Practicing with Color Pencils

September 23, 2010

One of the pieces I am currently working on is The Two Grenadiers from volume 2 of the Suzuki books. It's a mildly complex piece containing what my teacher David calls, "the hardest measure in the book." The hardest measure contains hooked bowing, a triplet, a shift, and an extension, all in 5 notes.

To my way of thinking this is really two pieces instead of one. The first half leads up to a version of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The first half is in G minor and the second half in G Major.  The piece has some interesting rhythms and is fun to play once you get the basic tune down.

I've reached the point with it where it is recognizable but not polished. As I told Sibylle last night, I think I'm playing it correctly but I'm not sure. Being a completionist makes it difficult at times to focus on the trouble spots; I want to play the forest and not just a tree. Or branch. Or leaf.

With five days before my next lesson I am determined to bring some serious polish to this piece, and so with color pencils and Sibylle assistance I've mapped out how to proceed.

We looked at the piece line by line, phrase by phrase and marked off bits that fit well together. Some of the phrases I'm playing well already, others still slow me down, and some are the ones I'm only guessing at when I play the piece in its entirety. Once we had identified the phrases, there were nine, we went back through and talked about them individually. The ones I play well I don't need to focus on, so we eliminated those. Two are just a single measure where I have trouble with the shifting rhythm; rather than treat those as an exercise unto themselves we decided to call them "extras," that'll I'll practice each day, along with one of the remaining phrases.

To make it easy to see what phrases I'll be working on we made a quick copy of the piece and used color pencils to shade the sections. Now I now exactly what to practice each night. At least for The Two Grenadiers. Having an experienced musician and an experienced music teacher in Sibylle makes learning music easier, and it gives me a huge advantage when it comes to structuring a piece for practice. Without her help I'd be floundering at times.

Each day's practice will be just a single phrase plus the two extras. I'll time limit the practice to 10 minutes so that I don't get bored or overwhelmed with just a few measures. By narrowing my focus for the next five days I hope to polish the entire piece so that on Tuesday at my lesson I can play a much improved Grenadiers.

The other benefit to limiting myself to a few measures a day and only 10 minutes time is that I'll have more time to devote to the other five pieces I'm currently working on. Six pieces simultaneously may be a couple pieces too many. Four are etudes from the Lee book, and the other two are Witches Dance and Grenadiers from Suzuki. At ten minutes per piece I've got a full hour of practice without warmups or noodling around.

Consequently my goal is to finish off Grenadiers this week while make some progress on the others, so that I have more room to add polish to Witches and the etudes next week.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.