Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire

When it comes to learning a new piece, knowing how to practice correctly is essential.  Good practicing is about developing problem solving strategies, efficient use of time and constant evaluation.  Young Suzuki students depend on the parent to structure well disciplined practice sessions that will facilitate the mastery of a new piece.  As students approach the teenage years, they are able to work successfully on their own.

Here are ten points that parents and students should keep in mind when learning a new piece:

1. Listen repeatedly. This is the core of Dr. Suzuki’s “mother tongue” approach.  When it comes time to learn a new piece, both the student and parent should know the music well after months of daily, repeated CD listenings and group classes.  As students begin to develop a deeper association between the pitch in their “ear” and the corresponding place on the fingerboard the learning process is sped up dramatically.  Later, when note reading is introduced, the player will see patterns of  notes, “hear” them and then play them in a process that comes together in a split second.

All great composers hear music in their inner “ear.”  In one story, the young Mozart traveled to Italy, heard a long choral piece performed once and went home and proceeded to copy the entire score note for note.  Beethoven was able to continue to compose after he lost his hearing because of his ability to hear music in his head.

As students become more advanced, it is important that they listen to as many different recordings of a piece as possible.  The goal should never be to parrot back someone else’s performance, but to consider many different interpretations and then to find your own.

2. Isolate sections that are more difficult or present new technical challenges.  I often give my students exercises when they are confronted with a new technical challenge.  After focusing on a specific problem and solving it through correct repetitions, the rest of the piece often falls into place.  You will be able to structure your time in the most effective way by getting a head start on these challenges.

3. Slow down.  Allow the fingers and bow arm to get wired in the right way from the beginning.  For less advanced Suzuki students, the parent should make sure that in the beginning each step is isolated.  Play, stop the bow, quickly set the finger, wait, play the next note, make a quick string crossing, wait, play the next note. This type of practice leads to quick mastery of the piece.  Physical motions are efficient and no wrong notes or extra motions are ingrained.

4. Use verbal and physical cues.  Parents can help young Suzuki students by calling out the correct finger after each bow stop.  The parent can also mime the correct bowing in the air with their right arm.  Even though the student’s eyes remain down on the violin, this is a helpful peripheral visual cue.  Sing or play along on the piano or another instrument if possible.

5. Take one goal at a time.  Consider what makes a particular passage difficult and quickly address it.  Focus on that one goal and try to achieve it through many correct, slow repetitions.

6. Repeat only a few notes at a time.  In some ways, learning a new piece is like sanding a table.  Work out a small section and then move on.  Gradually more and more of the piece will take shape.  It is also important to start in different places in the middle of the piece and play them out of context.

7. Listen carefully and evaluate.  Are you creating the phrase that you want?  Are you in the correct part of the bow and are you using the right amount of bow speed and weight? Is the rhythm good?  Is everything in tune?  If you hear an out of tune note go back to the preceding note and try again.  Once you get it it tune, look at your fingers, memorize the feeling and distance between fingers.  Are you playing with the indicated dynamics?  There is a lot to think about, but you want to catch any mistake immediately before it becomes a habit.

8. Isolate left and right hands when necessary.  If you encounter a bowing issue, take the bow separately and play on open strings.  Set the fingers of the left and play pizzicato (or plucking the strings)  so you can focus only on the left hand.

9. Maintain relaxation and good posture.  Notice when tension creeps in and shake your hands and arms out.  Renew a feeling of soft, cushiony relaxation in your hands.

10. Be patient and persistent.  Continue to play slowly and acknowledge that it may take some time to get a new piece in your fingers.  Make sure you continue to practice every day.  You will probably see a sudden jump in progress that is the result of your cumulative work.

Here are a few more posts on practicing that you might enjoy reading.

2 thoughts on “Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire”

  1. I have a couple issues with the content of this blog post, “Ten Tips For Learning New Repertoire.” These are just my opinions based on years of playing, teaching all age ranges and teaching students with learning challenges as well as those who are not considered learning-challenged. I am aware that some of my ideas may not be Suzuki-PC but as a professional and a professional teacher of music having been involved in music learning for 42 years I find these ideas proven. The items I am not responding to I do not find issue with, it’s just the ones I note below. I welcome replies.

