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On Practicing for Repertoire

posted in practice on september 26th, 2010
old-timey guitar player

If you think at all like me, you’re probably interested in making the most of your practice time, i.e. making sure that the time you have to spend playing guitar actually goes to making you better at playing. Different goals call for different practice strategies, of course — maybe you want to write new tunes, or learn new songs. At a certain point, however — the point at which I find myself at the moment, in fact — one just wants to learn to play better, to polish.

So what’s the best way to accomplish this? I won’t venture to say that I have the answer (or even that a million other people before me haven’t already thought of what I’m going to tell you), but what I do know is that just sitting down and running through my repertoire at each session didn’t feel like a good use of time.

But let me set the stage a bit: I recently played a two hour reception gig for the Sherry Council of America. I had put together a program of 20 pieces of music. Some of these I can play with my eyes closed and half asleep. Others are a major challenge to get out expressively and in time (and without any major train wrecks). And then there’s all the stuff in the middle: things I play well, but that I don’t want to back-burner for so long that they start getting messy.

My “default” mode of practicing had been (i.e. prior to the Sherry Council gig) to play through everything and just spend more time on the difficult stuff. This turned out to be a lot of music, though, so I split it into two parts (as I would do for the performance): I practiced one half of my repertoire one day, the other half the next.

This too, however, meant that I was playing every song two or three times a week. What I needed was to be playing my easy material enough for maintenance and my difficult repertoire much more often.

This seemed easy enough in theory, but when I tried to just “wing it,” I found that the results were less than satisfactory. My difficult repertoire wasn’t getting hit the way it needed to and I was running out of time (and steam) before I made sure that I had the easy stuff run through at a bare minimum. And the temptation to noodle around with “less important” stuff ran high (e.g. “I wonder what ‘Smoke on the Water’ por buleria would sound like?”).

So I did what I usually do in situations like this: I applied some nerdery. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. I made a list of my entire repertoire and ranked it from easiest to most difficult (or in need of most work).
  2. I figured out how many hours I had per week after drills and stretching. I generally practice two hours a day M-F and spend the first half hour on drills and stretching, so this works out to 7.5 hours on repertoire, or 450 minutes per week.
  3. I decided that for any given song, ten minutes would give me the time to run through it entirely, and then pick out one or two trouble spots and spend a few minutes polishing them up. If I work in ten minute blocks, that means that, in a given week, I have 45 “song blocks” that I can allocate according to how much work a piece needs.
  4. Now back to the song ranking: the easiest four songs I only need to play once a week. The next easiest group of songs (nine of them) I feel comfortable playing only twice a week. For the more difficult material (in my case, five pieces), three repetitions a week lets me keep them up and smooth out any rough spots that come up. And finally, my two most difficult pieces I want to play at least four times a week.
  5. The last step is to plug song titles into a weekly calendar (I just use a table in MS Word) with the appropriate number of repetitions. Thus nerdified, my practice schedule looks like this:

My Granainas, for instance, I’m pretty comfortable with. So I only play it once a week. The same goes for both of my Sevillanas sets and my Petenera. My Soleá on CI, however, is a beast — so I hit it four times a week. Likewise my Alegria por médio. Everything else falls, according to ranking, somewhere in-between. I vary the order of songs by day so that I’m not always playing them in the same series, or always first or last.

This might seem like a lot of organizational work — perhaps even work that could be better spent playing. In the couple months that I’ve been using this kind of schedule, however, I’ve noticed a couple things:

First, I never have to rack my brain for what to play next — or think if there’s anything that I haven’t played in too long. Each day is laid out: when I’m playing, I can just think about playing well, not about the logistics of practice.

Second, it seems to eliminate (or at least minimize) the problem of diminishing returns: i.e. that the longer you puzzle over a problem passage in a single sitting, the less relative progress you make. Though I won’t offer this as a universal principle, I do find that it applies in music — and it’s also good training: when you perform, you want to get your music right the first time, not after five or six attempts.

This scheme might look to be dangerously inflexible. What if, for instance, you need more time on a particular piece? (I.e. more than ten minutes.) Well, you’re getting more than ten minutes — if you take into account your total practice time over the week. Ten minute blocks (for me, anyway) allow me to work through kinks and also help keep me focused: if I know I only have five or six minutes left to work out a tricky passage, I will use that time well (instead of dinking around with less important sections).

Other schemas will, of course, be more appropriate for different goals (like composing, or learning technique basics). If you feel like you’re having a hard time getting your head (and hands) around polishing music you already know, though, this might well be worth a shot.

And now, nerdily (nerdaciously? nerdiferously?) or not: You! Go play!


tags: organization, sherry, nerdery
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