Have you ever felt bored or frustrated with trying to perfect all the details when you practice? This is necessary work, however difficult, but trying to perfect all the details can keep you from getting a piece to the stage where you can play it, even if you only play if for your own pleasure. It’s like looking at a drop of water in a microscope and never seeing the ocean. Or not seeing the forest for the trees.
Incorporating some “macro” practice with your “micro” approach can help you get to the finish line with any piece faster. Even better, it’s a fun way to practice.
My point is this: practicing for details is the little picture, but the piece of music is actually a big picture. We like the image of the composer carefully choosing every note and every dynamic, but the reality is that composers create a whole piece. All those notes create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. All together the notes create a mood, a story, a beginning and an end.
If you’ve ever worked with a composer to help him or her edit a part, you know this is true. I have worked with many composers, and every one of them was more interested in the entirety of the work and the effect of the whole, rather than on one single note or chord.
Here are three ways to incorporate some “macro” playing into your practice:
1. Play a piece all the way through, as if you were performing it. Don’t stop for wrong notes even if there are a lot of them. This isn’t practice in the usual sense. You can play under tempo if you like. Notice any spots where the continuity is broken. These spots will need additional practice later. This way of practicing is also great training for sightreading.
2. Make three contrasting stories or pictures for the piece. If you haven’t had much experience creating storylines for pieces you’re learning, start with just one instead of three. This way of working will help you think about how every detail in your playing can be used to express a mood or an idea.
Each of your stories should be very different from the others. For instance, one may be the tale of a hero, while another is simply a reflection on a beautiful day. You will need to ignore the printed dynamics and tempo for the time being. You may choose to try a sedate minuet as a fast waltz, if you like.
Use your musical tools to express your picture or story. What tools, you ask? Tempo, dynamics, articulation like legato or staccato, phrasing, and tone color are some of the tools you have.
3. Play along with a recording, even if it’s just a YouTube video. This is a valuable tool for practicing getting from the beginning to the end. You can choose different recordings for variety, if you like. Don’t worry about your mistakes; just keep going. Your focus should be on what you hear, not what you’re playing. This is one way to learn pacing, and to increase your endurance and concentration.
It may feel scary, and you may not feel ready for it, but you’re only playing this way for yourself. And it really works. Try it and see!