5 Music Tips for Building a Core Repertoire
Continuing with the theme of time efficiency in practice sessions, in this post we look at the best ways of tackling new repertoire.
If you’re following a balanced musical diet in the percentages that I suggested last month i.e., warm up, scales and arpeggios, study and pieces, it might be that you only have a half hour a day available to prepare for performance, auditions and competitions.
While it may seem a tall order, particularly when it comes to learning new works, success can be yours providing you maintain consistency in your sessions. Little and often is always far more efficient than blocks of several hours a couple of times a week.
Look on repertoire practice as the musician’s apple pie and cream reward for eating the meat and vegetables, rather than the centerpiece of the meal!
Evolution and Maturation
It seems to me that there are two schools of thought in regards to building a core repertoire:
- Study a work for a set length of time and then move onto something else, regardless of whether performance standard has been reached.
- Study without a time limit until the piece can be said to be fully mastered.
In my view neither of these methods should be slavishly followed and I suggest that a better way is a combination of the two. Why? I’ve come to the conclusion that my core repertoire list would be a lot bigger than it is at present if I hadn’t insisted on doggedly pursuing my idea of perfection.
While I’m not suggesting for one moment that you forget about striving for excellence, I’m of the opinion that studying a piece to performance standard is only really necessary when there is an opportunity to perform, whether that is an audition, recital or recording.
My recommendation is that you tackle the learning process in two main stages – evolution and maturation. Should there be no performance on the horizon, stop at the evolution stage – notes mastered and a firm idea to musical interpretation, but not yet up the tempo you have chosen. Move onto to something else for a while. As soon as you know you have a firm gig booked, selecting an evolving piece will offer you a good reason to move into a maturation period when you can bring it up to speed.
Apart from keeping boredom at bay, in my experience the “time off” appears to benefit the final result. It’s almost as if your brain needs rest to process what it has taken on board.
The Actual Process of Learning
What follows is not meant to be read as a definitive blueprint. I’m only sharing what works for me so take out what is of practical use to you and adapt it. Your priority is to stamp your own personality on your music making.
You can carry out essential repertoire research outside your actual practice hours whenever you have an odd few moments – travelling on public transport or waiting in a doctor’s surgery for example, so it needn’t eat into time you need for other commitments.
Refresh your memory about the general, cultural and musical history of the time, as well as read up on what was going on in the composer’s life. Also ask “Was the piece written for any particular purpose?”
It’s worth remembering that composers inevitably hang out with other creative people so it’s helpful for us musicians to view the artistic legacy of their non-musical peers. What you’re looking for are possible influences. Think of Debussy and the French Impressionist painters for example.
2. Marking the Score
The first time I pick up a new score, I like to read it – “hearing it” in my mind’s ear. As I proceed “virtually,” I’ll stop and start, using a soft pencil to make alterations to the edition I’m using –dynamics, articulation and phrasing. I also mark things I want to remember like fingering, passages that could cause technical difficulty, breathing points, etc.
3. Practice Tempo
I usually pass through three tempo phases as I add new works to my standard repertoire list: slow, medium and at performance speed.
Along with mastering technical difficulties, it is vitally important that you come to your own conclusions about mood, emotional content, dynamics, phrasing, articulation and tone early on.
As you up the tempo to performance pace later, what you during the “slow” phase is going to be repeated over and over again. Once you’ve acquired a bad habit, it takes far longer to undo than if you had been more patient the first time round. I’ve found that playing around with different interpretations in the early stages of learning are great fun and very useful.
4. Tackling Technical Difficulties
If you’re into avoiding time consuming and mindless phrase repetition like me, you’re going to have to come up with some other cunning plan to overcome the inevitably finger twisters in a piece.
Here’s one idea to get you started:
- Isolate the few notes that are the actual cause of the problem and invent varying rhythms which create different emphases on individual notes.
- Using a metronome to gauge your progress, choose a number from 2-5 and make your answer the number of times you have to repeat those notes perfectly at all rhythms before upping the metronome gradually from adagio to presto.
- Moving the metronome back down in speed again, play the entire phrase that includes the isolated notes. Progress as before.
Using this particularly strategy you will achieve more in less time, and not only establish a good habit but achieve solid security.
5. Listening to Multiple Recordings
The act of actively listening to recordings by different players I leave until I’m well down the line in the interpretative process. There is one key reason for this: I’m simply not in the business of wanting to sound like anyone else.
Originality is what is really going to get you noticed, and when you think about it, traditions always starts with somebody first breaking the accepted convention.