Interesting postscript to this blog about how to practice – published in 2013
Play more music – every day!
As someone who teaches and facilitates music for others on a daily basis, it’s important to look at my own music with the same critical ear and eye. A friend once asked me, “you teach a lot, but how much do you practice?” A thought-provoking question, this changed my musical landscape and brought true practice back into it.
What is practicing?
Practicing is just focused playing – you’re jamming alone with an agenda.
Choose one piece or medley to work on for each session; don’t spread yourself too thin. You might like to keep a music diary, noting the date, what you worked on, any insights and further goals for that piece. Please remember to be nice to yourself. No shame, no blame! Keep it fun and you’ll learn a lot more.
When working on something for performance or recording, I deconstruct the tune, listening to myself play the component parts, the transitions, the pitches, the tricky passages, the underlying rhythms as well as the shifts or ornaments, listening for where to put dynamics and variations. Sometimes they are all in need of help and it’s hard to know where to start first.
Rhythm is usually a good place to begin, making sure I’m locking into a groove as I play, nailing the beat each time in the same place to create a repetitive rhythm. Once that seems stable, I can listen to phrasing and pitches, flipping back and forth, listening to how a note sounds, then to how a whole phrase of notes sound. When I’m satisfied with that part, I can refocus, now on the transitions between phrases that make the tune flow smoothly into the next section.
Next I work on is the ornamentation and dynamics. Both are style-specific, like rhythm and the placement of the beat (in front of, in the middle of or behind the downbeat). Ornaments are often a combination of right and left hand movements, but some are played with only one hand or the other. It helps to identify and learn these style markers and ornaments in a particular style you might be drawn to – it makes you sound much more authentic and “in the groove” in that style.
The last part of the puzzle is finding variations. When you are able to tweak the rhythm, melody and ornaments into variations, that’s when you really KNOW the tune. Usually it comes faster when you learn the tune by ear or are OFF the page. It doesn’t have to be big variations to do the trick. Swapping out one ornament for another will often work, as will replacing an even “One-and-two-and One-and-two-and” rhythm with a syncopated 3-3-2 rhythm like “One-two-three, One-two-three, One-two”. These syncopated rhythmic variations are my favorite!
Usually the learning chronology is:
1. Rhythm – Learn bowings FIRST – they create rhythm and underpin the tune and style. Play a downbeat or offbeat accent. Place beat directly on, in front of, or after the beat, creating swing (or not) this way. Accent off-beats in 2/4 dance tunes. Jigs accent the downbeat (ONE-two-three TWO-two-three. Marches accent the one as well (ONE-two-three-four). Most waltzes accent the one and three (ONE-two-THREE, ONE-two-THREE), while Cajun waltzes accent the two (one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three).
2. Melody/Pitch – Play slowly to hear individual notes. Take none for granted. Listen to each one singly and as part of a phrase – it needs to fit both ways. Play scales and arpeggios in the tune’s key to refresh your pitch memory.
3. Phrasing & voicing – Phrasing is how rhythm is created with bowing and slurs. Change voicings by using fourth finger instead of open strings or single-string shifts instead of string changes, especially in slow tunes. Slur across the beat to create a forward-moving dance groove and a subtle form of syncopation.
4. Transitions – How phrases begin and end defines the flow of a tune. First and second endings often vary in the transition back into the phrase or forward into the next one. These subtle transition variations can cue experienced contradancers to what’s coming next.
5. Ornamentation – This adds the patina of style. Make sure your rhythm is solid in the style before adding this layer. Each style has a characteristic set of ornaments that help to define it. Irish and Scottish share some ornaments, but how they are used rhythmically ends up as the style boundary. There are also universal ornaments like 3+1 bowing that sound a little different in each style because of underlying groove or rhythm changes.
6. Dynamics & tone– Use upbows to create dynamics; starting on an upbow creates an automatic volume increase for a phrase. Irish jigs use this technique a lot. You’ll notice that tone is down the list from where it would be in a classical practice routine. Rhythm trumps tone in fast dance tunes. Slow tunes are another thing altogether – tone really counts there. To play well at any speed, practice the whole thing slowly: ornaments, dynamics, variations and all, to make sure you really have it before jumping to performance speed.
7. Variations – This starts to happen when you really know the tune and get just slightly BORED with it! We’re playing new rhythms over the melody instead of rewriting a melody as in jazz. It’s a tweak, not a whole new composition. Start by moving the ornaments around through the melody and see where they can enhance a new part of the tune. Then try syncopating rhythms under a phrase over the chords, dividing the bar in thirds instead of in half: use a 3-3-2 rhythm instead of 1-2-1-2. I find these are the two easiest ways to create variations – and they’re FUN!
Which reminds me – gotta go
practice play some music now . . .