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Preparing Lots of Music at The Same Time

I have always learned new music every year. The thought of not doing so never occurred to me. I learn new solo music and usually new chamber music as well. Sometimes this effort piles up a bit and, as a result of agreeing to a range of different performances more or less all at once, I find myself in a logjam of new repertoire. Like this season.

As I go through my daily practice sessions it occurred to me that this may be what many students feel like, confronted, perhaps for the first time, with the task of preparing an entire recital's worth of music all at once. Most students I teach, prior to coming to college, performed at most one or two pieces on a recital each season; they aren't experienced at preparing entire solo programs. The volume of material and the inherent challenges in managing it all simultaneously can be daunting. This post will suggest some ways to improve your success when managing lots of music all at once.

In my current season, I found myself facing a mixed chamber program in July, a voice/guitar & solo program in September, a different mixed chamber & solo program in October, a different solo program in November and another different voice/guitar/mixed chamber program in December. Most, though not all, of the material was new to me. Some of the performances were pretty high-stakes: such as playing new music with the composer in the audience, or being featured on significant recital series with substantial audiences, or being filmed, or reviewed by the press. There was going to be no faking. Each performance had to be properly prepared and presented with all guns firing.

So what's the most effective approach to this challenge?

Each piece has to be assessed for difficulty and weighted based on how long before it needs to be ready. Chamber works need to be rehearsed with others so the parts need to be ready before the rehearsals begin. (I prefer to show up to the first rehearsal able to play my part at concert tempo comfortably while aware of what the others are doing so there is little surprise.) Solo works need to be playable at a very high level well before the concert date to allow ample time to explore expressive possibilities and for the physical movements to settle in the hands.

When first learning new music, it can take significant time to parse the score's various challenges, so there will not be time each day to practice everything. I prioritize in such a way that the newest and hardest works get the earliest attention, and work down from there. I'm playing a multi-movement work by a colleague that is fairly difficult and totally new. There is no reference recording. Some of the faster movements have taken hours each day to master, even though in performance they will take only two or three minutes. While this type of work is absolutely necessary, it's helpful to recall that once in hand, the piece only takes ten minutes to play. Therefore, as time passes, and a piece like that one starts to gel, the time spent on it each day will be significantly reduced, leaving time for the next-most challenging pieces.

I always learn fast pieces before slow ones. I simply need more practice on them, so I be sure to give myself the extra time. For instance, when learning a typical Baroque suite, I'd start with the gigue and courante, maybe the prelude, and save the allemande and sarabande for later. The same is true for pieces with constantly shifting meters. If the rhythmic components of the music present special challenges, it can be helpful to leave extra time to fully internalize the music's special pulse or complex patterns.

Establishing such a clear set of priorities up front can go a long way towards taking the scare out of the recital prep process. Simply start with the highest priority pieces, and as they come under control, they'll take less time in your practice schedule, making room for pieces from the next priority level, and so on.

My particular set of challenges this season is complicated, in that every month there is a different program but preparation for each piece begins at apparently random times before, times dictated by difficulty, speed and familiarity. In other words, as July unfolded, in addition to focussing mostly on the July program, I worked on two pieces from the October program and one from the November program, but none from the September or December programs. I knew those programs would be manageable in the reduced lead time I was allotting them.

While the challenge of preparing a single program is much simpler, it can seem every bit as daunting to the inexperienced. I recommend students perform this assessment of the repertoire immediately. Then, having determined which pieces will take the most time to master, and leading off with those, a logical and thoughtful sequence begins to unfold. If done well, the entire program should feel more or less equally under control by the time the recital is thirty days away. Then the student can focus attention on expressive interpretation, stamina and pacing as the performance nears, truly feeling ready instead of panicking over last minute score preparation.

I normally keep this tally of pieces and their relative prioritzation in my head, but it can be helpful, and even comforting, to write it down. For a single recital, doing so might look like this:

Sample Recital Program:
Bach -Lute Suite BWV 1006a
Giuliani -Variations Op 49
Tedesco -Tarantella
Merlin -Suite del Recuerdo
Martin -Quatre Pièces Brève

Priority 1
Bach Prelude
Giuliani Var 6/Finale
Martin Gigue

Priority 2
Bach Gigue, Bourée
Giuliani Var 2
Martin Prelude

Priority 3
Bach Gavotte en Rondeau, 
Giuliani Var 3, 4
Merlin Joropo
Martin Plainte 

Priority 4
Bach Loure, Minuets
Giuliani Theme, Var 1, 5
Martin Aire 
Merlin rest of suite

I wrote a piece on encouraging my students to play "more recitals" a while ago (More Student Recitals). This post was motivated by the sense that the institutional norm of having undergraduate performance majors play a half-recital in their third year (the junior recital), then a full-length recital in their fourth year, was woefully inadequate. And it addressed the completely arbitrary norm of setting recitals one year apart from one another, a convention designed more to accommodate the academic calendar than the student's capacity to learn and prepare music for performance. Part of the discussion, if one addresses the "more recitals" question, is certainly the issue of how to learn the given music in the assumed time block. If the repertoire is level-appropriate, and if a logical prioritizing scheme is applied as described above, then it will often be possible for students to play a full recital every year or more, as has been the case in my studios.

This process requires determining a student's entire program in the beginning of the time-frame, a routine we engage in together with great pleasure and anticipation. The other method, in which a teacher assigns a single work, and when it is well in hand, determines what piece might be suitable next and so on, doesn't allow for truly preparing the entire recital because it eliminates the possibility of fully prioritizing all the recital's difficult parts. (You can't work on the fast movement early if you don't know until late that you'll be playing the piece). One of the first things I do with students after their recitals is to pick the next program. That way, the process can start to unfold immediately and offer the maximum amount of preparation time.

The joys of playing the guitar are reignited every time we learn new pieces. (The same could be said about revisiting old pieces!) With every new score we prepare, we become better readers, more agile players, more adept listeners; we become more stylistically aware and more generally nuanced in our playing. Learning a lot of music has always been central to both my teaching and to my own lifestyle as a musician. With some care and planning, learning lots of music at the same time can be a thrilling and successful musical journey.
Agnew-McAllister Duo at Oberlin

Agnew-McAllister Duo at Oberlin

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The Guitar Riches of Northeast Ohio I: Concerts