Don’t get me wrong – there is no substitute for focused and efficient hard work in the practice room. When you perform, you are relying on the countless hours of diligent practice and preparation to execute that tricky technical passage or awkward meter.
That being said, a comprehensive understanding of any piece must also include familiarity with the historical, cultural, and musical implications of the piece. The well-rounded musician must prepare both inside and outside the practice room.
Here are the non-practice steps I take when learning new repertoire:
- Listen to recordings. Listen to several different recordings by different artists. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many students have never listened to the music they’re performing.
- Listen to other works by the composer. As you familiarize yourself with this composer, ask yourself a few questions: Did they write any other music for the same instrumentation? What other compositions were written during this time period? Is this piece typical or atypical of the composer’s style?
- Listen to other pieces written during this time period (by different composers). Again, ask yourself questions: Is this piece more traditional or groundbreaking? Is the length/instrumentation/movement structure/technical demands/compositional elements typical for this time?
- Translate foreign musical terms. Write the translations in your music (in pencil, of course!) so you don’t forget them.
- Write down any unusual fingerings. I also keep a fingering notebook, where I collect useful alternate fingerings.
- Study the piano part (or other instrumental components).
- Write down important cues. Make sure you know who plays where. Also, make sure you know where to cue or lead other players.
- Prepare your page turns. Read more about that here.
- Plan your breathing.
- Do a phrasal analysis. No, this doesn’t have to be as boring as it sounds. Pinpoint the phrases to determine breathing, musical contour/shaping, and other elements. (Not sure where a phrase begins or ends? Try singing it! Sometimes, instrumental problems (reeds, tuning, etc) impede the natural line, so sing it to see where phrases sound most organic.)
- Read about the composer, piece, dedicatees, and original performers. Why was this piece composed? Why was it written for the dedicatee/performer? Was this piece played differently when it was composed?
- Make a practice plan. Break down the piece into smaller, manageable chunks. Organize your practice routine to work through a few smaller sections each day.
- Contact the composer. We’re so lucky to live in a world with technology, where the masterminds behind a lot of music are just a mere email (or social media message) away. Take advantage of performing music by living composers – ask them any specific technical or stylistic questions. (Just be sure to have a real reason to contact them, because nobody likes an inbox inundated with pointless messages.)
I hope these steps help you as you embark on your next musical adventure!