CONCEPTUAL PRACTICE STRATEGIES
SING BEFORE YOU PLAY
Your practice is bound to be more efficient if you do sufficient preparatory work to internalize a passage of music before you ever play it. One way to do this is to teach yourself to sing a passage of music to the best of your ability, before ever picking up your instrument. I know, I know, you think (or “know”) you’re not a singer, and that’s ok--neither am I! We’re not going for perfection here. We’re going for learning. The purpose of this exercise is to help you figure out how much of the music you can already hear in your head, and to use that understanding to guide your next steps.
First, find as many musical elements in the passage as you can, and identify which of the elements you could successfully sing to yourself without first referring to your instrument. Some elements to consider:
RHYTHM. This is a crucial element. If you can’t accurately sing the written rhythms to yourself, there is no way you will be able to consistently perform the music on your instrument. Learning the basics of a specific counting system can help you to approach your rhythmic study of a piece in a very methodical way.
PITCH. This is probably the next element you would think of, because along with rhythm, it probably occupies most of your attention as you pick up your instrument to practice a piece. Without your instrument or a recording, it can be difficult to hear in your mind the pitch content of a passage of music. (Extra ear training will help with this; you can find some helpful resources here if this is something you want to pursue further.) BUT, even if you don’t feel confident in your ability to hear the pitch content of the piece, try to sing the rhythms with a melodic contour that at least matches the basic contour of what you see printed on the page. So, sing a higher pitch when higher pitches are printed, and a lower pitch when lower pitches are printed.
STYLE. What can you tell about the style of the piece based on its title, genre, or other written instructions printed throughout the piece? If these instructions are printed in another language, do you know what they mean? Should the piece be bouncy and cheerful in character? Forceful and angry? Calm and contemplative? What should the music convey, and how can you convey this in your first attempts to sing it?
There are several other elements you could consider, but these should give you a good starting place to help yourself form an internal auditory model of the passage. Once you have considered each of these elements, try assembling a few of them to sing at a time until you are able to sing a musically convincing (even if off-pitch!) rendition of the passage. Take your time! This can be difficult and even awkward at first, but embrace the awkwardness. You’ll probably be surprised by how complete of an auditory model you can internalize before you ever play the music on your instrument! And then as you become more familiar with playing the piece on your instrument, you can continue to refine your auditory model to include all of the musical ideas you want.
The more you incorporate this kind of practice into your routine, the more comfortable you will become with it and the more your musical ideas will shine through in your playing!