Intelligent management of daily instrumental practice
By Jean Comeau
When I started learning music, it was the fifties. My feet couldn’t touch the pedal of the piano and my hand was too small to play a three notes chord. The first thing I learned was that music is a serious matter. The main word was:
“The syllabus” meant: music theory; musical dictation and ear training; scales ascending and descending, in thirds, octaves, starting on all the tonics of the
circle of fifths; the yellow-Schirmer exercise book: Pischna, a torture, Brahms, a nightmare; a yellow-Schirmer prelude and fugue by Bach; a yellow-Schirmer sonata by Mozart or Beethoven; a “modern” piece (preferably Debussy, Chabrier or Ravel) usually not a yellow-Schirmer this time; a stressful concert at the end of the session where everybody had to be the best student year after year and… we start all over again the year after.
And, always, inevitably, without exception, fastened with a paper clip to the first page of my exercise book, a little leaf torn out of a notebook with, written on it, “to be practiced this week…”; and followed the program of the week. And all that worked out remarkably well. Did we like it? I don’t remember ever asking myself such a question; things were like that, and that was it! Dropout rate? Almost zero.
More than half a century later, what do I retain from all of this? A mountain of knowledge that makes me proud; the love of music, of course; but above all, I know for certain that learning music is a matter of intelligent management of daily practice.
For the following papers, I want to give some thought about this idea of intelligent management of daily practice. Can we improve the daily practice of our instrument? On that matter, I don’t believe there are any “rules” but the time spent on this activity deserves a serious thought. Is it possible to do more with less effort?
Carlo Munier, major figure of the mandolin, ends the second volume of his method with these words:
“Repetition is the soul of the study”.
This sentence reminds us this quote from Cécile Guilbert’s novel, Le musée national :
« Répétition, concentration, obsession… rien de grand ne s’est jamais accompli hors cette triade : c’est la définition même de l’amour. »
The practice of an instrument is also made, essentially, of repetition, concentration and obsession. On the other hand, this triad must be managed intelligently.
We usually compare the work of a musician to the work of an athlete or dancer. Repetition, concentration, obsession, this is how we usually portray an athlete or dancer. But an athlete would never train solely by lifting weights, or the dancer only by doing pas de chat! The training program of a marathon runner is not limited to running.
Yet many musicians practice only by playing on a loop the few pieces they intend to shortly play in public. For all disciplines, including music, we must have a well-organized intelligent program. Such a program will be well organized if it includes a good selection or interconnected exercises, a “structure”, should we say; and this program will be intelligent if we can determine why we are playing such or such exercise. We must avoid playing scales solely because “when we learn music, we play scales”!
All the articles that we intend to publish will talk about a topic related to a well-organized intelligent program.
First of all, we’ll try, for every topic, to justify the activity within the framework of a well-organized intelligent program.
Is it really useful to do warm-up exercises at the beginning of a practice? Is it essential? Why should we play scales? Are the exercises on the trill only used to practice this ornament or are we developing other playing skills?
Then, for every topic, we will try to determine the pedagogical objectives.
What should we normally be able to achieve by introducing such an activity in our daily practice? The warm-up exercises should be a good source of motivation since they are usually the first ones we practice. While practicing ornaments exercises we should expect to greatly develop our coordination.
Every topic will be copiously illustrated. We’ll include exercises to be downloaded; some of these exercises will be from the copyright free classic repertoire; sometimes we’ll add exercises that we’ll compose or adapt (let’s be frank: it’s very hard to be innovative in these matters!) There are a lot of free methods for the mandolin on the Internet, some of them being among the most famous (Calace, Munier) and many of the others can be bought at very reasonable price; we’ll give the links.
Many references are still protected under copyright so we can’t post them freely even though they would be very useful; we will give the reference for those who wish to buy them. We’ll give YouTube links, audio files or videos that we will produce ourselves. Finally, we’ll try to produce a document as useful and, above all, as immediately helpful as possible.
Contents of the Articles
1 — Warm-up Exercises
2 — Scales
3 — Technical Exercises
4 — Studies
5 — Repertoires: Past, Present and Future
6 — Preparation for a Public Performance
Here’s now a sneak preview of our first article on the warm-up exercises.
Is it useful to start our daily practice with a series of warm-up exercises? Isn’t it loosing precious time? Is the warm-up only muscular or is it more generally useful? What does a war-up exercise look like?
Of course, it can look like this
But we can vary in multiple ways to make it much more useful:
A warm-up exercise can be greatly rewarding if it is pleasant, nice and melodious.
How can we easily find lots of warm-up exercises to prevent boredom? Among others, the great composers’ methods are full of beautiful pieces like this one by Giuseppe Branzoli.
But we can also find lots of examples in violin or flute methods.
The warm-up period of our practice is the best time to revisit the acquired techniques that we may loose rapidly if we don’t practice them regularly.
In this next article on the warm-up exercises, you’ll find all these documents to be downloaded and many others.
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