Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire

When it comes to learning a new piece, knowing how to practice correctly is essential.  Good practicing is about developing problem solving strategies, efficient use of time and constant evaluation.  Young Suzuki students depend on the parent to structure well disciplined practice sessions that will facilitate the mastery of a new piece.  As students approach the teenage years, they are able to work successfully on their own.

Here are ten points that parents and students should keep in mind when learning a new piece:

1. Listen repeatedly. This is the core of Dr. Suzuki’s “mother tongue” approach.  When it comes time to learn a new piece, both the student and parent should know the music well after months of daily, repeated CD listenings and group classes.  As students begin to develop a deeper association between the pitch in their “ear” and the corresponding place on the fingerboard the learning process is sped up dramatically.  Later, when note reading is introduced, the player will see patterns of  notes, “hear” them and then play them in a process that comes together in a split second.

All great composers hear music in their inner “ear.”  In one story, the young Mozart traveled to Italy, heard a long choral piece performed once and went home and proceeded to copy the entire score note for note.  Beethoven was able to continue to compose after he lost his hearing because of his ability to hear music in his head.

As students become more advanced, it is important that they listen to as many different recordings of a piece as possible.  The goal should never be to parrot back someone else’s performance, but to consider many different interpretations and then to find your own.

2. Isolate sections that are more difficult or present new technical challenges.  I often give my students exercises when they are confronted with a new technical challenge.  After focusing on a specific problem and solving it through correct repetitions, the rest of the piece often falls into place.  You will be able to structure your time in the most effective way by getting a head start on these challenges.

3. Slow down.  Allow the fingers and bow arm to get wired in the right way from the beginning.  For less advanced Suzuki students, the parent should make sure that in the beginning each step is isolated.  Play, stop the bow, quickly set the finger, wait, play the next note, make a quick string crossing, wait, play the next note. This type of practice leads to quick mastery of the piece.  Physical motions are efficient and no wrong notes or extra motions are ingrained.

4. Use verbal and physical cues.  Parents can help young Suzuki students by calling out the correct finger after each bow stop.  The parent can also mime the correct bowing in the air with their right arm.  Even though the student’s eyes remain down on the violin, this is a helpful peripheral visual cue.  Sing or play along on the piano or another instrument if possible.

5. Take one goal at a time.  Consider what makes a particular passage difficult and quickly address it.  Focus on that one goal and try to achieve it through many correct, slow repetitions.

6. Repeat only a few notes at a time.  In some ways, learning a new piece is like sanding a table.  Work out a small section and then move on.  Gradually more and more of the piece will take shape.  It is also important to start in different places in the middle of the piece and play them out of context.

7. Listen carefully and evaluate.  Are you creating the phrase that you want?  Are you in the correct part of the bow and are you using the right amount of bow speed and weight? Is the rhythm good?  Is everything in tune?  If you hear an out of tune note go back to the preceding note and try again.  Once you get it it tune, look at your fingers, memorize the feeling and distance between fingers.  Are you playing with the indicated dynamics?  There is a lot to think about, but you want to catch any mistake immediately before it becomes a habit.

8. Isolate left and right hands when necessary.  If you encounter a bowing issue, take the bow separately and play on open strings.  Set the fingers of the left and play pizzicato (or plucking the strings)  so you can focus only on the left hand.

9. Maintain relaxation and good posture.  Notice when tension creeps in and shake your hands and arms out.  Renew a feeling of soft, cushiony relaxation in your hands.

10. Be patient and persistent.  Continue to play slowly and acknowledge that it may take some time to get a new piece in your fingers.  Make sure you continue to practice every day.  You will probably see a sudden jump in progress that is the result of your cumulative work.

Here are a few more posts on practicing that you might enjoy reading.

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Terri. Some of our disagreement may be attributed to the fact that there are no hard and fast rules. Every student has different needs and every teacher has their unique way of accomplishing similar goals.

    Repeated listening for young Suzuki students is a vital part of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy. I am an advocate of Suzuki for several reasons. I believe that the development of the ear at an early age is essential. An artist has a visual image of what is being painted and a musician must be able to develop a similar musical “ear.” All musicians should strive to hear in a way that matches the inspiration of the composer. I do not want my young students to count, but instead to develop a feeling for the rhythm internally. Delaying note reading also helps students to listen and focus on technical details like finger and bow placement, tone, intonation, ect.

    Some readers may be familiar with the work of music educator Edwin Gordon who places a similar emphasis on development of the ear:

    “Although music is not a language, the process is the same for audiating and giving meaning to music as for thinking and giving meaning to speech. When you are listening to speech, you are giving meaning to what was just said by recalling and making connections with what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you will be hearing next, based on your experience and understanding. Similarly, when you are listening to music, you are giving meaning to what you just heard by recalling what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you are hearing next, based on your musical achievement. In other words, when you are audiating as you are listening to music, you are summarizing and generalizing from the specific music patterns you have just heard as a way to anticipate or predict what will follow. Every action becomes an interaction. What you are audiating depends on what you have already audiated. As audiation develops, the broader and deeper it becomes and thus the more it is able to reflect on itself. Members of an audience who are not audiating usually do not know when a piece of unfamiliar, or even familiar, music is nearing its end. They may applaud at any time, or not at all, unless they receive clues from others in the audience who are audiating. Through the process of audiation, we sing and move in our minds, without ever having to sing and move physically.” (Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns, 1997 by Edwin E. Gordon, pp. 5-6)

    Regarding your second point, calling out note names instead of fingers is fine. The Suzuki method is only as good as the teacher who uses it. While some Suzuki students may lack basic music theory skills, this should not be attributed to the method, but to their individual backgrounds.

    Regarding relaxation, I agree about the importance of gravity. The weight of the springy right arm dropping from the shoulder is important for tone production. I have noticed that having my students renew a sense of relaxation leads to a substantially more ringing tone and a sense of technical freedom. I believe that having a mental image of what is happening physically is also important.

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