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I'm an extremely newbie musician (preparing for Grade II on oboe - no prior musical experience). I've looked into the best ways to practise (and I have a teacher) but I find myself struggling with certain passages and repeating my mistakes - even when I focus on getting those bits right over and over. I even find myself playing the scales wrong. So any advice on how to remedy this? I do want to become a good musician (yes, I know it will take years and years and that's fine) so I want to develop good learning habits now. I have passed Grade I (first time) so what advice would you have for me around developing good practise habits. Thank you

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Somewhat related: http://music.stackexchange.com/q/3121/28 and http://music.stackexchange.com/q/3215/28. And as a minor note, don't leave the instrument after playing 10 times wrong and then finally getting it right once -- make sure you've played it more times correctly than incorrectly before you leave. –  Matthew Read Jul 26 '13 at 15:46

4 Answers 4

If you don't have a metronome, get one. They have phone apps for them now so it is pretty easy to get one. Start with a very slow speed. Once you are able to perform it ten times in a row at that speed, increase the speed by 5 beats per minute. Once you can play it ten times at that speed, increase again. Do this until you reach the speed it is to be performed at.

If you get to a speed that you are unable to do, drop back down to the last speed you could do it and do it a few dozen more times, then do the progression again.

The reason you are likely repeating the same mistakes is because you are never properly correcting them. Repetition is key, and the best way to ensure that you are playing it correctly is to start slow and build up your speed systematically.

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I was thinking about answering but you touch the right points, so +1 to you. I just add: Playing with errors is training playing with errors, don't do it. Think about marcial arts masters, the slower you practise and have control over what you are doing the faster you will get good. And one last thing, drop the papers (if you didn't do that after), It was not until I played Bach's solo Chaccone (12min) by memory on my 2nd year at music univ that I understood how much more you develop by rehearsing by memory. –  Sergio Jul 24 '13 at 18:22
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In Frances Clark's famous piano pedagogy book, she says that one must play at a speed 3 times in a row without error before proceeding to the next tempo. I might increase the speed by 2 or 4 bpm instead of 5. Each of those numbers should be adjusted to your style, I suppose. –  mjibson Jul 24 '13 at 18:26

I personally like to break it down into 2 factors with my students: Speed, and the size of the passage. You keep reducing both until you can get it 100% correct 3-5 times in a row.

The smallest possible "practice group" in this case is going to be between 2 notes. And even then there are 3 things to keep in mind:

  1. How is your first note?
  2. How is the transition to the second note? (it's easy to forget this part)
  3. How is the second note?

While incorporating everything that has already been said about speed, I would also think about the size of your "practice group", that is, the number of actual notes you are repeating those 3 or 5 times. At the very smallest, it will be 2 notes repeated (lets say) 5 times. Then when you feel good about that, add a single note. Repeat all 3 notes now 5 times, but only at a tempo that you can guarantee will be 100% correct. Then, you add one more note, and keep on doing this process until you are doing the entire passage.

I don't have scientific evidence to support this following claim, but it has been my experience in my years of teaching lessons that what matters for learning music is not the speed, but whether it's correct or not. So the best first step is to just play it correctly at however slow it needs to be. The speed comes naturally when the notes themselves have been assimilated. You can speed up the process by trying to gradually push that upper tempo, but really in the end, I believe it's just familiarity with the correct notes that enables the speed, not the other way around. I always tell my students that your brain doesn't care how fast you play it, it will just remember what you do the most: play it correct or incorrect. So set your brain up for success in remembering the correct notes.

There is another method I use to "bust" problem areas in a passage. One is to do the add-one-note-at-a-time method but start at the LAST note of the passage. Do the same thing in adding one note at a time, but go backwards in the music. Even though these are the same notes and the same passage, I feel like going backwards writes a new "memory" in your brain of the passage that has a better chance of overwriting the incorrect one as opposed to trying to "rewrite" the old one.

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I find that I can play the first few bars well - consistently and without mistakes. It's the bars in the middle that I seem to falter on - I have taken groups of 6-8 notes and done as you have recommended - maybe I need to take smaller groups of notes. My issues tend to be with the timing - and I have found that using a metronome helps with that. Love the piece about learning it backwards - maybe I'll start that with my problem bars in the middle! –  user6241 Jul 31 '13 at 19:22
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Yes, exactly! Perhaps I wasn't very clear, but I meant that you should start your practice groups exactly where the problem is. Think like your doing a giant puzzle, you always start with pictures, corners, colors etc., that are similar, only then do you piece them together. So if your problems are in bars 1, 7, 8, attack each bar individually, down to even just two notes as described above before you attempt to add in bars 2,3,4,5,6 as well. Another important concept is time. It very well take more then one practice session. Just make sure you never hit a wrong note. (Speed and group size). –  brianclements Aug 1 '13 at 20:08

There are a number of techniques, and unfortunately playing the same part over and over doesn't always work. Personally I can get extremely bored playing 4 notes for an hour, though partly that's a discipline thing. First I'll tackle the base mechanical ways of solving the problem then move to a more psychologial approach, to cover all bases.

