Practice technique: anchoring

This is a technique I recommend often to students who are struggling with notey passages. I can’t remember where I picked it up, or whether “anchoring” is my own name for it or someone else’s. No doubt credit for this belongs to somebody smarter than I.

The problem that I sometimes see with my students (and, okay, occasionally with myself) is that fast passages are uneven and panicky. The student sees a long string of notes and frantically dives in, to the detriment of meter and tempo, and with notes accidentally omitted or added.

Let’s consider this excerpt:

from Debussy Première rhapsodie
from Debussy Première rhapsodie (clarinet)

It’s a challenging passage—shifting harmony, intervallic motion, awkward fingerings. This is a recipe for frustration using the old standby method of playing slowly with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. Instead, let’s set the metronome aside for a few minutes, and play the passage in an intentionally uneven way:

with added tenuto-accent-fermata
with added tenuto-accent-fermatas

Put lots of weight on the metric pulses (the “anchor” notes): play them long, loud, and with emphasis. Hold each fermata long enough to scope out the next four notes, then move through them as quickly as you accurately can, coming to rest again on the next fermata. Repeat the passage in this way as many times as you can stand.

Here’s what this accomplishes:

  • It makes you think about logical groups of notes, rather than trying either to process each note individually or to deal with the whole phrase as an overwhelming sea of notes. It’s the sweet spot between too much mental chatter and too little focus.
  • It encourages effective phrasing by treating the notes as leading toward downbeats.
  • It trains your ears to hear the notes in fours (at least in this 2/4 passage—try threes instead if the situation calls for it). Now as you return to playing the passage evenly, you are more likely to notice if you are omitting or adding notes.

To transition from this technique into a more performable approach, gradually decrease the duration of the fermatas and the weight of the accents, while continuing to mentally emphasize the anchor notes and place them carefully in tempo (time to get the metronome back out). Also try spacing the anchors farther apart as an intermediate step—one at the beginning of each measure, for example, or every few measures as appropriate.

Practice smart!

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