One of my favorite practice techniques came in handy with a student today.
The piece was “La Source” by Alphonse Hasselmans. The problem was the bar lines. Not just one bar line, most of them. The student was having difficulty getting from one measure to the next. Everything was fine at a slow tempo, but as soon as we tried to speed it up, the bar lines turned into concrete barriers.
Maybe you have experienced something like this. Much of a piece is playable, but there are some spots that always seem to go awry.
I compare this situation to driving on a road with potholes. There is one exit ramp I drive on frequently, often late at night. At the top of the ramp at the merge onto the main road, there is a pothole. It has been there for years. Still somehow nearly every time, I manage to hit the pothole, after which I yell at myself for forgetting it was there. The pothole is avoidable; all I have to do is remember it’s there, and take appropriate action.
Just like in the Hasselmans. We knew the places that were difficult to play, a.k.a., the potholes. What we needed was a strategy to avoid them.
So we turned to the one sure-fire technique I use for this situation. I call it “Preparation Points.” It’s a simple way to go around the potholes insterad of falling in.
In the Hasselmans, the problems were all occuring on the first beat in each measure. (The piece is in 6/8.) We set the metronome at a tempo close to our goal tempo. I encouraged her to play through the whole page at that tempo, but to stop before she played the sixth (last) beat of each measure. This was her “preparation point.” She could take as much time as she wanted to prepare for the music after the barline, and then when she was ready, play on and play through the barline, keeping with the metronome. I suggested she stop before each sixth beat that was before a pothole moment.
The next step is to stop and prepare before the fifth beat before each pothole, giving her pothole a wider berth. Next, her task was to play through each pothole without stopping before, but to stop and readjust after each first beat following a pothole. And then to stop after two beats.
The point of practicing with these preparation points before the pothole is to create the habit of watching for the difficult parts, and the habit of playing through them correctly. The pauses after the pothole moments helps calm yourself and continue beyond the difficulty. The combination of paying attention to the difficult spot, preparing for it and practicing playing it correctly fixes these problems quickly and fairly permanently.
At least, the next time you play it wrong, you know to stop, give yourself a dope slap and remind yourself to watch for the pothole!