My favorite moment from yesterday was the look of awe and astonishment on my student’s face when he successfully played a passage that had been eluding him all week. He’d been working hard – I could tell because of how quickly the problem was solved and how shocked he was at the eventual ease of the solution. His reaction came straight out of the days of blood, toil, tears, and sweat that hadn’t quite gotten him there – if he hadn’t been fighting hard all week he’d have assumed that our magical fix could have come to him if he’d just practiced harder.
And of course it was no magic. He had put in his time with the metronome on a difficult measure, and I took him back off the machine and we went slow, then fast, then skeletonized the passage and analyzed it, and broke it up into little chunks and worked on them, and changed the rhythm, again and again, and finally played it from back to front and then strung it together at tempo and blew his mind. It only took a few minutes – on top of the week he’d already spent banging his head against the wall of tempo – to solve the problem.
There’s nearly always a way to solve an elusive technical passage. It just takes some patience and creativity. I’ll devise a practice technique and use it for as long as it continues to improve me. As soon as I stop advancing, I will devise a new one. Sometimes I’ll run at top speed up to the last note I can manage accurately and well, freeze on it, and then run on. In the next pass I’ll try to run one note longer. Sometimes I’ll slow WAAAAAYYYYYY down and work interval by interval for super-duper-excellent quality. Sometimes I’ll pick out the important notes and practice them separately so I know exactly what line I’m trying to bring out of a busy texture. Sometimes I’ll play a 16th note passage as triplets, or sextuplets, redoing the math as I go along until my head hurts. Sometimes I’ll mentally rebeam everything and play with my metronome on the off-beat, or with it clicking twice too fast or three times too slow.
There’s no magic. It’s just about being willing to step away from a standoff and approach a problem from another direction. If you can’t play the measure, can you play three notes? How about the next three? Could you play it if it was all slurred? If you placed accents on the beats? How about if the accents are off the beats?
I don’t have a ritual set of solutions that I try every time, in the same order. It always depends on the problem and on the person. I have a lot of ideas to draw on, but I don’t have a monopoly on coming up with them. Just stay loose, stay creative, and keep working!