“Next” steps in preparing repertoire

May 2, 2015

I think many aspiring musicians pass through a phase in their development where they have “learned” fingerings, music reading skills, and other fundamentals at a basic degree of mastery, and turn their attention to developing sufficiently fluent technique (mostly finger technique) to tackle the instrument’s standard literature. Once they acquire that fluency and tackle that repertoire, they will begin to deal with the nuances of interpretation.

Whether this is the best way to do things is a subject for another post (or book), but the reality is that a lot of advancing music students, including many of my university students, are at a point where they are very focused on playing notes in time in tempo, and when they achieve that level with an étude or repertoire piece, sometimes they don’t have a clear idea of what else needs to be done to bring the assignment to a performance level.

Photo, S. Parker
Photo, S. Parker

If you or your students find yourself in that holding pattern, here are just a few ideas of what to “add” to your technical preparation:

  • Are you following all the composer’s marked articulations? dynamics? tempo changes?
  • In the places between the dynamic markings, are you giving the phrases appropriate shaping?
  • Is each note in tune? Does each note have a characteristic, pleasing, and consistent tone? Does each note respond precisely when and how you intend it to?
  • Have you familiarized yourself with all of the composer’s textual indications, and translated them if necessary? Are you making them audible?
  • Are you using vibrato (if applicable) in a purposeful and expressive way?
  • Are you taking a purposeful approach to performance practice? For example, are you using historically-informed approaches to ornamentation, dynamics, tempo, articulation, etc.? Or, alternatively, have you made a conscious and well-informed decision to break from these?
  • Have you studied live performances and recordings of this work by the finest musicians, compared their interpretations, and made careful choices about which ideas to incorporate or adapt into your own performance?
  • Have you thoroughly studied the full score, and do you understand how your part fits into the whole?
  • Do you have opinions about the formal structure, and are you using those to shape your overall interpretation?

Those are just a few, but probably enough to keep most of us busy for a lifetime of study. Feel free to add some more in the comments.

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