Observations on becoming familiar with a piece – sheet music, shapes and movements

John Price Guitar

I thought I’d share with you some brief thoughts today on an observation I’ve had in recent days.

In the last couple of months or so I’ve been practicing, working out niggles and challenging little transitions and fingerings and generally burnishing up a piece of music that I had originally learnt to about a 90% level a couple of years ago. The piece is the Fugue from Bach’s Lute Suite in A Minor BWV 997, the second movement from the Lute Suite that I’m aiming to have learnt to play in its entirety this year.

And the observation I’ve made in the last few weeks of getting to real grips with the piece again and really getting it under my skin, is that whilst I’m continuing to use the music when practicing and playing it I’m not “reading” the sheet music as such.

I’ve definitely not got the music embedded in memory for playing with out the sheet music – I’ve tested that. I get so far, but there are still big holes in the memory.

When I play the piece, with the sheet music, it feels a little like reading words in a book (or a blog site!). When we read words on a page we don’t tend to read every single letter, we recognise the shapes of words and collections of words. So I feel it’s a little like that – not having memorised the music but recognising and having embedded the shapes and sounds and flow of the piece, not reading every single note or chord, yet still relying on the shapes on the page, connecting the shapes on the page with the movements of my left and right hands and fingers.

I find it an interesting observation, and perhaps a step that I’d not been really mindful of before in really learning a piece of music.

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Benefits of My Break from Playing Guitar

So, as I outlined in my previous post, I’ve recently had a rather generous slab of time out recently. A lengthy holiday (the longest I’ve ever had I think, and longest likely for some time) and time out from my job, playing guitar, the general day-to-day of everyday life. Five weeks (preceeded by a week or two’s preparation prior which led to no playing) of rest, relaxation and general unguided mulling.

From the point of view of guitar playing, a younger version of myself from a number of years ago would have been horrified at the thought of not playing the guitar for five or six weeks in a row. The concept would have been unfathomable.

However, in my increasing wisdom of middle(ish) age it doesn’t and hasn’t worried me in the slightest. In fact, I found the break quite refreshing and reinvigorating.

How so?

Well, the time away from the minutiae of grappling with knotty technical issues in pieces has allowed perspective, and removed the temptation to over-think and over-practice those elements (and possibly undoing good work done). The time away has actually better enabled me to tackle some of those technical issues, and some have even felt to become much easier. Don’t know what I was making all the fuss about.

The break has enabled me to refocus on what I want to do with my playing next in terms of what I’m currently learning and want to learn, projects such as my duo project with the wonderful Rick Alexander and recording, and within the latter what I want to record.

It’s also given me a new boost of energy and enthusiasm for relearning older parts of my repertoire, finishing off learning pieces or suites that are part learnt and for beginning to grapple new work. Alongside the mental refreshment, I find that I’m physically more in tune again with what my body is doing, what I’m actively doing with it and knowing when to ease back or take a rest.

I’m not advocating that that size of break from playing should be done on a frequent basis (after all you’re not really playing then are you?!). Nor that it has to be as long a break as a month or more. But once a year a complete and total physical and mental break for a period of time, say a week or two, I find does wonders for my playing.