“I’m sooo sorry, Mr. Bach.” I said this under my breath as I walked offstage from a catastrophic performance of the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It was just the first piece on the program of my recital at my parents’ church when I was in college, and I had blown it. The prelude had fallen completely apart. The fugue had gone surprisingly well, if a little shaky, after the prelude meltdown. Right then I couldn’t let myself worry about what had caused everything to go horribly wrong, I just had to gather my thoughts and get back out there to play the rest of the challenging program.
Upon more reflection, I realized that my real mistake had been to learn the piece in my habitual fashion, playing it over and over until I could play it without the music. Although it had worked for me countless times in the past, it wasn’t good enough for a performance of Bach for which I was already very nervous. I needed a way of learning music that would allow for a more robust knowledge of the piece, with the ability to recover from any slip. It took me many years to find the new way of learning, though.
Have you ever had a performance fall apart? What about a high-stakes audition? When you are playing on stage, do you spend more effort on keeping the hard parts together than on making the music speak to the audience? It’s not just a matter of spending more hours in the practice room (although it can’t hurt). With a little advance planning you can minimize the hours spent practicing and still sound like a top performer.
The vast majority of people don’t do the prep work up front. Any good conservatory graduate knows how to put in the long hours and practice until they sound good. But applying a strategic approach can give you an edge over the average trained musician. With the right planning and methodical practice from day one, you can quickly sound like a virtuoso, performing with polish, finesse, and vision.
Having a sophisticated and flexible interpretation is the way to stand out from the crowd. Most people learn to play the notes and rhythms, and then spend whatever time they have left refining their interpretation. If you can systematize your learning process and front-load the work with the preparations needed in order to begin refining the nuances, shapes, and musical meaning early on, your interpretation will be more mature when the performance date arrives.
The best way to speed up the learning process is to ensure that you begin by learning what the music is supposed to sound like, all of the markings in the score that should be followed, and what techniques are required in order to make the music sound right. Knowing the music inside and out will empower you to conquer performance anxiety, to be able to adapt when things go awry in performance, and to make insightful interpretive decisions. Memorization is therefore the first step to any top-notch performance.
Even if you intend to bring the music with you on stage in the performance, knowing the music by heart is still the most important task of the virtuoso performer. By memorizing the music before learning to play a single note, you can begin to work on the interpretation and musical shaping at a much earlier phase of rehearsals. Your focus on interpretation throughout the learning process is your edge.
I can show you interpretive techniques that will enrich your performance without sounding gimmicky. I can warn you about the cheap tricks to avoid, and give you principles for finding a unique interpretation without losing the core meaning of the music or ignoring any directions in the score. But none of this will matter unless you really know the music inside and out first.
How, then, do you learn the music before actually beginning to play it? The problem with the memorization-first approach is that it makes the beginning of the process difficult. People naturally don’t want to begin with the most difficult task. If it’s fun to start with, then we’re more likely to keep working at it. In the next two blog posts, I will give you two tactics that will make memorizing music more like a game.
For now, take a moment to think about your strengths and weaknesses at a performer. What part of playing on stage comes naturally to you, and what takes a lot of work? What worries you most when going into a live show? I want to know what your biggest stumbling blocks are. Share these in the comment section below. If it’s too personal to share publicly, feel free to email me by filling out the contact form on the right. I read every response.