Is it Done Yet? The Final Stage of Music Learning

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This is the third in this three-part series of posts on the Three Stages of Music Learning. This post is about the final stage: the Finish. You can find Stage One  and Stage Two here.

I have a cake recipe that my family loves. It’s a recipe for pound cake, and when I bake it right, it’s sweet, moist and delicious. The trick is in the baking.

It has to start in a cold oven, not preheated. If you open the oven door even once before the cake is close to done, the cake doesn’t rise properly. The recipe says it should bake for at least an hour and a quarter. But almost always, my oven needs an hour and a half.

So at the end of an hour and a quarter, I start checking. I get a long metal skewer and test the cake to see if it’s done. If not, it gets the extra fifteen minutes, during which I hope I’m not overbaking it. I’ve made this cake enough that I’m fairly confident about my results, but I cross my fingers anyway.

Taking a piece of music to the finish is similar. There’s some science, and some finger crossing, but if you’ve done your preparation properly, you can expect good results.

However, unlike the cake which gets eaten and is gone, a piece of music is constantly in creation. So when is it really done? When do we get to finish? When do we emerge from the “messy middle” and begin to put the polish on it?

I usually find that for myself and my students, the best way to get out of the “messy middle” is simply to move on. Most often, I don’t feel ready to move on, but as soon as I do, I know it was the right thing to do. My timing is the result of my experience. If you need some guidelines, here are a few I find helpful:

You should move on to the Finish (one or more of these may apply):

  • Three weeks before a performance (The exact time will depend on the length and difficulty of the piece).
  • When you’re feeling bored with your practice. It’s time to kick it up a notch.
  • When all that stands between you and the piece is “that one passage.”
  • One week before you think you’re ready.
  • When your teacher tells you.

And here is how you change your practice in this final stage:

  • Practice playing. This is not a redundancy, but rather an important distinction.  You will find problems that only arise when you play the entire piece. You may discover issues of pacing, energy, concentration, comparative tempos and dynamics that you just couldn’t spot until you enlarged your viewpoint.
  • Alternate “big picture” with detail review work. This way you can keep the technical clarity and the tempo and dynamic control precise while still creating the larger musical vision.
  • Revisit your problem passages with a larger perspective. You may find that the solution to that problem passage is found in this finish stage.  Here again, the big picture view may change your approach.

A quick note: My Kaleidoscope Practice books and course launch one week from today, June 2. I am so excited about being able to help harpists in this new way. As a “thank you” to my loyal email subscribers, I will be offering you some special offers and pricing. If you’re not an email subscriber, don’t miss out – sign up now!

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  • Lorna Ota

    I’m looking forward to purchasing the ‘Kaleidoscope’ sometime soon. My life is so busy with family and friends and volunteer work and other opportunities that I can hardly put away some solid quiet time for concentrating on all that you suggest. Perhaps, it’s just the phase of life I’m going through as i recently sold home am down-sizing and looking forward to having more time to concentrate on learning correctly with more concentration, and the other helpful points you’ve shared. I get so excited when I read your suggestions and methods. It seems so simple, and I’d like very much to improve my concentration, fingering techniques and muscle memory bank, etc.

    Reply

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