When we first begin a new piece of music, we’re tempted to dive right in and start playing the tune over and over. (“just to hear what it sounds like…”)
A single playthrough is useful to get a basic idea of what lays ahead. But battering away at the music is one of the least effective methods to learn a piece or overcome tricky spots.
Instead of hurling ourselves against it over and over, we can use other learning and practice methods to get more done in less time.
History has provided many quotes that remind us, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with eating an elephant.” Or something like that.
One Bite at a Time
Instead of working on an entire piece of music at once, we can break the larger task into several smaller, more manageable tasks.
Whether first learning a new piece, or solving problems in a piece, simplifying is one of the most effective methods.
When we make the music simpler, we can focus on the specific solutions that will bring the piece forward.
Here are a few steps you can take to simplify your work and make more headway with your music.
Step One: Make Small Sections
First, only look at one small section at a time. Limit the scope of your work. Instead of a page, focus only one bar (or two, or whatever).
Resist the urge to keep going once you’ve made it over the hurdle. Instead, go back and reinforce your good work. (This is, after all, practice.)
Resist the urge to keep going once you’ve made it over the hurdle.
You’ll usually find that some sections are easier or harder than others. By splitting your music into small sections, you can spend your time on the sections that need the most work.
Instead of spending valuable practice time on sections that are already up to speed, you can squeeze out a few more repetitions on areas that still need the work.
This means you’ll learn the music more quickly, and it will stay more organized in your mind.
Tip: Always Cross the Bar Line
Always make your small sections cross one note over the bar line.
You can read more about why this is so powerful here: Crossing the Bar Line
Step Two: Remove Repeating Material
Many tunes have repeating material. When you encounter a repeating musical element, you can simplify the music by omitting it.
After you practice for a few moments without the repeating material, add the material back in. The goal is still to play the piece. Removing the material is a tool to help you learn. It’s not an end unto itself.
Simplify Repeating Patterns
In classical guitar music especially, we encounter many arpeggio (right hand, “fingerpicking”) patterns. Instead of playing the entire right hand pattern, we can simplify the music into “chunk chords”.
This way, we can focus attention on the left hand chord shapes. This eliminates the distraction of the perpetual rhythm and right hand complexity.
Step Three: Separate Musical Elements
Oftentimes, music combines a few different technical or musical elements. We can practice these elements separately. When we separate them, and only play the similar material, we remove the “switching costs”.
We can then keep the rhythm, volume (dynamics), tone quality or other stylistic traits consistent and intentional throughout the piece.
When you have block or strummed chords interspersed with other material, you can isolate the chords. This will help you learn or memorize the chord shapes.
Likewise, you’ll sometimes have melodic or scale passages interspersed with strummed chords or arpeggios (broken chords). You can remove the other material and play only the scale passages.
Note: Keep in mind that one of the notes of the chords may do double duty as both chord-tone and melody note. When playing the melody, be sure to include it.
Separate the Hands
More basic than separating music elements is separating the hands.
You can read more about separating the hands, and the entire “7-Step” Process of learning new music here.
Step Four: Practice Like Material Together
As an extension of step three above, you can practice like material together. Even if the sections are far apart in the music, you can focus on a single technique or musical element at a time.
For instance, you could first practice all the scale passages (in small sections) in a piece. Then work on all the block chords. Then all the arpeggio sections. And so on.
This lets you keep attention on the integrity of a single technique. You can bring all the good work you’ve done in one section into the next.
Large Scale Grouping
As you learn more pieces and have more repertoire to maintain, you can organize your practice based on technique.
For instance, you could practice your scales. Then practice any tricky spots containing scales in your pieces. Then play through any scale passages in your repertoire pieces (you may be working on speed or fluidity, or just keeping them front of mind).
After you do all your scale work, you can switch to another technique (such as arpeggios/right-hand patterns). Repeat the process with the next technique, and so on.
This also makes your techinque work directly related to and beneficial to your pieces. Instead of a separate “thing” you do, technique practice becomes more recognizably useful.
Group Similar Sections
Coming back to a single piece of music, you can also group sections of the music that are similar. Ideally, these are similar, but different in some way.
One example would be first and second endings. Practice the identical material that precedes each ending, then continue through the different endings. Practicing these together will alert you to both the similarities and the differences.
The music will become more organized in your mind, and you’ll be more likely to stay calm and clear while playing.
The Extra Bonuses of Simplifying
In addition to working out the tricky spots, you’ll also find other benefits to practicing the art of simplification.
Learning is Easier
When you simplify your work, you also make it easier. You become more familiar with the separate elements that make up the music. Then, when you re-combine everything, you maintain a richer understanding of each small piece.
You solve each individual problem more quickly, and as a result learn entire pieces or sections more quickly and easily.
You Get More Wins
It’s common to struggle on a difficult piece or section for eons before feeling any sense of accomplishment. But you can feel more success and progress when you break your work into smaller tasks.
You Memorize More Easily
When you simplify your music using the steps above, you’ll oftentimes memorize the music without even trying.
This is because you’ve examined the music from many different angles. While exploring these different angles, you become more familiar with the music. Memorization is actually “familiarization” by another name.
You Learn to Think About Music Structure
Simplifying your music does more than just help you work through tricky sections and learn pieces. Simplifying music also teaches you to think about music “structure”.
Music structure is beyond the scope of this article. But think of architecture, and you’ll get the picture. It’s the “bones” that make up the music.
As you become a more advanced and mature musician, you’ll gain a better understanding of how music works. You’ll recognize how composers organize music (to tell a story or communicate an idea). And you’ll learn ways to make this obvious to the listener. All these elements, taken together, form the “structure” of a piece.
Recognizing the different musical elements (scales, chords, melodies, harmonies, similar material, etc.) will allow you to better organize your own playing. And this will help you to better communicate the ideas the composers intend.
You’ll connect more dots within the music you play. You’ll see how the different musical sections relate. As you form these connections within your own understanding, you’ll be more able to play with expression and intention. You’ll have purpose behind your musical decisions. Your music will take on new meaning, and you’ll have deeper relationships with the music you play.
And all this, just from simplifying your music!
For more on working through the tricky spots, try these articles:
- Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt. 1: First Things First)
- Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt 2: The One Thing)
- Ace the Tricky Spots and Polish to Perfection (pt 3: The Moves and the Mouth)