PRACTICING A TECHNICAL PASSAGE
You know the drill. The piece is full of sixteenth-note passages, it's fast, and your teacher tells you "Go home and learn it." The following suggestions relate to practicing these sorts of technical passages. Though geared towards sixteenth notes in 4/4 time, these techniques can be adapted for other sorts of passages.
The following example is a sample measure from the middle of a lot of measures of sixteenth-notes:
Kind of hard, and a little confusing, right? The first thing you should do is to mark in some things that might help: some cautionary accidentals and a reminder to use the alternate low B-natural fingering:
Technique 1: Practice Slowly and Increase Speed
There's really not much to say about this. Put a metronome on a slow click, like quarter note=50. In fact, it's better to set the metronome to double that (100) and use that as the eighth-note beat. Work until you can play it evenly and comfortably. Try to notice if you have a technical problem that is making things harder. For example, it might be the move from the 2nd to the 3rd note: G to E-flat. A lot of students will be late with the left-hand thumb and the E-flat will speak late. Work those two notes only until that is smooth. Once you get it right, REPEAT IT IMMEDIATELY! You want to ingrain doing it correctly, and wipe out the memory of all the times you did it wrong before it finally clicked. I sometimes use the "penny game." Start with 5 pennies (or reeds, or other counters) on one side of your stand. When you play the passage with no mistakes, move one over and try again. If you make even one mistake, all the pennies go back to the other side and you start over. This will force you to play the passage five times correctly in a row. This brings us to the first "carved-in-stone" law of practicing:
Immediately repeat a passage several times once you get it right.
Now that you have it, increase the metronome a couple of clicks and repeat the process. You will eventually get to a point where you want to make the metronome beat a quarter-note instead of an eighth-note and keep increasing that. For the best possible results, practice the passage up to a tempo a few clicks faster that you intend to play it. You notice the word "metronome" has been used a lot. This brings us to the second law of practicing:
ALWAYS practice technical passages with a metronome.
The metronome has several advantages. It helps you to play evenly. It trains you to keep a steady rhythm. It will eventually give you a sense of tempos (many professional musicians can read something like "quarter-note=96" and instantly give you the right tempo within a click or two). The metronome is also like a stopwatch to a runner; it allows you to chart your progress and slowly strive to increase it. Practicing slowly and increasing speed will work, but it is deadly dull. It's best to combine it with a technique such as:
Technique 2: Practice Smaller Groupings
Set the metronome to a speed perhaps a little slower than marked, but not really slow. Then practice the first five notes like so:
Play until it is even and comfortable. You might use the "penny game" as described above. When you have it (and have repeated it many times...), start with the second beat and play five notes:
"Why five notes?" I hear you ask, "it's in four-note groups." If you just practice the four-note groups, you will never practice the connections between them. You will also not be as aware of the "anchor notes"- the notes that fall on the beats of the measure. This is extremely important, so we will make it another law:
Always practice small groups from STRONG BEAT to STRONG BEAT.
Once you have the groups of five worked out, try them like this:
Now try groups of (not eight but) nine:
Repeat for the next few groups. You're probably ready now to try the whole passage, and you're a lot closer to the target tempo than you would be if you were simply working it up one click at a time from "dead slow."
Another technique that is especially good for things like scales is:
Technique 3: Add-a-Note
Just start, at full tempo, with the smallest grouping you can play, and go one note further. Once you can play that, go one more note:
Repeat until done. This technique does not ground you rhythmically as well as the previous, and it is a bit tedious, but it works.
Now that you have the notes, you can work on playing the passage evenly:
Technique 4: For Evenness, Use Rhythms
For each group of four notes, change the rhythm to:
For a metronome marking, use the fast tempo, but for the eighth-note (you really can't do this at full tempo). Now for the harder part, reverse the above rhythm to read:
As always, if a particular interval is a problem, try to figure out what you are doing wrong physically to cause trouble. Is a finger late? Are you not blowing/supporting between the notes? Do you need to concentrate on one particular motion?
Now we re-write the passage in triple time with two long notes and two short notes (there are three different combinations (that don't involve syncopation)):
You can try this with the metronome set to something like 72 to the dotted-quarter-note or, if that's a little too hard, set to something like 120 to the eighth-note. As above, don't try to work this up to the marked tempo - this practice version doesn't really compare beat-for-beat with the original.
In practicing technical passages you really have two goals: to teach your fingers to play the passage evenly and correctly, and to partially memorize the passage so that your reading of it doesn't slow you down. The techniques above will help to do that, and have always worked for me. Let's end by re-stating the three laws of technical practice:
- Immediately repeat a passage several times once you get it right.
- ALWAYS practice technical passages with a metronome.
- Always practice small groups from STRONG BEAT to STRONG BEAT.
Applied correctly, these techniques will allow you to learn everything from the simplest band parts to the opening of Daphnis and Chloé!