Making Music Practice Musical Practice

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musicalDo you just practice your music, or is your practice musical as well? Does your practice feel like just a jumble of notes?

I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of times I have told a student, “Good. Now play it musically.”

In my mind, my words are reminding the student that musical expression needs to be a constant consideration, a regular part of learning music.

But sometimes a student will ask,” Am I ready to do the dynamics now?” That’s when I realize that what I thought I was telling my student wasn’t what she heard.

I strongly believe that musical expression isn’t something to be added at the end of the learning process the way we finish a cake with icing. The musical feeling of a piece is part of its very fabric, inseparable from the notes and rhythm and everything else.

Many music students feel that they can’t spare any thought for dynamics or other expressive details in the early stages of learning a piece of music. That’s an understandable position, but I would like to show you how it is not only possible to practice musically at any stage, but how musical practice can actually help you learn your music more quickly and more deeply.

I imagine we can agree on my starting premise that our purpose in learning a piece of music is to eventually be able to play it well, to communicate the character of the piece as the composer intended it.  Clearly this would entail playing the correct notes in the correct rhythm, as well as expressing the music with all the tools we have available to us. Dynamics, the louds and softs, are one of the first expressive tools we develop but there are many others including tone, phrasing, articulation and pacing for a start. And if it makes sense to practice the notes, why wouldn’t it make sense to practice these expressive elements as well?

The fact is that every note in a piece of music is unique. It carries not only a pitch and a duration (a C quarter note, for example) but it has an affect, a distinct character that derives from its rhythmic position and its place in the musical line. A note that is played on the beat might be played more strongly than a note that is off the beat. A note that falls at the end of a phrase might be softer than a note that appears at the peak of the phrase’s arch. There are countless options and choices you could make for each note of every piece.

And I believe that’s why we often put off practicing musically. There are just too many choices and we don’t know where to start. So we choose to focus playing the notes themselves.

I prefer, however, to ask my students to consider both the notes and the expression as they practice, and to learn each in stages, and this is why: the technical choices we make in our practice (such as fingering) must support the musical idea of the piece itself. In other words, every technical choice is really a musical choice. For instance, a fingering that is comfortable to play is not a good fingering if it won’t allow us to express the phrase. Or, if we can only play the piece evenly at a soft dynamic but it is indicated to be played fortissimo, then we need more technical work so we can play it well at the correct dynamic.

Musical practice helps you grow and develop your technical and expressive skills over three stages. The first stage is control, where you develop the control of the notes and how you play them technically and musically. The second stage is habit, where you solidify the choices you have made. This is the stage where the physical playing of the notes becomes inseparable from their musical affect. And the third stage is understanding, which deepens as you spend time with a piece of music over weeks, months and even years.

And let’s not forget: practicing musically is not only better for you, but it is more pleasurable too. It’s all about making music. That’s why I started playing and continue to love it every day. And I’m guessing it might be that way for you too…

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  • John Cornish

    I still find it hard to appreciate how with eight fingers and a simple construction of wood and nylon/gut/metal strings such beautiful music can be produced. I word association is used to “harp” I must answer “obsessed”. I have been learning for two years now and I can empathise with Anne’s post above. I usually play tunes that I already know and the musicality derives from that knowledge. I am, however, still amazed how by following the musical cues for a previously unknown piece it is possible to make a fair attempt at pleying it.



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