Really learning a piece of music is about really understanding it, getting under the skin of the music. This applies equally whether you’ve just picked it up and working out the fingerings, or you’ve been sitting with it for a while and want to take it to that next level and work in some added depth.
But I’ve got the sheet music – that’s all the learning I need, right?
It’s always important to remember that the sheet music, this piece of paper sitting on front of us there on the music stand, is essentially there as a reminder of what we are to play. It is our map and guide as to the composer’s intentions.
It is not, however, the be all and end all*.
For example, take a look at some Bach lute suite scores or perhaps Mudarra scores. Not a whole heap of expression markings and the like going on in there, but an incredible amount going on in the music. We just need to remember to tap into our sense of feeling. It’s up to us as the guitarist, or the musician, to interpret and bring out the real music.
My Top Tips for Really Learning a Piece of Music
There are a number of things we can do to help us on the way to really getting to grips with a piece.
(1) What is the “story” or character of the piece?
When I say story it doesn’t necessarily have to be some kind of programmatic story (such as Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), but the piece will almost certainly have a character, mood or feeling.
What is that character? Is it happy and light, dark and brooding, nostalgic, yearning, joyful. How would you describe it?
Is there more than one character within the piece? Is there a principal character, with minor changes in that character interspersed? How do those characters relate to one another?
Then again you may have some kind of programmatic theme to the music. If so, what is that story? Or what is the music trying to convey? One could say, for example, that Duarte’s English Suite was programmatic in nature – revealing thoughts and feelings of English landscapes through the use of old English folk tunes.
Alternatively, you could make up your own story for the music. If you want to convey a certain feeling in the music, what kind of story can you arrange in your head to bring that to the fore? Is it a sad, sorrowful kind of feeling? If so, can you think of a sad event or situation to help you convey that emotion in the music?
Intention counts for a lot in music and you may just surprise yourself with this little tip.
(2) What is the background and history of the piece?
Where does the piece come from, both geographically and in time?
What kind of situation was the piece written in? Was what going on historically at the time it was written? War or a peaceful and prosperous time? Was the composer happy, healthy and wealthy? Were they persecuted or living in exile, outside of their homeland?
Why was the piece written? This seems like an obvious question to ask when written down, but one that we very often don’t take the time to think about.
Where was the piece supposed to be performed?
Thinking about the answer to these questions and trying to build up an appreciation of the world around which the music was composed will help give it that little something else.
(3) How does it fit in with other works by the same composer?
How does the piece you’re playing fit in with the composer’s styles? A style they were fond of? Or a style they were perhaps experimenting with?
Was it in their “blue” period? OK, that’s Picasso, but you get what I mean. Is it of a particular style they were working in at a particular time?
For example, Barrios’ works can commonly be grouped into one of three styles: folk style, imitative of Baroque (particularly Bach) and Romantic styles, and religious.
(4) How do others interpret the work?
This is the tip I save for last because it’s one that I don’t like to involve too early on in the learning process, for myself at least. Others may find it helps to involve earlier in the process.
When first learning a piece I try to avoid listening to others’ interpretations of a piece, so that I can form my own thoughts and feelings, sense of movement, phrasing and dynamics in a piece without being influenced too heavily by others.
Once a piece is starting to sit under the fingers well and I have an idea of how I like to shape most of it, listening to several other performances of the same piece can give you some really interesting insights, ideas and interpretations. Perhaps other performers pull out a melodic or harmonic line that you’d not noticed or emphasised before. Perhaps another performer crafts lines in a different way, plays in a different tempo, or interprets a different mood or feeling.
In some instances a piece may be very well known and we come to it already with some idea of how others interpret it.
That’s OK and no harm in that at all. Just try not to imitate those performances. It works because they are them.
Your eventual interpretation will work because it is authentically yours.