How many of you reading this have felt like your private teacher has assigned you too much music to learn? Or, how often have you worked so hard on your assignment that you arrive at your lesson and your chops are totally beat up from the week of playing? For a variety of reasons, we all wind up in this scenario. If you are in your first year of college right now, and some type of performance major, you may be feeling this on a weekly basis. I have had colleagues who make practice and prep look easy, and have never seen their feathers ruffled, however I had serious issues with this through all my years of performance degree-ing. As the bar raises for your playing, it also raises for the efficiency of your practice.
First and foremost, you need a plan. If you have limited energy and time to practice, you must have a solid plan for how to utilize those resources. (The Maze outlines a great way to approach new music in an efficient way). When you have the plan, the first tool you need is your metronome. Please don’t stop reading! Yes, the metronome is your best friend, and here is why.
Going back to your math classes in junior high, how do you measure distance? Distance = Rate / Time. It is the same with your music. The distance you make in your music is directly related to the rate and time you establish. You ABSOLUTELY NEED to learn the rate and time of your music, and the only tool that will accomplish this for you is your metronome. This really comes into play when you get to the performance (the reason you are practicing…). Notes may fail you because of nerves and fatigue, but I have found the one thing that nerves and fatigue cannot effect are rate and time. You may miss the high/low notes, or your fingers freeze, or tonguing stutters, but how well you have established your rate and timing for the music will be your savior. In addition to that, establishing the rate throughout your piece will establish the timing of it as well.
If endurance is an issue for you, then acclimating your energy and focus to the timing of the piece is imperative to surviving the distance of the music. Imagine driving a rental car a long distance and the needle just hit the red “low fuel” warning. Do you know how much further you need to go? Do you know how many gallons you have left when the low fuel light clicks on? Without establishing your rate, you will never know how long it truly feels to physically and mentally make it from the beginning of your music to the end.
From the first day of practice on your new assignment, even while you are going at an extremely low speed and working in small chunks, establish a rate with your metronome. In addition, assigning a rate will help you organize goals for your week(s) of practice. Start slow and assign a rate to the speed at which you can play all the notes correctly. Decide how you want to contour your etude/solo musically, and assign a rate to that. It can speed up and slow down, but assign a rate to how the speed will ebb and flow. Are you having an issue making it to the high or low note? Establish a rate to your air, and to how your body preps for either situation. If there is an issue in prepping toward the high or low note, the rate which you set will help you discern where the tension, or issue, is entering your playing. Each rate you set is a goal, and as you meet each goal, adjust the rate to your final goal for performance.
Without establishing your rate and organizing your goals, you will waste a lot of time and energy in your practice session, and without acclimating to the timing of your music how will you know how to make it from beginning to end? I feel a little like a hypocrite suggesting all of this because I hated working with a metronome when I was a student. I’m embarrassed to say that more often than not, I “forgot” my metronome in my locker. And, it is possible to learn your music without the metronome, and even play it successfully every session in the practice room. However, we all know that the performance or lesson consistently reveals all the variables that we were not paying attention to, which causes us to stop in the middle of the etude, get tired halfway through, lose focus and then lose the musical line so the audience receives a stressed “just get to the ending” performance as opposed to the musical story you had been preparing to deliver. In the end, I can safely say that I dislike feeling totally out of control in a performance or lesson by far more than I dislike working with my metronome on a daily basis. Without solidifying the rate and timing of the piece, you have no control over making the distance. It’s a small tool, so embrace it and take control of every minute you have with your instrument.