Musicianship Rule #11 – Practice with Your Brain

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Musicianship Rules


Practice with Your Brain, my Musicianship Rule #11, is all about “informing your performance.” It means bringing the best of your musical knowledge to your practice and paying attention to everything on the page. It means going beyond just playing the notes, and seeking to understand everything you are able about the piece of music you are learning.

Over the years I have developed some rules of musicianship that I try to keep in my practicing, performing and teaching. Like Gibbs’s rules on NCIS , my list isn’t complete and it’s completely arbitrary. The rules aren’t always easy to follow, but every time I try to skirt the rules, I pay a price. Sometimes it’s just a little embarrassing; occasionally it’s more painful.

I was caught in a Rule 11 violation this past weekend. I was playing the Tournier “Sonatine” in a church service, the first movement as a prelude, the second movement during the service, and the last as a postlude. The organist, who is a very fine musician and a good friend, asked me the key of the end of the second movement so he could play a suitable modulation to the next hymn. I knew the final chord of course, and told him what it was, a C-flat ninth chord . As he pondered the unwieldy key, it occurred to me that I had violated Rule 11.

I know plenty of music theory, and I understand compositional form. But I had failed to apply this knowledge to the “Sonatine.” The answer I gave my friend showed that I had just been “playing the notes” instead of bringing my knowledge to my practice. That is a classic Rule 11 violation.

Here are some ways you can avoid common Rule 11 violations. When you are working on a piece:
1. Know the key of the piece.
2. Be sure you understand what the Italian (or French or German) tempo indications mean. When in doubt, look it up.
3. Learn the composer’s name. Even better, also learn a few pertinent facts about the composer.
4. Think about the title of the piece. Does it refer to a place, a time, a season, an event? How does this affect your musical interpretation?
5. Keep an eye out for “surprises” in the music: changes in clef, key, tempo, meter, etc.
6. Remember that music theory study helps us understand the inner workings of music, as well as recognize patterns that help us learn music faster. Be a good theory student.
7. Ask questions. If there is something you don’t understand about any part of the music you are playing, ask! Ask your teacher, look it up on line, phone a friend.

By the way, the correct answer to my friend’s question was a B ninth chord. Of course.

Do you have “rules” you apply to your practice or performance?

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