesting one because I wasn’t really sure of the answer until I sat down at the piano and practiced with this in mind. The results rather surprised me; I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing. Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one.
- What do I do when things are not going well?
- Another interesting one. I’d be lying if I said that I always achieve what I set out to do; sometimes (often!) things just don’t work. Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve. So what do I do? I walk away. I try something else. I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance. This part, I think, is so important it’s worth mentioning twice…
‘When I cannot do something after repeatedly trying it, I walk away’.
Once I had these answers worked out, designing the flowchart was easy; it really is just a graphic illustration of these questions and their answers.
The ‘confidence score’ section is vital for a student to understand; that they are scoring their playing not on how it sounded, but on how they felt when they played it. This is probably particularly important at the beginning of a piece, when the sounds we are making are so departed from the sound of a performance (because of slow tempo, or hands separate, or the tiny size of a section, or the isolation/separation of voices), that the student has to understand that they are rating how well they felt they knew what they were doing at the specific task they were working on. For instance, if a student is working on simply getting the notes correct, they may play with faltering rhythm, but this does not matter, as the goal is notes, and nothing else. You will also notice, that 8/10 is an excellent score; students should not feel they have to aim for a 10 (remember that Practice Makes Perfect is just a myth, and a destructive one at that.)
The walking away is a vital lesson for a student to learn. Frustration is a horrible feeling, and isn’t helpful for anybody. The flowchart has an escape loop slotted in – so if something isn’t working after 10 times of trying, a student should find something else to do…
You can always come back to something that didn’t progress, or that got better but was still not well enough ‘known’ to feel confident!