Consider the maze in this picture. Those twisty paths full of dead ends confuse you on your way to the center. But if you were able to start from the center, it would be relatively simple and much faster to find your way out.
When we practice, we envision the final performance or finished piece as the goal, the “center” of the maze. But suppose that we take that piece as the starting point for furthering our musical development, so that we not only learn the piece, but learn more about music and the way we play, the bigger issues in our music-making?
If you had music lessons as a child, your lesson books probably looked like mine: Each week, my teacher assigned me a scale and arpeggio to play, an etude that worked on a specific technical challenge, and a repertoire piece that illustrated that particular skill in a “real music” context. This kind of lesson plan is designed to help students develop their technique, musicianship and repertoire. the three areas every musician needs to develop. This is practicing “from the outside in,” using progressive skill development to attain a higher level of accomplishment, and it’s very effective over time.
But time is precisely what most adult students lack. They have other obligations and commitments besides their harp study, while at the same time they are driven to achieve results quickly. And we teachers want to help them get there. This often results in trying to jump from the outside edge of the maze right into the center without following any path, without any of the intermediate stepping stones to progress that make a student successful.
But there is a third way: learning from the inside out.
Learning from the inside out means working on the core skills that you need accomplish your musical goals through your repertoire, instead of in addition to it. You simply use the practice you are already doing to concentrate on these important skills. This a practical path to progress and will help you understand your music better, learn it faster and retain it longer.
When you practice from the inside out, you work on developing the most important musical and technical skills as you practice your repertoire, rather than adding extra exercises, drills or etudes to the pieces you are already practicing. It’s not that you shouldn’t be playing scales,exercises and etudes; I believe that they are important and effective ways to master any instrument.
But they are only effective if you actually do them. And if your practice time is so limited that you can’t fit them in, or if you just hate doing them, then practicing from the inside out is a good alternative.
Even if you do your technical work regularly, practicing from the inside out helps you connect your technique and musicianship skills to the repertoire pieces you are studying. It doesn’t even take extra time, just some observation, thought and the desire to learn more than just the notes in front of you.
What are these skills and how can you incorporate developing them into your regular practice?
Technique is our physical mastery of the instrument, and our ability to express ourselves at the instrument is only as great as our technique. If your fingers fumble more than they actually play, the music suffers.
- Choose a tricky or challenging spot. Play very slowly, concentrating on using your best technique.
- Find a fundamental technique, like scales or arpeggios, used in the piece. Practice that technique separately checking your technique as you play. Extra bonus: practice it with your other hand too just to keep both hands in top condition.
- Turn any group of measures into an exercise, making certain that your fingers are working smoothly, with an even sound and secure placing.
Musicianship includes all the other aspects of the craft of music, the ones that are important no matter what instrument you play. Musicians need a basic familiarity with music theory and music history, solid note reading and rhythm skills and understanding of musical terms of tempo and expression. These are the elements that allow you to play music with understanding. Just as reading comprehension means not only reading the words, but processing them and understanding their meaning, musicianship is musical comprehension, understanding the significance of the notes. And while the study of musicianship can be intensive, most of us only need to add gradually to our current knowledge over time.
- Make it a habit to know the key of each piece you play, and play that scale before you begin.
- Look up any musical terms relating to tempo or expression that you don’t understand.
- Identify the chords used in an accompaniment pattern or arpeggio passage.
- Practice your note reading by saying the names of the notes as you play a tricky passage. (This is also an excellent aid in memorization.)
- Observe the dynamics printed in the piece and consider how they support the mood of the piece.
These are just a few of the many ways you can use your regular repertoire practice to help you grow technically and musically. There are many more – get creative!