It’s a common refrain in my studio: “I just can’t get this part! I’ve tried practicing slowly, I’ve used practice rhythms, I even played it backwards and I JUST CAN’T GET IT!”
Here is my usual response: “Well, let’s talk about the phrasing. Have you worked on giving it direction?”
You might think I’m asking this question simply to drive the tween and teenage denizens of my studio absolutely insane, but I’m not. I’ve observed in my own playing that, when I become too focused on the technical difficulty of a passage, even when I do eventually work it out, it can sound clinical. It’s accurate but unimpressive because I’ve forgotten that it’s music in the face of the technical challenge. I have yet to discover a passage I can’t learn by distracting myself from the simple technique with attention to phrasing. Here are a few tips to help you with the same thing.
Scales are music, too. When you play your fundamental exercises, are you making them musical? Add dynamics and vibrato to your long tones. Phrase your scales and emphasize musical breathing, if you have to take a breath in the middle of something. Play with tone color, with volume, with articulation styles. Fundamentals are a primer, a great place to practice elements of musical style before you take them to your repertoire.
What is the actual problem? Sometimes, I need more slow practice to give my fingers and brain a chance to take in information about the passage. But sometimes, I can play perfectly fine when I start on it—I just have trouble executing it well when I get there in the stream of the piece. So what is the actual problem? Do I have a strong musical concept for that passage or am I simply moving through mindlessly? Am I getting hung up on something that happens right before the difficult part? If I can figure out what the actual problem is, I can solve it!
So…how does making it all music work? Honestly, the biggest part is this: every moment of music is worth your attention in terms of the product you present and the story you tell. Even if I’m counting through a long note, I’m also sending it forward or bringing it back with a tiny crescendo or decrescendo. I’m varying the speed and depth of my vibrato and directing the tone color to give the whole thing dimension.
I may have a measure that is nothing but fast notes, but I will be using small scale dynamics to give that line musical motion. I find often that if I am bored while I’m playing…it’s because I’m playing without engagement. And if I am worried solely about the technical aspects of playing, I am definitely not engaged!
Small scale dynamics? That’s right! Dynamics on a small scale—not enough to really change the perceived level of loudness—can sound like expressive musicality. Take that run and give it a tiny crescendo or decrescendo. Does it feel better? Did you make the same mistake in the same place?
Make connections. Play horizontally, rather than vertically. What I mean by that is this: notes should connect to each other, and you get to interpret the intent of the composer, or make it up for yourself, in terms of what goes with what. Even articulated notes can connect, not literally, of course, but in terms of the direction you give to your line. Tuck them inside one of those tiny crescendos or decrescendos, and listen to the difference!
Think of this article not as a how-to but as inspiration for you to find your own way of thinking about the hard part of whatever you are playing. Find a way to love it, to know it, to embrace that difficult challenge as an integral part of your internal song, and the people you play it for are likely to love it, too!