I love practicing, and I thought it might be interesting to walk you through my process as I worked through a really tricky technical passage this week.
I spent a good forty minutes working on this line. This two measures, I should say. The piece is Evocations, by Henri Tomasi, and I plan to perform it on my spring recitals (which begin, optimistically, in January this year).
Besides being chromatic and leaping uncomfortably back and forth over the break, the lick is really fast, and the notes under the slurs are notes that don’t want to be slurred to on the oboe. The pattern is clear, but the intervals are not especially comfortable.
I have approached this section before and turned away discouraged, but this time I was determined. I put on my get-it-done cap and set to work.
I frequently use this triangle to structure my technical practice. I adapted it from Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, and refer to it when I teach, as well.
Presuming that the goal is to be able to do all three things – play the passage perfectly, up to tempo, and all the way through – the way to work on it is one side at a time. It is easy enough to play it perfectly and up to tempo if you only do a beat at a time or two at a time, and easy to play it perfectly all the way through if you go slow enough. Then you keep easing toward that third point, and when you hit a wall you change sides.
I started with All the Way Through Up to Tempo without worrying about Perfectly. I just wanted to see where things stood. After I determined that I couldn’t even really fake it all the way through at tempo, I returned to the other two sides and devised a plan.
First, I scrapped the slurs. They are extremely un-oboistic and were getting in my way – I would miss the note even when I fingered it correctly and that kept breaking the feedback loop that I needed. I had to hear the correct note when I did it right. A future step will be re-engaging with those slurs. I may put them back in – obviously my goal is to play what the composer wrote. Or perhaps my gift to the audience will be leaving them out so that the passage works.
Then I leaned in real close hoping to find some sort of scale-wise pattern I could cling to. Minor sixth and major seventh leaps are fun and exciting but not as readily effortless under my fingers as scales. I discovered that the second, third, and first notes of each triplet are a descending do, ti, la from a major scale. So, starting on the second triplet eighth of beat two, I see F E D, F# E# D#, G F# E, etc. The octave leap is no big deal on the oboe compared to trying to playing this passage without the helpful scales.
So, armed with my patterns I pulled out my metronome. I set it at 72 – the marked tempo – and mentally rebeamed the pattern so the scale-wise segment happened on the click (F,e,d,F# instead of C#,f,e,D). I found that I could easily play two of those in a row, but I stalled out at three.
I turned my metronome down to 54, at which point I could play the whole two bars in my rebeamed format. Played it at 56 , 58, and 60, then went back down to 54. At that tempo, which by then felt slow and easy, I played the passage as written (still without slurs), and also backed up to the bar before so as to get a running start at it. All well.
I clicked my metronome up three clicks – to 60. Played my rebeamed 2 bars. Clicked back down two, to 56, and played the ink. Up three, rebeamed bars, down two, played a longer passage as printed.
In this way I worked the passage up to and beyond the marked tempo. I was confident in my work because I understood the patterns involved and I had trained my fingers and brain to play them at any tempo. Forty minutes is a long time to spend on two measures of music, but it’s time I won’t have to spend again, and if I keep reinforcing that good work in my daily practice I will be able to deliver the goods in performance.