Divide and Conquer
There is a skill called sight-reading. Sight-reading is the act of playing a piece of music through without having practiced it beforehand. We usually sight-read a piece when considering whether to learn it or when it is first assigned to us by an instructor. Some people continue to sight-read a piece indefinitely without ever resorting to the other skill: practicing. Practicing is to study a piece of music and usually by dividing it into sections to be repeated as many times as necessary until mastery of the whole is achieved by mastery of the parts. Sometimes these small sections are divided and studied in even smaller sections.
My definition of practicing might be called “boring” by those who like the immediate pleasure of playing and hearing an entire piece at once, and to play and hear it again and again just the same with probably a few slight improvements. That is entertainment, not practice.
By an unfortunate accident in the course of history, the word “Discipline” has been alloted a rather negative connotation and made synonymous with words like “Arduous” and associated with doing things that are “Not Fun”. Discipline is also presumed to require long periods to time, but time we have known to be relative since 1916 (thanks to a famous publication by the other Einstein). Therefore it should come as no surprise that a short duration of disciplined practice is rewarded by the “Instant Gratification” of noticeable improvement.
The above is a roundabout way of stating at the risk of my credibility that disciplined practice with attention to detail is really very fun, a fact possessing little chance of persuasion but which we must all discover for ourselves. This statement applies to the art of practicing slowly, addressed in the previous essay, as well as the art of practicing a piece in sections which will be briefly introduced here.
How small a section to isolate depends upon the difficulty and style of the music being studied and also upon the philosophy and particularity of one’s music instructor. Accomplishing one phrase at a time is a common way which naturally leads to combining several accomplished phrases and repeating that larger section for some time. Be aware, however, that certain sections smaller than a phrase—as small as 1 measure or even 2-3 notes—will benefit from being practiced alone for several minutes or several hours. Instances of very few notes requiring prolonged attention may be for reasons such as: unusual fingerings, notes separated by wide intervals, complex rhythms, ornaments, etc. Passages that the student hopes to play very fast should also receive many hours of undivided attention in which practicing slowly is included.
The key to such total concentration without suffering is to simplify the student’s view of the objective. If one’s goal is to learn an entire piece, playing only one section of it repeatedly will appear slow and frustrating. When sitting down the young student for piano practice, make it very clear that the objective of the day is to learn this measure or that phrase and nothing else. It does not even matter when the piece will be finished or even if it will be finished. Enforce a slow tempo that will guarantee the student’s success and create satisfaction. Encourage the relatively easy memorization of these sections so that the pianist may have the benefit of watching the hands while working on technique. The truth is that, in spite of the appearance of discipline, repetition is untaxing on the mind and almost comfortably lazy. Properly done, it is very enjoyable for the student to see how rapidly he or she improves. There is greater delight in playing a phrase excellently than in struggling through an entire piece. Once begun to practice, one might not want to stop.
Having practiced sections of a piece in this manner, should your child make a mistake or suffer memory loss in the middle of performance, he or she can easily begin at the start of one of these sections and be spared the uncomfortable experience of sitting silently before an audience. There is also the advantage of memorizing the piece as it is learned in minute sections as memorization of the entire piece appears daunting to some and is often faced with lack of confidence and reluctance. Practicing in sections can also be used solely for memorization.
The secret ,which is not a secret, is to isolate the objective. However small a musical goal, it should be a complete goal and well achieved. The popular saying concerning forests and trees can usually be reversed concerning music.