Isolating problem spots

October 24, 2014

Earlier this month I posted about a fundamental practicing concept that sometimes escapes my less-experienced students. Here is another:

Me: Play your D melodic minor scale.

Student: [Begins D minor scale, plays a wrong note in the second octave.]

Me: Whoops, remember to play B-natural.

Student: Okay. [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Me: Please start at the second-octave A, and play just from there to—

Student: [Starts from second-octave A, makes the same mistake, proceeds to finish the scale.]

Me: No, I want you to start at the A, play just to the B-natural, and stop.

Student: [Plays.]

Me: Okay, that’s correct. Now—

Student: [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Practicing in overly large segments is an issue for less-experienced students for at least three reasons. The first is that is it makes it difficult to notice exactly where the problem is happening. Students may tend to “power through” a section and evaluate it as a whole (“That wasn’t very good”), then simply start over again and hope for the best. Sometimes my younger students are surprised when I point out that they are actually making the same mistake over and over. In their minds, it’s a roll of the dice every time, hoping that everything turns out right, and if it doesn’t, then start again and hope for better luck this time. Practicing in smaller segments makes it much easier to identify and isolate problems.

photo, Basheer Tome
photo, Basheer Tome

The second issue is that even if the precise problem is known, practicing it within too large a segment increases the cognitive load—it’s hard to devote enough attention to the actual problem when there are so many other notes to think about. Plus, practicing too long of a segment raises the stakes in a way that often doesn’t work well for inexperienced practicers: by the time you actually arrive at the problem spot, the pressure is really on to get it right, since you’ve already invested a lot in this run-through. If you isolate the problem to a much smaller segment, it’s not such a big deal if you have to start again.

The third issue is efficiency. If your goal is to correct one wrong note, which lasts less than a second, and you play 30 seconds’ worth of music leading up to it and another 30 seconds’ worth after it, then you can only get about one repetition done per minute. Even if you get it right, it will take you hours to really solidify that passage. But if you can narrow the problem down to two seconds’ worth of music, you can do many repetitions per minute.

In most cases, the problem that needs fixing has to do with getting from one note to another successfully. It may be that the second note isn’t the right one, or that it doesn’t respond right, or that the articulation isn’t correct, or a variety of other things, but the crucial concept is that there is a pair of notes, and the first note is right, and the second one isn’t.

Step one is to practice just those two notes, not just once through, but many times. If this is only accomplished with difficulty, it may be due to the second note having a less-familiar fingering, or perhaps some kind of particular response difficulty. Practice those two notes—and only those two notes—over and over until they improve. If they don’t, consult a teacher who can help to you diagnose and improve your technique.

If playing the two notes is trivially easy, then the problem is something about the context in which they appear. Add one more note before the first one, and repeat it several times. If it’s still easy, add one more. Continue until the problem returns, and practice that sequence of notes slowly and carefully until it feels natural and solid. If it becomes clear that adding more notes before the problem isn’t what’s triggering it, then start again from the two notes and gradually add notes after them. Sometimes anticipating what follows can cause something to go wrong.

Don’t be overly anxious to put the (former) problem spot back into the “context” of a whole scale or etude or movement. Make most of your practicing small-segment work, and very gradually reassemble the small segments into slightly larger ones. Repeat the slightly larger ones many times, then combine them again into still larger ones.

Take the time to break your practicing down into smaller chunks, isolate the problem spots, and work them methodically and repetitively.