When you think of practicing piano, guitar, violin, or any instrument, what do you think of as the first step? If you're like most people, you might think it's getting your instrument out of the case, tuned, getting seated comfortably behind it, and setting up your music.
You might even think that it means looking over the music that you're going to be learning or practicing that day, keeping an eye out for accidentals, key changes, tempo changes, and any particularly difficult passages.
However, when practicing for mastery, practice begins before you even touch the instrument. It's crucial to listen to quality recordings of the piece you're learning, and listen closely to them whenever possible. It's through these listening sessions you can hear phrasing, tempo shifts, dynamics and more. This is a great way to "pre-learn" a piece before you even begin reading it. Additionally, you can listen to the piece and study the sheet music at the same time.
Once you've listened to the piece thoroughly, you can begin reading through the music. In Suzuki lessons, instructors will often assign specific passages which need extra attention, along with a certain number of repetitions to be played daily. It's crucial to stick to these directions, rather than just running through a piece until you find a mistake and then fixing it and continuing to run through the piece.
The reason for this is that when we practice in the run-through method, we practice making mistakes. We learn very well which areas of the piece are tricky for us and often end up building learned stress around those sections, making it more likely that we will make mistakes in those areas in the future.
It's important that we take these tricky passages on as a standalone challenge and practice them until they are reflexive - until we can't make a mistake when we play them. Only then can the piece be run with a level of success and mastery.
Once we've listened to our piece thoroughly and learned all parts of it, especially the tricky passages, mastering the techniques required to play the notes and rhythms, we have reached the first stage of mastering a piece.
In our next installment of this blog series, we'll talk about how the serious student takes their music learning to the next level.