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I hope this question is not too opinion-based, and if there are any problems please tell me about it.

I'm currently studying Ives' Concord Sonata for my graduation, but I have many other projects in the meantime. I already have a somewhat clear structure of the piece, and I'm already working on phrasing the many, many voices (not necessarily immediately by playing). What are universally effective techniques for reading this score in the extremely short period of 20 days, to have at least the main foundation of the piece (not the actual piece ready for performance)? Some techniques (like harmonical analysis) are extremely complicated and kind of useless for polytonal music like this, at least if comprehended in detail. Still, the techniques can be advanced (I've been studying for 16 years).

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    There are no universally effective techniques for anything, least of all music learning. I suggest reworking your question 1) to focus on the Ives sonata and 2) asking for learning techniques that you could try out.
    – Aaron
    Apr 2, 2023 at 2:29
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    @Aaron At least, there are none you don't already know after 16 years of learning music. Valid answers would basically be generic study advice (e.g. study a little every day, review often, get enough sleep, etc)
    – Edward
    Apr 2, 2023 at 2:33
  • Also, just to confirm, you're playing the 1947 edition, yes?
    – Aaron
    Apr 2, 2023 at 2:49
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    There are music learning techniques that are widely taught and considered effective for a majority of musicians. Going through them might be a bit much for this space - as in the question might be too broad. If you have a private teacher, they should know these techniques (all the ones I've worked with in the last few years have taught essentially the same techniques). If you don't have a private teacher, then investing in one at least for the next 20 days might help. Harmonic analysis has not been a technique that I've been taught for learning music fast. Apr 2, 2023 at 3:25
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    Note that if Wikipedia is to be believed, the pianist who gave the first public performance of the whole sonata spent four years learning it before the premier, and still had the sheet music up during the performance. Apr 2, 2023 at 3:59

2 Answers 2

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Despite the broadness of the question, I'll try to summarize some of what I've been taught in the last few years about learning music:

