Sep. 9, 2015

Practicing And Memorizing, Part I

Okay.  You've learned keyboard topography and have a certain level of skill.  You love this piece you don't know.  It's within your technical grasp.  You want to learn it.  You've seen to it that you've got a copy of the score in front of you.  You've spent some time "silent reading" it and know how it's put together.  You now have time to sit down to the instrument finally, put the score on the rack, and start to play your way through it, slowly, all parts together.  You get a few beats into it and have to stop.  Disgust begins to flash through your mind that "maybe you can't play it."  You back up, try again from the beginning, and the same thing happens.  You give a sigh, lay it aside, and never get anywhere with it.  But maybe you already can play a piece or two far longer and more difficult than the new one in front of you ... so ... what went wrong ? 

Just this:  You haven't failed yourself -- you're still as capable as you ever were, it's just that you've skipped steps and expected the same result.  No one's brain, fingers, and feet can perform a new series of fine motor skills until they're trained to do so, and ALL training grows by degrees.  No one climbs a ladder by placing one foot on the first rung and the other foot on a rung 2/3 of the way up.  Before we can expect to put all 3 staves together we first need to train the brain to play one staff at a time, then two at a time.  That doesn't mean we "don't have what it takes."  It means nothing of the kind.

Think of learning a piece you don't know as climbing a ladder.  That climb needs to be broken down to one rung at a time.  The time-honored proven plan of 7 rungs, or steps, is to begin practicing from the score with 1) right hand separately, then 2) left hand separately, then 3) pedal separately, following this with 4) both hands together, 5) right hand and pedal, 6) left hand and pedal, and finally 7) both hands and pedal, SLOWLY, working out the fingering, hand division, and pedalling as we go along, marking the score accordingly.  We divide TO conquer:  And while this may seem the long way around, it's actually considerable time gained.

We aim for accuracy with our practicing, of course, but not primarily.  Organ playing is many more things than that.  Accuracy will come -- it's freedom which lead us to that, and freedom is gotten by repetition and keeping good habits going.   

Organ practice isn't drudgery -- it's a privilege, one for which the player should be grateful.  Two-thirds of the rest of the world is too under-nourished to even play a musical instrument.  Many major talents, some of whom hold important professional positions, wish they had time for daily practice, but, the reality is,  they do not.  Sometimes they have so much administrative work to do a certain day that they don't make it to the bench ... or maybe they're too exhausted to make it to the bench.  Anyone with opportunity to work with any kind of musical instrument every day, even for just a few minutes, should be deeply grateful.  Practice is not a burden.  It is not a chore.  It is not performance.  It's preparing for performance.  It's a privilege to be enjoyed.

If there's one thing to remember about practicing repertoire, it's this:  when we're trying to learn a piece we don't know, we discipline ourselves to DO IT SLOWLY AT FIRST, AT HALF CONCERT TEMPO.  We work out the best fingering and hand division as we go along, and when we can play it correctly without mistakes, at this very slow tempo, from start to finish, at least twice, then and only then may we speed it up.  One of the worst things an organ scholar can do when they're learning an unfamiliar piece from the repertoire is to start practicing it at concert tempo.  This can lead to a very wrong impression, that the piece is too difficult for them when, in many cases, its within their grasp but they're denying themselves the benefit of the period of slow practice.  If half concert tempo is still leading to mistakes, then we subdivide the task:  first we practice just the right hand part, then the left hand part, then the pedal part, SLOWLY; after this, it's both hands together, right hand and pedal, then left hand and pedal, SLOWLY; finally then, we're ready to put both hands and pedal together, again SLOWLY.  To achieve the results we're seeking, this period of slow practice MUST NOT be skipped.  It's the way the human brain is programmed to work.

If the piece being learned is a fugue, this will require a special approach to practicing that is described elsewhere on this blog [See blog, How To Learn A Fugue].  Highly gifted organists throughout history sometimes concocted their own method of practicing everything, including fugues, the same way.  Such was the case with the French organist, pedagogue, and composer Marcel Dupre (photo).  In 1922 he performed from memory in a series of 10 long recitals at the Paris Conservatoire the complete organ works of Bach, a feat all the more astonishing considering that each of the recitals was spaced only 2 weeks apart.  Dupre, in his teaching, was a great master and devotee of the strategy of "divide and conquer" and employed a different kind of ladder to reach the objective -- a practicing and memorization system similar to that used by the great German organist Helmut Walcha [See blog, Practicing and Memorizing, Part IV]. 

In his Preface to his "79 Chorales" Dupre suggests that the learner subdivide the piece being learned into separate fragments of 4 measures each.  For each 4-measure fragment he would learn measure 1, work out the best fingering and hand division for all the parts at the same time as he went along, including the pedal, and repeat it a few times in a slow tempo, perhaps 5 times looking at the score and 5 times without looking.  He would then learn measures 2, 3, and 4 one at a time the same way, always starting on the downbeat of the first measure and finishing on the downbeat of the next measure.

