Do you always practice from the start of a piece? Have a think about that….

Once you’ve got the skeleton or an understanding of the framework of the piece together, I highly recommend commencing your practice of a piece, not from the start, but from a little stumbling block perhaps, a section or phrase or chord change that is proving tricky, or perhaps the start of a phrase or section that you want to work on and bed in further. Playing through pieces start to finish, skipping over stumbling blocks without addressing them, hoping they magically sort themselves out the next time we play the piece through in exactly the same way is not really going to get you too far.

Whatever your particular “stumbling block” might be, isolate it and work through it slowly and methodically. Pick it apart.  Find out EXACTLY what is going

Spanish guitar
Photo credit: aesedepece

wrong, or rather what is not quite working right and what you need to do with your left hand fingers AND your right hand fingers to get it working as you want it to sound.

It can take our brains around 20 or days to learn new patterns, apparently – so don’t stress if you can’t get that chord change or finger movement yet or a piece memorised after a couple of days. Just know that by carrying out this methodical work you’re embedding the new habit, the new muscle memory.

And when you do pick out that tricky spot to practice it in isolation DO NOT just go repeating it countless times without awareness of what you’re really doing. If it’s still not working go back to figuring out what you need to do to fix it up. And if you’re not sure what that is then it’s definitely one that your teacher will be able to help you with!

So, yes repeat it a few times when you’ve got it more or less figured out. Do this S-L-O-W-L-Y.  This is absolutely key. Don’t be in too much of a rush to get it up to speed just yet. There’s plenty of time for that. Just focus on getting it right, getting it rhythmically correct, getting it settled, getting it sounding exactly how you want. Speed comes later, and only ever to serve the music.

And then leave it to sink in for a while. You might want to come back to it later in your practice session. You definitely want to pick out that little tricky spot in your next practice session. I can pretty much guarantee it will be a lot less tricky the next day and the next, until you will have forgotten what all the fuss was about!

So, next time you sit down to practice, before you start playing your first piece from the very start to the very end without pausing for breath in between ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I really need to play this all the way through from the beginning right now? Would that be an effective use of my time now or am I just being a little bit lazy? 😉
  2. Where do I know I could begin focussing on instead? Which sections need the most work still?
  3. What is it about those sections that need further work, what do I need to do and what do I want to have achieved by the end of this practice session with those sections?

3 thoughts on “Do you always practice from the start of a piece? Have a think about that….

  1. Good points Nicole. I think once you get more practised at this way of practising you get better at actually zeroing in on where the exact problem is. This is often more tricky than we think because sometimes a technical issue can be caused by the approach or preparation (or lack thereof) prior to the actual spot where it actually takes place (ie where we hear the bum note etc). It can even sometimes be the departure from area which causes the problem. It can take quite a bit of focussing in to really find the exact problem point but once you find it you then can go about Searching for why it’s happening and find a solution. It all sounds very very obvious but because of the nature of the act of playing and the demanding mental powers it takes to play music and the natural tendency to just want to keep playing the piece through, it takes a fair bit of mindfulness to decide to actually stop and solve the issue. I know Leo Brouwer has said that learning a piece is pretty much like solving a lot of solvable problems (at least from a technical perspective anyway).

  2. I have always heard the advice of starting from the end of a piece (sometimes line by line, even bar by bar !). In some cases I have found it helpful, in others not so much.

    This can be a somewhat difficult approach as you may refer to the beginning of a piece for positions or fingerings that the composer or arranger intended which are not marked in the middle or end of the piece.


  3. I’m working on a John Dowland piece,which is reputedly ‘easy’ but there are some tricky bits.

    It’s reassuring to know that muscle memory can take 20 days to become embedded.Furthermore,I do agree that one should not necessarily play a new peice from its beginning but practise the problematical bits first.

    Thanks again Nicole.

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