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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Creative Practice Techniques – Using Repertoire to Generate Practice Patterns


When practicing a new piece of repertoire, it is fairly common to get hung up on a particular passage.  Recently, I have been learning Astor Piazzolla's wonderful Tango–Études.  They are melodic, romantic, and virtuosic . . . a big hit with audiences, for sure!

Some of the technical portions of the etudes contain challenging melodic patterns with wide leaps, going across the bar lines.  Piazzolla was also a crafty composer, so many of these patterns have a strange note thrown in, or might be missing a pitch here and there.  These little variations from the expected make the music sound fresh and vibrant.  It also makes it a pain in the neck to learn!

For the really tricky parts, I wrote down the passages in a notebook and analyzed them.  Then, I took each pattern and standardized it into a consistent set of intervals.  This became the basis for a practice pattern, to be executed in all twelve keys.  Once the basic pattern was well learned, I could trust my fingers to "auto-pilot" a little bit.  That freed up some mental processing power to focus on the parts that stray from the basic pattern.  In other words, I trained my eyes to see the pattern in batches of notes, and to pay special attention to the aberrations.

Sometimes, a pattern is obscured by these little variations.  Distilling a passage into its essence gives insight into the melodic roadmap, and greater freedom to concentrate on the specific components of the passage that make it so challenging.  There are also obvious advantages to practicing music in every key.  This approach requires a little more work in the beginning, but the payoff is worth the effort, and the benefits of this kind of work remain, long after the recital or concert.

Practice well!

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