Region I AGO Convention
Massachusetts June 27-30, 1999
for both organ practice as well as choirs.
by Will Sherwood,
get so caught up in the panic of preparing a piece in a hurry, that we fail
to step back and see if there might be an easier or more effective (maybe even
enjoyable!) approach to practicing.
Here're some points to help you examine your tecnhiques:
- Be alert and listen for
mistakes. Too often we are tired or pressured and want to hear the
right notes, or tell ourselves that we'll come back to fix something later.
Be disciplined to take the time to examine a mistake more closely. (David
Higgs calls it: Making friends with wrong notes)
- When you hear a mistake,
stop and deduce why it happened in order to focus on how to prevent it in
the future-- by all means, don't learn the mistake by having
repeated it. Mistakes can be due to:
- not paying attention;
random occurrence; miscommunication/misunderstanding
- un-awareness-- not
looking closely enough at the music, for instance, or believing that it's
another way in your mind.
fingering- it's just not technically reasonable
- new awareness-- just
realizing that a part needs to be a certain way
- you need a reminder
written in the music (don't be shy about marking up your scores-- all
of us need emphasis reminders; tip: use yellow sticky notes or write over
scotch tape where you need to erase a lot)
- reminder notation
that you had written in the music was not effective because:
it's become routine
(you've acclimated to it)
it's not visually
eye-catching (suggestion: use colored pen,
colored post-it sticky notes, sticky arrows,
diagonally oriented lines or text to draw attention)
you don't have
a standard convention that you use, such as the
proverbial eyeglasses symbol, or
phrase/accidental/piston/manual notation marking.
Adopt a convention for yourself and stick with it. (e.g.,
it doesn't matter whether you use triangles or squares
for general pistons, just stick with one system so
there's never any doubt or hesitation in the heat of the battle)
when to interrupt the playing/singing of a phrase for analysis/correction:
frustrating and tiresome and seemingly nit-picky
psychologically demotivating (negative messages, breaking
down confidence because something's always wrong)
lose the musical line concept or goal
if choral, balance interruptions by marking your score (with pencil,
sticky arrows, write page/staff # on a separate list,
or simply hold your non-conducting hand on the spot)
and come back to the list, either in order (forward or reverse),
or order of priority
keyboard, put yellow sticky to mark spots needing help; I often mark the
corner of the page, then I know in the future where to brush up
infrequently may be:
forget the "mental list" of notes/phrases needing attention
false confidence that the piece is perfect
you're kidding yourself that it's perfect, or overlooking something
that does need attention
may be helpful to intentionally overlook problems in order to:
get the overall "big picture" musical concept of a piece
gain confidence or motivation that it is really worth it to
put more time into this piece
treat yourself to getting through a piece
it's the warm-up rehearsal right before the performance, you need to determine
and focus on your real goal of the performance, and...
reflect on the musical (spiritual) concept that you want to present/convey
build confidence and minimize nerves (people perform better with
a reasonable level of nerves, i.e., not too shaky)
correct some priority sore points, or particularly visible parts
that the audience would really notice
if really shakey, work on "just getting through" the piece, and
"recovery" strategies/tactics (if choral, clearly communicate
your emergency cues and which part to follow to get
back on track).
choral, teach a few signals that you'll remind them of right
before beginning the piece in order to focus the
choir on particular musical/mood/relaxation concepts
if keyboard, discipline yourself to focus on your goals and relaxation
and avoidances of your weak tendencies.
however, avoid yelling at yourself or the group which might make
tension higher and the risk of a poorer performance more
performing-- this may sound strange, but some California-style guided imagery
or imagining or positive thinking may help:
preparing yourself to play: deep breath, a few seconds of meditation.
(Watch how athletes prepare to do gymnastics for instance.)
yourself (or the group) actually in performance:
what's it like, what might be the distractions/surprises (e.g.,
coughing, sirens, people walking around, ciphers), what
is the lighting (and are there any likely problems due
to perhaps an evening performance), what does it smell like (it's
better to be prepared not to be distracted by perfumes or
the heat-of-the-lights smell)
a "dry run" so that you can simulate segues between pieces,
logistics of bowing & getting the next piece of music ready
(and registered), seating/standing of the choir, hearing of pitches,
sequence of overall key progressions for each piece in
the body to fully absorb the music, musical concepts, spirit,
and even mechanical sensations in the fingers.
to be spooked by a surprise first-time awareness of, for instance,
of the keyboard (or sweaty fingertips).
Learn how to ignore
the desire to cough or scratch, etc.
- Think of the qualities
of a good teacher, and then be that to yourself. Listen from "afar" and critique
yourself objectively, or imagine that you're someone else (friend and "foe").
Tape-record your music. Listen critically. Listen selectively to: phrasing,
cleanness, melodic lines, etc. In any case, Listen!
- Make a list of your goals
and weak spots. Then stick with it to improve.
- If slow improvement,
then step back and ask why?; what's holding me back?
- If there is a persistent
problem, one person suggests this (and it may sound silly, but it works for
some!): talk to your fingers- "No, don't do that"
differing practice techniques such as:
- Starting from the last
phrase and working backwards (a refreshing approach for choirs too!). This
way, by the end of the rehearsal, you can have the satisfaction of ending
the piece. Too, we often lose energy by the time we get to practicing the
end of a piece, thus start at the end.
- If keyboard, use altered
(dotted) rhythms, super slo-mo, silent keyboard, counting aloud, change
stops/octaves/manuals, piano practice, etc. Don't drill on a section for
too long, come back to it later
- Play at-tempo only
at the beginning and ending of your session, else slow down! Maintain technical
accuracy through slow practice. Be aware of the speed limit.
- If choral, use combinations
of only 2 or 3 parts at a time, or scat syllables instead of the words.
- Choose the time of day
to match your bio-clock and seasonal energies
- Take a deep breath occasionally,
correct sagging posture; stretch; take a break.
and make it enjoyable!
Will Sherwood is Director
of Music and Organist at First Unitarian in Worcester, Massachusetts, and describes
himself as an avid practicing procrastinator!
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