Working back to happiness

Tonight I shall be playing a gig with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band.

Unfortunately I only found out yesterday that I would be playing this gig, and only got the music for one of the pieces to look at today. So I have just been doing some fairly intensive practice.

Most of the pieces are ones I’ve played plenty of times before, so they shouldn’t cause me any great trouble. The highlight of the set, though, will be the world’s second ever complete live performance of The Great War Suite by Hannah Retallick (our conductor). The first perfomance took place at the North Wales Rally last week and, since that was a youth band competition with an upper age limit of around 20 for the performers, I was unable to take part (I was playing with our senior band in their section of the competition, which didn’t have age restrictions; I was also able to watch the intermediate band performance, so at least I have an idea of what the music sounds like).

The suite is based on a number of tunes from the First World War and was written to commemorate the centenary of the start of the war. We played the first movement of it in our Anniversary Concert at the start of November, so I have played that movement. I also played an early draft of the third (and final) movement in a rehearsal a couple of months ago, but it has been extensively rewritten since then (and now includes a fairly prominent trombone/horn section solo) and I haven’t played the second movement at all until today.

The first two movements present no particularly great problems but the third is a bit tricky, so I concentrated most of my practice time on that (being aware of the need to balance doing sufficient practice to get a handle on the music and avoiding doing too much and wearing out my lip before the performance). In particular I’ve been concentrating on the 8 or so bars of the trombone / horn solo, since there will apparently only be two of us in that section tonight and I won’t be able to hide behind the rest of the band for it).

In order to nail this solo, or at least pin it down, I’ve employed a combination of tricks such as the standard ones of breaking it down into small chunks and repeating it (both in chunks and in toto) ad nauseam, at various speeds up to and including the 132 bpm indicated on the score (the movement is quite fast, which is one of the reasons why it’s a bit harder than the others; hopefully Hannah won’t take it significantly faster than it’s marked as I can still barely play it at that speed!). I also tried an idea I customised from a language-learning tip I read about the other day.

The tip was originally aimed at learning long, complicated words or phrases. You break your target word / phrase up into smaller chunks and learn it bit by bit, starting with one chunk and adding more until you can say the whole thing. That much is a fairly obvious approach to the problem. The twist is to start with the end of the word and work backwards. The idea behind this is essentially that each time you add a bit to the word, you start with the unfamiliar bit and get it out of the way, allowing your brain to coast along more or less on autopilot with the rest of the word. Allegedly (and plausibly, IMHO) this is more efficient and effective strategy than starting with the “easy” bit that you’ve already learned and taking a run up to the more difficult end.

I’ve not yet tried applying this idea to language learning but it occurred to me that a similar trick might work for music. So, I broke my 8 bar phrase up and tackled it one bar at a time, starting with the last bar. After playing that a few times (until I could play it fairly comfortably), I added the penultimate bar and repeated the two bars a handful of times, before trying it with the antepentultimate bar added, then the preantepenultimate, the propreantepenultimate and so on (I hope you get the idea, because Wiktionary doesn’t list anything beyond “last but four” 🙂 )  Occasionally, when I hit a particularly tricky bar, I’d repeat that on its own a few times before prepending it to the growing phrase.

Before I tried this I had made several attempts to play through the phrase from the beginning but hadn’t managed to get very far with it.  I found that this approach worked quite well in enabling me to play it much more competently and confidently.  I’m still not sure that I’ll be able to play this solo as well as I’d like tonight, but I’ve got a much better chance of getting it more or less right than I had before.

Incidentally, this afternoon’s practice session has also reminded me of the importance of practising scales and arpeggios, even in keys that you often don’t play in.  There is one bar in the third movement (which is in C) that is effectively an A major arpeggio (actually, A dominant seventh, as it starts with a G) and would be much easier for me to play if I’d practised that key a bit more (we don’t often get pieces in A, at least not in the junior band music), especially when it comes to finding the right slide position for low C#.  Quite a lot of the other passages would also be a lot easier if I wasn’t having to think quite so consciously about where to locate the notes or how to run between them.

PS in case you’re wondering, this whole post wasn’t just an excuse to use the word “propreantepenultimate” – in fact, I didn’t even know that the word existed until I went to Wiktionary to look up the spelling of “antepenultimate” (and I didn’t know I’d be using that word, or even plain old boring “penultimate” until I was half-way through writing that paragraph).

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1 Comment

  1. My current practise key is the concept of bridges. I’ll start with something I can play and anchor that with the material on either side, even if it is just a note or two. I’ll extend until I have a decent bit of “land” on either side and then move to another section. If I find something really troublesome, I’ll break it right down, perhaps even just playing the sequence of notes without adding other factors like timing then gradually working it back towards what I need to master.

    Ultimately the aim is to be able to play the complete piece and to fluently perform whole phrases rather than stuttering through individual notes. I’ll have to give the backwards idea a thought too – my selections tend to be fairly random, guided either by what I know I can do or what I know I struggle with.

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