In part 1 of this article, I presented my “Life Cycle of Learning,” a dynamic learning cycle that includes framing, planning, playing, reflecting, and sharing. To continue that train of thought, in this article I will suggest some specific tangible applications to this approach, specifically in terms of style and analysis, in an effort to help you make the most of your time inside the practice room by developing your skills outside the practice room.
THINK BEAN TO BAR
Your goal is to take a piece of music from first encounter to the stage and beyond. Time spent studying and analyzing a work, planning your practice, and advocating for your work is not wasted. Rather, it’s adding to the rich mental representation you’re developing around the piece, a dynamic sense of how you want to portray it. You’re building a structure around your learning, a framework that will help you take on new challenges more easily.
START WITH STYLE
In the classic writing manual, The Elements of Style, E.B. White and William Strunk argue that style in writing is not “a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable.” The same holds true for musical performance. Great interpreters combine broad knowledge about a piece of music with extreme specificity. They think big, and then small, using historical context to frame the style of a piece of music and then getting specific about the details in the piece at hand.
Keep in mind that in Western classical music, the “text” (score) does not really encode everything a performer might need in order to execute a work with grace and panache. Musical notation is prescriptive, vague, and designed to activate the intuitions of the performers for whom the composer was writing, omitting information that might have been obvious at the time of composition. Because the score is generally not enough to determine a range of interpretations for a work, astute performers need a broad cultural awareness to situate the work at hand.
Style in musical performance is a kind of shorthand for your mental representation, a sense of what something is like when it’s “right.” If you begin learning a piece of music with an initial mental representation in place, you’ll be prepared to practice effectively, diagnose your issues, and proceed quickly to a powerful interpretation. You can start with a bird’s eye view of the work, and proceed to how the details support your vision for its performance.
First, get to know the piece of music, situating it within a historical and musical frame. Read about the composer, the piece, and the time period in which the work was created. Listen to other works by the composer, and other music by contemporaries of the composer. What was assumed about music, and what would have been norm-breaking? What was mediocre music like then? What are broad performance practices for this period, style, or composer?
Then, characterize the style of the composer, their language, and ask if the piece you're learning is representative or an outlier. What’s notable about this work, and what is the circumstance of its creation? This process helps frame one’s interpretation, highlighting which parameters of the piece at hand might be the most salient to your learning based on the composer's other work, the style of the time the piece was written, and general performance practices around the piece. By focusing on what a composer might have done that is norm-breaking, innovative, or inventive, we as performers are better primed to examine the specifics of their music, and better equipped to bring those qualities to 2023.
This type of approach is buttressed by scientific literature. In “Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning,” Gabriele Wulf and Rebecca Lewthwaite posit a theory of motor learning in which motivation and attention are strong determinants of quality skill development. By studying the piece of music and discovering an interpretation, you are setting goals for your learning that give you increased autonomy over the project. Likewise, by planning your practice and developing a strong mental representation before you start practicing, you are enhancing your expectations of your work, setting the stage for higher quality performance in the practice room.
MAKE TIME FOR ANALYSIS
Dig into the details of the piece at hand. Analyzing the composition you are learning, both before and while you’re learning it, pays huge dividends. Analysis is not a passive, play-by-play description of everything that happens in a piece. Analysis is active, and centered on your ears and intuition, with the goal of communicating the ideas in the piece with freshness, vitality, power, and accuracy. Listen for special moments in the piece. Then, ask questions about the text of the piece to buttress your intuition, helping to explain why those moments might be so powerful. What are the effects on the composition of the composer's choices? What is unique or innovative about the piece? By asking questions about tonality, form, harmony, notation, rhythm, contour, and character, you are working to share the magical moments of the piece while connecting them in a way that’s uniquely yours.
This process strengthens your mental representation, allowing you to approach learning notes with a hypothesis. Armed with ideas about how the structure of the work engages with its details, you’ll already have a hypothesis about how each detail fits into the whole, and the observations you made while listening and studying will enhance your abilities to observe your own playing, creating a feedback loop. In essence, you'll have an interpretation from day one. Practice sessions will be more efficient and effective, targeting challenging areas instantly and combining note-learning and interpretation.
Part 3 of this article will focus on strategies for tracking how you practice, how you learn, and securing feedback in the process.
Michael Compitello is dedicated to exploring the expressive possibilities of percussion through collaboration and community-building. His project Unsnared Drum, released 2021 on New Focus Recordings, seeks to reinvent the snare drum with “superb performances” (Classical Voice of North Carolina) of new works by composers Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. With cellist Hannah Collins as the New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular, personal, and impactful repertoire through collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. His current project is a book about musical learning. Michael is Associate Professor of Percussion at Arizona State University. He holds degrees from The Yale School of Music and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit michaelcompitello.com.