    1. Listen repeatedly. I am in complete agreement that listening to recordings of the piece being learned is helpful but not until after the student has had time to “read through” the piece and only listen to it once before they begin to work on it. The listening can have an adverse effect in that the student will memorize the rhythmic aspect of the piece rather than count it for themselves. A student learns and retains much more by working out the counting on their own (with their teacher’s assistance) before they memorize the piece. Listening to the specific piece thereafter will help with understanding how other players have phrased the piece and perhaps tonally (texturally) how the instrument sounds playing it. Otherwise, I suggest to my students to listen to recordings of repertoire to get the sound of the instrument in their ear to eventually learn to replicate that sound but not necessarily repeated listening to the specific piece on their stand until they have had an opportunity to count through it and play the pitches and listen to the intervals on their own. I believe some amount of “parroting” is necessary because as one learns to play like someone else it allows for more creativity in finding their own voice in the future, but that should not come until after the musician has put a piece through their own process of learning it in order to retain the “process of learning.” I parrot many different players because there are characteristics of different players which I like and which helps me play the instrument more fluidly with less tension thereby freeing me up to find my own instrumental voice.
    The reference to composers confuses me. Composers do hear music in their inner ear but what does this have to do with an instrumentalist playing a piece already written? The instrumentalist’s job is to tell a story, convey a feeling and take the listener on a journey. For this, they use their ear, their eyes, their imagination and hopefully they have the technical chops to convey their ideas to the listener.
    4. Use verbal and physical cues. I would rather that parents help students call out the note names over the importance of calling out the fingerings. I cannot tell you how many previous 100% Suzuki students I get in my studio who do not know notes names and where those notes are played on their cello. However, if I show the student the music they know the fingering associated with the visual of the note even though they cannot tell me the note name. If a student doesn’t know the note names then they cannot tell me what the interval is; they cannot tell me they need to play 1/2 step down or a whole step up and for a fretless instrument this becomes problematic. I ask my students to play their scales calling out note names rather than calling out fingerings. If they are having an issue with what the note is I will say the note name, then say the fingering and tell them the string for that fingering. Then I ask them to repeat me. I drill my students asking them, “How do you play D on the A string?” “Show me all of the F notes you know so far.” “Here is a string harmonic, but what note are you playing?” And so on…
    9. Maintain relaxation and good posture. I believe that the term “relaxation” is over-used and misinterpreted. We are not “relaxing” when we play, we are attempting to not add unnecessary tension. We need a certain amount of good tension just to play the instrument because our muscles and tendons are moving and working but the goal I believe is not to relax but to not add tension. This is accomplished by ensuring that we don’t over-practice and try to play while our muscles are fatigued; that we don’t play beyond our present abilities because we can’t make changes when we are constantly playing at the edge of our abilities. Now, a professional player may look relaxed but that is because they have learned to not add counterproductive tension. It is because they have accomplished the technical abilities to perform the piece or excerpt of the piece so they are not adding tension by trying to play something beyond their abilities. I have watched professionals add tension viewed in their jaw, their shoulders, their eyes even though their playing seems “relaxed”. All of us who play need to be careful to not inhibit our natural movements; my teacher always told me, “Don’t get in the way of gravity.” In other words, don’t get in the way of our natural ability (as well as the physical gravity) to play the instrument and be careful where you may carry tension and why; the body is never completely relaxed.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Terri. Some of our disagreement may be attributed to the fact that there are no hard and fast rules. Every student has different needs and every teacher has their unique way of accomplishing similar goals.

      Repeated listening for young Suzuki students is a vital part of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy. I am an advocate of Suzuki for several reasons. I believe that the development of the ear at an early age is essential. An artist has a visual image of what is being painted and a musician must be able to develop a similar musical “ear.” All musicians should strive to hear in a way that matches the inspiration of the composer. I do not want my young students to count, but instead to develop a feeling for the rhythm internally. Delaying note reading also helps students to listen and focus on technical details like finger and bow placement, tone, intonation, ect.

      Some readers may be familiar with the work of music educator Edwin Gordon who places a similar emphasis on development of the ear:

      “Although music is not a language, the process is the same for audiating and giving meaning to music as for thinking and giving meaning to speech. When you are listening to speech, you are giving meaning to what was just said by recalling and making connections with what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you will be hearing next, based on your experience and understanding. Similarly, when you are listening to music, you are giving meaning to what you just heard by recalling what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you are hearing next, based on your musical achievement. In other words, when you are audiating as you are listening to music, you are summarizing and generalizing from the specific music patterns you have just heard as a way to anticipate or predict what will follow. Every action becomes an interaction. What you are audiating depends on what you have already audiated. As audiation develops, the broader and deeper it becomes and thus the more it is able to reflect on itself. Members of an audience who are not audiating usually do not know when a piece of unfamiliar, or even familiar, music is nearing its end. They may applaud at any time, or not at all, unless they receive clues from others in the audience who are audiating. Through the process of audiation, we sing and move in our minds, without ever having to sing and move physically.” (Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns, 1997 by Edwin E. Gordon, pp. 5-6)

      Regarding your second point, calling out note names instead of fingers is fine. The Suzuki method is only as good as the teacher who uses it. While some Suzuki students may lack basic music theory skills, this should not be attributed to the method, but to their individual backgrounds.

      Regarding relaxation, I agree about the importance of gravity. The weight of the springy right arm dropping from the shoulder is important for tone production. I have noticed that having my students renew a sense of relaxation leads to a substantially more ringing tone and a sense of technical freedom. I believe that having a mental image of what is happening physically is also important.


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