6. Divide and Conquer: Part 1 - Form and structure
by Daniel Nistico

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The great maestro Andres Segovia once said that he would practice a single passage for many weeks, “burnishing it until it sparkles”.

I think it’s wise that we follow the habits of great masters.

Do you practice single passages of music for days or weeks on end?

I’d like you to honestly ask yourself this right now. Even within one practice session do you practice one single passage until it begins to sparkle? Or do you just play through pieces and ignore the places of mediocrity?

Maintaining the level of focus required for this kind of dedication is difficult. But there are ways to help hone in your focus.

One was mentioned in the last email, where I provided you with a recital form to list your repertoire. Another way of keeping focus is by using the 45-minute practice system. What follows below can now be used in your 30-minute segment.

Once you have your practice system and repertoire list in place and have worked on the three fundamentals for 15 minutes, you will find it easier to divide and conquer your pieces and make those passages sparkle.

For now I will just focus on one aspect for you to divide and conquer – form and structure.

Step 1: Divide your piece/s into small units of one or two measures
Use your colored pencils to segment your piece into small units of anything from around one to four measures.

Caution: You will soon discover that the unit lengths will probably vary as some contain many difficulties and others relatively few. So don’t be afraid to change the unit lengths, they probably shouldn’t all be the same length.
 
Step 2: Analyze the musical and technical content of the passage
Sometimes the word ‘analyze’ can be intimidating, however it really shouldn’t be.

All it means is that you think about what you do before you do it.

You don’t necessarily need to know any music theory, although that can help your fluency in analyzing the language of music.

Thinking is often undervalued and underestimated in practice. The great pianist Franz Liszt reportedly said that when practicing to “think ten times then play once”.

Here are some questions you might want to think about before playing the unit. Many of these questions will be discussed in more detail over the next few emails. You can skip these questions if you feel confident analyzing or asking your own questions about each unit.

Is there a melodic phrase or motive within the unit your working on? How long is it?

How many voices/parts are there? Are there just two (bass and melody?), or three, or more? 

What is the underlying harmony? Can you play the unit as a familiar chord shape? Does that chord lead to something else? Tension – resolution? 

What sort of dynamic plan might work? What is already marked on the score? If no markings are present then remember, if the line is rising add a crescendo and vice versa. 

Does the rhythm make sense to you? Don’t try to play it before working it out! Use the accentuation chart to help you make sense of the rhythm and meter.

Are there any specific technical difficulties? Do the fingerings provided work and make sense to you? 

Once you’ve figured some of that out, then ask yourself how you want the unit to sound. You should by now at least have a vague idea about this before playing the unit.

Remember – think ten times then play once says Franz Liszt. You can’t do this with an entire piece or you’ll be sitting there for hours at a time and your head would probably explode.
 
Step 3: Play until memorized
You will be surprised how quickly you can memorize something if you’ve first analyzed it, even if your analysis is very general.

It should take you around 3-5 repetitions to memorize one unit. If it’s taking more reps than that, you should probably consider breaking it down further. Even reducing it down to two or three notes might be the way to do it. Some units just simply take more time to memorize than others.

Memorize units in random order; don’t just go from the start of the piece to the end!

I recommended starting with your favorite unit, better to start your practice on a good note and work from there. Or start at the end and work backwards. Mix it up.
 
Step 4: Make it sparkle
Once it’s memorized you can begin to try and make the unit sparkle. What does this mean exactly?

For me this means that you just keep making the unit better and better after each repetition. Be intensely and honestly critical about your playing. Make it world- class; base your music making on that of the masters, not just everyday Joes on YouTube.

You might start making big changes, like upping the tempo a little bit more or getting the rhythm 100% spot on. But it’s usually a whole array of small improvements that make passages sparkle. Things like making the melodic line that bit smoother, or making your tone that bit more beautiful on one special note, or adding extra vibrato on a high note, or taking a sliver of extra time to linger on a chord - I could list many other details. Think of some that apply to your playing specifically and please feel free to send me your list. Write these things down in your scores too using color!

Finally, record yourself and make each playback better, don’t just leave it at average. Change, improve, refine, every …. single …. detail.

Enjoy playing the unit you’re working on. Move beyond mere mechanics and technique, strive towards a deeper level of artistry. What is the music your working on trying to communicate? Music is not about difficult shifts, keeping your shoulders down and keeping your thumb in the precisely correct place behind the fretboard, etc.

Now that you’re working on small units, you can think of much greater and deeper ideas. Perhaps there is a tinge of sorrow on one note, which then changes to a chord filled with hope. Maybe the first two measures are filled with despair and the next two answer with utmost joy.

That’s the kind of detail you want to think about, refine and improve. That’s what will make your music sparkle.

Remember to be patient – Segovia spent many weeks on a single passage! What a vision he must have had and what determination and focus to actually execute such wonderful and imaginative music making. 

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