  • Learn big - small - big: Get an overview of the piece and read it all the way through, listen to recordings if available. Then focus on the most difficult sections and areas where you want to bring anything out in particular, then stitch it all back together again.
  • After getting an overview, do not even practice or learn passages that you can read at tempo. Spend no time on those passages. Only work on passages you cannot read at tempo and once you can play them at tempo, spend only maintenance time on those passages and focus on other passages that you still haven't prepared.
  • Expanding on the recordings - if there are recordings available, listen to the best one you can find daily. If you can audiate the whole piece it helps you memorize performing it. If you can stitch together a recording of yourself or an electronic realization, that can help if no recording is available.
  • Attempt to assign a form to the piece (note that formal boundaries are not always tonal/harmonic, there can be rhythmic or textural boundaries). Memorize the form and approach memorizing the piece by section. Even through-composed pieces usually have some amount of beginning, middle, and ending.
  • Learn sections and difficult passages "backwards". This means the learning is back to front, not the playing. Play the last beat correctly at a comfortable tempo 3-10 times in a row (you have to determine for yourself how many repeats before you add). Then play the last two beats correctly 3-10 times. Then the last three beats. Keep working backwards until you've got the section or passage well under your fingers, then work on bringing up the tempo.
  • Whenever learning an excerpt of the piece, resist the tendency to learn between bar lines. Learn phrases, usually ending on the first beat of the next bar. For wind blown instrument or voice, learn between breaths. Always play through a difficult section to the next chord or the end of a phrase or if there seems to be no other clear place to play through, play through the downbeat of the next bar.
  • Look at the section of music and play while visualizing your fingers. Then immediately play the same section looking at you fingers while visualizing the music. Then look away from both and play while attempting to visualize both. For voice or instruments with no fingers to look at, skip the part about looking at your fingers. Keep cycling through looking and then visualizing several times each practice session.
  • If you can talk while you play, say each dynamic mark out loud in time with the note it applies to as you play through the piece or passage.
  • Learn to sing the part or top line of the part - this technique may not be helpful with all types of music or passages. Also see the tip about listening to recordings, above.
  • For runs, scalar passages, arpeggios, and similar material, practice accenting the second, third, fourth, etc., subdivisions of the beats in the passage. If there are equal note values in the passage, practice lengthening and shortening alternate notes (like a swing feel).
  • Break your practice up into two shorter sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening.
  • Resist the urge to forgo warmup and technique material in your practice sessions, but consider economizing warmup and technique work to take up no more than 10-20 minutes of your practice time so you can devote more time to the piece.
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    I'm intrigued by the 'learn sections backwards'. How does that work?
    – Tim
    Apr 2, 2023 at 8:19
  • Thank you, this let me realize that I already practice with this techniques, except for the "Look at the section... [...]", something that I've never tried.
    – lollo259
    Apr 2, 2023 at 11:07
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    @Tim Was my explanation of it not clear? I don't mean learn to play the section starting with the last note and ending with the first. I mean learn the last beat first. Then learn the last two beats (played forwards). Then learn the last three beats (played forwards), etc. Apr 2, 2023 at 12:07
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    @lollo259 - unlike what a lot do - learn from the beginning, and always start there, thus making the start the most polished, and it's downhill from there...
    – Tim
    Apr 2, 2023 at 14:28
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    @Tim you may have seen the technique used for learning complex words before, perhaps in another language. It’s much easier to form a thorough comprehension of the shapes and sounds used by starting from the end. Lots of language tapes use the technique and I use it with kids when teaching them long new words! With music it’s great as you form the ‘target’ at the end and then build towards it, you develop a great confidence at being able to deliver the phrase rather than just getting through it. I wouldn’t use it all the time but very useful for harder parts!
    – OwenM
    Apr 2, 2023 at 15:46
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Todd's suggestions are right on, and this can be seen as simply expanding on them: When short on time, benefit as much as you can from other people's effort. Yes, you could do your own analysis from scratch, but you're not the only person to encounter this sonata. Cambridge publishes an entire "handbook" dedicated it, explaining a lot about the background, the reception history, and the actual material ("Appendix II" is "Formal and thematic outline"). The same author, Geoffrey Block, has a chapter on the Concord Sonata in a 1997 "Ives Studies" volume. One more book is dedicated entirely to this sonata, Charles Ives's Concord: Essays After a Sonata (apparently a play on Ives's own Essays Before a Sonata).

Of course you should spend most of your time practicing, but you should sink some time into this research. I hope, at a conservatory, you're familiar with the usual tools for academic research—JSTOR, RILM, etc. If your school library doesn't have the books above, they can probably get them using Interlibrary Loan if you get the request in quickly. For any piece, it's nice to research the background and check out other people's analyses, but it seems vital for this piece. Even a few minutes' Googling suggests it has a rich backstory, programmatic associations, and complicated reception history.

Similarly, I'd double down on Todd's suggestion that you listen to recordings. People disagree about whether they like to do listen to recordings while learning a piece, but whether or not you make a habit of it, it would definitely help jump-start a quick study.

And similarly, get all the help you can from people who have already studied the piece. If your teacher doesn't mind, see if you can get pointers from any other students who have played it.

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  • Thank you. Unfortunately my Conservatory haven't renewed the credentials for JSTOR. I'll try to find other analysis.
    – lollo259
    Apr 2, 2023 at 21:57
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    @lollo259 Well, if they have the subscription to Grove Music Online, I'd start with the entry on Ives there. And in this case it seems like these 2 or 3 books are plenty to work with; if your library doesn't have them, you can use Worldcat to find the closest copies, and often Interlibrary Loan can get materials quite quickly. Apr 2, 2023 at 22:03
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    @lollo259 JSTOR offers individuals a free membership that allows access to a limited, but generous, number of articles each month.
    – Aaron
    Apr 2, 2023 at 22:53

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