If you’ve ever experienced the terror of sitting through an orchestra rehearsal where the notes are flying around you and you’re lost beyond hope, this post is for you! That feeling, you may be relieved to know, occurs in most players. Looking ahead at relatively unfamiliar music (or even if it’s familiar music!) and seeing those sixteenth (or 32-) notes can cause a player to immediately activate “fight or flight mode”. If you fight, chances are the section before the music starts to speed up in anticipation for the faster notes ahead, racing you through the section ahead of everyone else. If you “flight”, however, your instrument becomes remarkably silent for the notes in question, and confidently re-enters whenever the music’s a little less crazy. Don’t try to deny it….. that’s why we’re here.
When you take this section of music home to practice, there are a few steps to follow in properly practicing this section. Here’s the method I like to use:
1. Make sure every note is in tune.
Don’t rush through this section- study how your fingers hit proportionally to each other. Do you have a whole-step between your 2 and 3, then immediately change to a half- step? Work out the notes first, becoming comfortable fingering through the section. Forget about bowing for now- your goal is to master the notes. Continue until it’s almost at your desired tempo.
2. Identify the notes living ON each beat, and the notes on the ANDs of the beats.
Isolate these pitches, and forget about the others. I call these notes “pilot notes”- they help you keep tempo. Play through just these notes several times (so you’ll essentially be playing eighth notes), so your ear becomes comfortable with what I like to call the “skeleton rhythm” of the section. Bring this up to tempo. At this point, still pay no attention to bowing.
3. Start incorporating back in the notes you omitted- but stay slow, and maintain rhythm.
When you add back in the other notes, compare for yourself how the rhythm sounds now as opposed to when you played only the skeleton rhythm. If the pilot notes are staying on the tempo, you’re getting there. Now start to increase speed, and make sure you can play the rhythm without any bowings at tempo.
4. Finally! Get that bowing back in there!
At this point, you can finally put back in the bowing. If the bowing’s the thing that’s been waylaying you all along, now’s the time to try some variations of bowing. For example, having every note bowed separately is a variation. You could try slurring 3 and separating 1, or playing one and slurring 3, or slurring every 2 notes, or… or… You see what I mean, right? Being able to practice this skill builds ambidexterity between your left and right hands- what your left hand does isn’t quite so dependent upon your slurring patterns or lack thereof.
5. Back up and practice getting into the section
I know this sounds boring. You already know how to play the first few measures before the difficult section. What you need to be able to perform, however, is the transition between the two sections. This is backwards practice… make sure how you enter the section in question is just as awesome as the section you’ve been practicing now sounds.
6. Re-introduce expression
Be sure, after you’ve rehashed the section SO MANY TIMES, that your dynamics, articulations, etc. are still present and accurate.
The process may seem tedious, but I promise- if you use these steps, the section you once considered “scary beyond all reason.” And that phrase, friends, reminds me of one of my favorite movies. I believe the clip I quoted is included in this montage. Enjoy!
Note: I found the clip on YouTube, and I only present the embedded link here. I do not claim ownership of any materials within the link.