Music is an Onion

by David Cooper

Originally published to

This analogy is an old one, and I don’t like it very much.  Onions are used for a bunch of different scenarios, but when I said this to a student the other day I decided I had to sit down and try to better figure out what this means to me.  Layers, I guess, and how to deal with them.  Let’s get in to this.

Prioritize (Onionize) your Sight Reading

It is a very important concept to prioritize your goals when sight reading; especially when sight reading in an ensemble.  When I look at a piece of music for the very first time it is almost like I am looking at the sheet of music through a telescope or tunnel vision.  The more difficult the music the smaller range of vision I give myself.  Meaning; I don’t try to read every nuance (key, dynamics, articulations, notes, accidentals, rhythm…) on the first read.  I prioritize and focus on one or perhaps two musical elements.  The next time through I’ll pull back the range on the telescope and take in a little more; the more familiar the piece becomes the more of it you can “see” at once.  Layers.  Now the question is, “What is the priority list order when sight reading?”

The priority order for sight reading in an ensemble has to change or be flexible depending on the situation and piece.  But I think a general rule of thumb would be something like this.

  1. Time Signature/ Key Signature – Establish the meter to find your pulse.  Get in the right key area and do an initial scan for accidentals.  If there aren’t many accidentals then get your mind in that particular key.
  2. Rhythms – Playing correct rhythms early on will keep the ensemble together so the group can get an overall feel for the piece.
  3. Notes (accidentals) – This is an area that is best learned on your own practice time.  After the first read through rehearsal, go home and shed the problem areas for notes on your own.
  4. Articulations – These last three areas are issues that can be worked out in the rehearsal or sectionals.  Some complicated articulations will need to be addressed on your own.
  5. Dynamics (mute changes)
  6. Musical phrasing/ intonation /nuance/blend/balance

Point number 6 obviously has a lot of stuff to it but once you are comfortable with the first five priorities your ears should really be able to guide you through point 6.  So to gather this all together, if I am reading a relatively easy piece I should be able to look at it and deal with five or six of the above points the first time.  If the piece is really tough I’ll only concern myself with the first two or three the first time through.  And, if say I’m playing a big band chart and things are going along fine when all of a sudden a tough soli section comes up, I will back up my list and read the rhythms first, then go back for more notes the next time.  The reason for this approach is logical once you direct an ensemble and see/hear how that machine works.  If the band is playing along and someone misses an accidental, the group still continues along its’ way.  If someone misses a rhythm and drags their section along with them, then there is the real potential the whole band will get confused rhythmically and come crashing to a halt.

Individual Practice Priority (Onion) List

I approach learning and playing a given work with one of two priority lists.  I should say that sections of the piece may shift from one list to the other but I am always trying to be aware of the general intent of the music at that given moment.  A colleague of mine always used to say, “Music is either a song or a dance.”  (J.S.)  This is true.  You can put virtually any section of music, etude, movement, or entire work into one of these categories.  Why?  Because their priority lists are different, and paying attention to the top priorities will affect your interpretation.  Think of playing a lullaby with a metronome or singing the ABC’s with rubato.  Sounds silly, right?  That’s because you were using the wrong list.

The priority list for a Song:

  1. Melody (right notes)
  2. Lyricism
  3. Phrasing
  4. Rhythm
  5. Rubato
  6. Dynamics
  7. Nuance

The priority list for a Dance:

  1. Rhythm (good pulse, correct rhythms)
  2. Dynamics
  3. Melody
  4. Phrasing
  5. Lyricism
  6. Nuance
  7. Rubato

You might think of each of these priorities in these lists as layers of the onion.  As you improve you peel back another layer, go a little deeper and see more and more of the music as a whole.

When is good enough, good enough?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have had students get frustrated with lessons after a time.  They might say, “no matter what I do for my lessons or how much I practice, it’s never good enough.”  Well, if the words “good enough” are in your musical vocabulary, you might want to consider a different pursuit.  Your desire to get better at playing, or learning a piece should never end; you should just move to the next deeper layer of that proverbial onion!  After a student finishes playing through something I will often say, “Ok, great, you accomplished that objective, (say; notes and rhythms) now let’s get on to the next level.”  If they don’t roll their eyes and sigh, I know I got em!  They get it.  They are ready to dig in.

Music is our friend!

Music (even written down music) is alive.  There is always more to learn from it.  As I’ve gotten older I have begun to think of my repertoire as relationships; some pieces are dear old friends with whom I have a deep and meaningful history, some are acquaintances and others are interesting new personalities that I am looking forward to getting to know.  Like human relationships it is important to keep in touch and maintain that connection.  Pull out a piece from your past, perhaps something you worked really hard on back in the day for a recital or solo ensemble contest, and see what it feels like today.  Chances are you will have a more mature, seasoned approach to the work.  There is a good chance that all of the previous anxiety associated with that work will also be gone.  Touching base with “old friends” is a great way to get an assessment of your development.

Read the original publication here

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