After learning these 4 measures separately he would then practice 2 measures at a time, combining measures 1-2, 2-3, and 3-4, repeating them 5-10 times.  He would then practice these separate measures in groups of three:  1-2-3, and 2-3-4, maybe 5-10 times  Finally he would put all four together in a row: 1-2-3-4.

After taking a break, or the next day maybe, he would proceed to the next fragment of 4 measures and learn them in the same manner.  After learning the entire piece in these fragments of 4 measures each he would then go back and combine the first 2 fragments together and practice 8 measures at a time, later taking 16 measures at a time, and so forth.  He also pointed out that not all musical passages are equally difficult, that some are easier than the others, and there are places where not all the moving parts are present.  He would say that this is especially true at the beginning of fugues where the student will need to repeat the opening measures much less than others having a more full polyphonic texture [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations, Part I].

By proceeding in this fashion Dupre found that these 4 measure fragments seem to stick together in larger chunks with great ease, the whole learning process becomes faster and easier, and more importantly, as difficulties are encountered they get pulverized.  In a matter of a few short weeks he found that he had learned and memorized an entire work in a very solid and systematic way.  By dividing the entire task into smaller bite-sized tasks we can make use of this same approach to guide our own progress in learning repertoire, but it doesn't have to be in 4 measure fragments.  We might focus instead on maybe one page a day, a line at a time, working out the best fingering and pedalling, and practicing it over and over until fatigue sets in or we can play it without mistakes at close to concert tempo, whichever comes first.

Any new music you practice at the organ today will, at the end of your practice session, go to a place in your brain where it's temporarily stored.  This process happens with anything you try to memorize.  Over the next 6-8 hours your brain works to empty that learning from temporary storage and transfer it to a different place in your brain where it's permanently stored.  When we perform anything from memory, we're simply accessing what our brain has placed in permanent storage.  There's some evidence that it's important not to do anything that could interfere with this transfer process going on in the brain during this critical 6-8 hour period, such as by engaging in other hand/eye learning activities (playing video games, for example) during that time, which could cause what's in temporary storage to be deleted by the brain before it's sent to permanent storage.  This may explain why many organ students achieve good memory results by doing little or no hand/eye learning after their organ practice, or perhaps by scheduling some of their organ practice in the evening before bedtime.  Sleeping 6-8 hours helps consolidate this memory transfer process going on in the brain.  The next day, students often find that they can easily recall what they practiced the night before.  It's there [See blog, Practicing And Memorizing, Part II].

So, using this knowledge, let's say, you've spent time on an interesting piece, learned it thoroughly, and then moved on to new material.  You haven't practiced that piece in, let's say, a year, and now you're thinking about using it again.  You sit down without the score in front of you, confident that you have it in tight memory, and start playing it again, only to find some strange spots where your memory seems to be blank.  You should relax here and NEVER EVER, REPEAT NEVER, UPSET YOURSELF ABOUT THIS.  That isn't where it is.  You haven't lost anything.  Your efforts to learn a new work, any work, and learn it thoroughly, are never for nothing.  The entire work, every bit of it, every single note and chord along with all the muscle memory, is still permanently stored in your brain.  Nothing's changed there.  The winds of time have simply obscured bits of it to where you just need to spend a few minutes sweeping away the sand to gain access to every part of it that you already learned.

Spend a few minutes, set the score in front of you, go over the parts that seem to be missing, use the same fingering and hand division, and watch what happens.  You'll think it's sorcery.  The entire piece will reappear again, as if by magic.  Whole passages that you think are gone forever will materialize right in front of you.  This author is living proof that this process will work.  During one period in his life he was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness for months and his recuperation from surgery would not allow him to practice the organ for even longer.  After being away from it for nearly an entire year, he was able to get it all back with a little bit of practice.

Practicing extremes is another way to maximize our ability to perform.  The premise is, he or she who can do the most can do the least.  That premise is good.  This is the reason why an "on deck" batter in a baseball game swings a bat with a weight on it which is removed when they step into the batter's box ... why a voice student or other instrumentalist works on their extreme high and low ranges to extend them as much as possible ... why the manual parts of organ pieces are often practiced on a piano or weighted keyboard to help develop finger strength and muscle technique ... why organists practice with both feet at the high and low ends of the pedalboard ... why organists practice scales in 2 octaves on the pedals and 3 octaves on the manuals ... why organists spend time on the highest manual of an organ keydesk or console to identify any potential problems with bench position or balance.  By practicing extremes like this we're better prepared for the usual technical requirements that come our way.

(con't in Part II)