how to practice concertos

This is my chance to make this a professional Blog right away. These are my slightly edited comments from the hpschd-l list (3 and 4 November 2007). Someone had recently played Brandenburg V and wondered after the deed how other harpsichordists prepared for such a piece.

I first scan the concerto for especially tricky parts, which… usually fall apart into two categories: fast stuff and complex stuff.

I work out the fingering and choreography of the fast passages and then just practice them from slow to faster, during a few weeks, along with working on other repertoire (or other bits of the same concerto). I do not work on speeding up more than, say, a half hour at a time, several times a day.

I do use the metronome for speeding up. This is regarded as dangerous by some, but I don’t share the fear of ‘losing the music’ through this mechanical device. At least, the danger is small if one actually ‘had’ it in the first place. Of course it is important not to apply a different technical approach when the tick is on, or to lose focus in any way. The metronome is something to live up to, not to relax upon (meaning: in this context – otherwise I’m less fond of the tick-machine).

The complex passages are likewise fingered and sought out and then I take turns of testing; mental practicing/reading away from the keyboard; back at the keyboard; away again etc. I try to force myself to not ever play any bit of the passage faster than I can grasp in my mind when away from the keyboard (that’s the hard part, actually – we always want to rush stuff too much). Eventually things settle in my mind and in my muscle memory alike.

There are some rather tricky and fast passages (for example in Bach’s Triple Concerto, first movement towards the end, and at various places of the 3rd mvt.) where a combination of both approaches works best. At the end I had to memorize some measures entirely, or rather: it turned out that way.

In order to spare the other musicians the ordeal of a first rehearsal day with nervous soloist backlashes, I then actually play along with recordings (loud…). This isn’t the most historical way imaginable, but especially if there’s not much time, it speeds up the works tremendously. Nothing quite like the thrill of jogging along with someone else trying not to lose it. But this idea might not be to everyone’s taste.

I should have clarified “slow” above. I mean: as slow, or medium-fast as I can safely make it through the passage (more about this further below). Then, of course, there’s some going back and forth and back again, with an average speedup being the result. So, for example if I, during one metronome session, would have arrived at a certain speed, I would start the next session at a lower speed in order to feel safe rather than ‘on speed’. Also if I would experience a problem during practicing (like technical stuttering, or the feeling of ‘all of a sudden not remembering the fingering’ or any other one of these beautiful things), I would immediately go back to a lower speed to find the point where I still can safely control the movement.

I have been spending much time over the years with the question of whether the fact that one uses different physical micromotions for fast vs. slow playing really makes slow playing less effective. I believe that for how I used to work long ago, slow practicing was in fact less effective: I never seemed to achieve a safe transition from slow to fast. Much of my changing opinion here has to do with two elements mentioned above:

First, I use slow practicing for consolidating the choreography of the fingers and hands. This choreography should be the same at all speeds, otherwise one might end up with too much movement, jerky replacements, and other undesirable effects when speeding up. In other words, ‘slow’ would still mean fluent to some degree.

Second, slow, even more specifically, means ‘as slow as my musical mind can reproduce the passage’ when reading the score away from the keyboard. ‘Reading’ is here: inwardly hearing the music and inwardly feeling the entire work of the hands, fingering, key relief and arm movement. Funnily, this doesn’t feel like ‘superslow for the sake of being slow’, but rather like ‘as fast as really possible’. Even if the actual tempo still is really slow, I believe that the micro movement in this situation is much closer to the intended result than if one plays just: reeeally slowly.

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