Isolate the part

Take nothing but the exact shift that you're messing up, perhaps even down to the 2 notes and play just them for a minute, then add another note either side, with the intent of building up that phrase/block from it's most simple rudiments

Isolate the technique

If there's a perticular technique or technical concept involved, either find pieces or etudes that focus on that concept, or write some of your own simple exercises. This allows you to develop proficiency with the skills you'll need, while giving you a wider view of the technique than a single piece.

Slooooooow doooown

When I say slow, I mean really slow. even slower than you're comfortable with. This does 2 things. It gives you time to really make every note count, get your timing spot on, executing the technique well.

The best part about this method for me is that you develop a real patience for learning, and when you do start to speed it up in increments you'll find that the music doesn't seem too fast, but too slow. As you speed up it might even get to the point that full speed feels too slow, which of course means you're no longer thinking "this is too hard to play", which can be a real psychological barrier at times!

Speed up

Opposite problem of not focusing enough is being too focused. The example I think of personally in guitar is doing long legato phrases. The note clusters were such that you had to take each phrase as a large group of 11 notes and just aim for certain keynotes.
(If this is unclear I can reword later)

Practice in Bursts My piano teacher always says it's better to practice 10 mins a day than 4 hours one day a week. The brain needs time to absorb new techniques, new melodies, new sounds. While you're regularly practicing it tells your brain that this is a problem to dedicate grey matter to, and your brain will work on the problem while you're away from the instrument.

It's just like when you try solving a math problem and you get an idea while you're seemingly doing nothing to do with it. This is a sign that your brain is processing the information in the background. One more thing on this, they did an experiment where they got people for 6 months to do a piano practice exercise in their head(not moving fingers) and found that their skill at the exercise improved dispite never playing a physical piano! Though not as much as the group that were physically playing the exercise

Forget about it If you've tried everything and you just can't do it, it's ok to forget about it for a week, a month, or even longer. Perhaps you're not technically ready and you need to learn more fundamental techniques first. I love Rachmaninoff, but focusing on a Piano Concerto passage when I've only played a year is perhaps not the best use of my time.

Give it Time Another big idea that I say a lot is whatever level you're at, that's fine. Master, newbie, everything. Once you accept where you are right now as a player without stressing, pressure and grief, your playing improves much, much faster. Motivation is key in mastering a technique, and positive motivation is the best you can get!

Of course on that last point there will be times that stress crops up, just don't let it rule you!

Hope that helps!

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I do actually practise for 15-20 minutes a day 4-5 days a week. I usually practise until I feel my jaw getting weak :-) Thanks for the stuff about the slowing down - then things can get tricky with my breathing - but it's all part of the learning! Really appreciate the bit about giving it time - I sometimes pick up some of the very first pieces I learned and find I can play them fine (and that is useful to reassure me of progress...) –  user6241 Jul 31 '13 at 19:25
    
Absolutely. Personally I have a mind that wipes my successes and amplifies my failures when memory is involved, so I have a system of tracking where I am with everything I do. Every Achievement I accomplish I add it to my list of 250 accomplishments and hang it above my bed, simply because when the negative brain kicks in I can look at that list and say "Damn I've been making a lot of progress lately". What that does is overloads your fear with the raw fact that I am making progress, and makes the learning more consistent and motivational! –  Alexander Troup Aug 1 '13 at 0:53
    
Yep, our minds must be cousins - because I tend to beat myself up about my failures and gloss over what I have done - even though my teacher is very positive and reassuring! So appreciate the input :-) –  user6241 Aug 14 '13 at 13:03
    
Seriously, write your achievements down, especially the small ones day to day. Put a blank sheet of paper on the wall and write down every milestone that you hit. The list grows way faster than you'd think and serves as a great reminder of how far you've come. I know for a fact Vai and Petrucci use this to keep track of progress and I have no doubt others have too! –  Alexander Troup Aug 14 '13 at 13:10

All the advice here is very sound. Just let me add that it is important not to over practice something---especially if you are still making mistakes. You will wind up actually practicing mistakes and building a mental block. Always go for perfection and slow it down until you can play it perfectly. Once frustration starts setting in, go away and do something else. It is a good idea to be working on several things at once for this reason and go back and forth. This way you can start fresh each time and the real test to see if have mastered something is to see if you can play it cold.

i sometimes will practice something for a while and not get it correct, but go away from it and come back and find that it is improved. Each time I come back to it I am starting stronger than the last time and eventually the nut cracks.

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will take that on board. I usually do a combination of long notes, then scales and then I have my 3 exam pieces to work on. And yes, that thing about leaving something and then coming back to it and finding it much easier - definitely true! –  user6241 Jul 31 '13 at 19:26

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