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As I've said before, I'm working on the Bach inventions, among a few other pieces.

When I practise/learn any new piece, I prefer to break it into manageable chunks, usually separated in some obvious way.

If I'm playing, say, Mozart's Turkish March, I do find the piece difficult but it has a nice logic to it. For instance, I can break it into short sections of around 8 bars each that are separated by natural pauses. In this piece, I can break my own learning up into focusing on these much smaller sections and I make progress faster (I hope that made sense...)

However, I do not find the same logic or natural pauses in some pieces like the Bach inventions. I have difficulty just stopping after 4 measures and repeating my practise or something equally manageable since I need to make sure I'm in the correct position/dynamics etc. As a result, I have trouble focusing on the "hard parts" and have to start from the beginning each time.

First, is this a common thing or is it just a weirdness of my own practising that I should just get over?

Second, of its not just me, what should I do?

  • 1
    Far too many players always start from the beginning again. Start anywhere, and after a bar or two, it usually feels that that is where you are in the music anyway. – Tim May 28 '17 at 10:35
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    Note that polyphonic music offers you a completely different possibility: practice at first one voice, then another, then two simultaneously, then two others, etc. This is often much more useful for "getting" a composition than going bar by bar. – Kilian Foth May 28 '17 at 12:27
  • @Tim I agree. I try not to, but my big challenge is finding a natural place to stop and start. I suppose what you mean is to practice not needing to find such a place? – Michael Stachowsky May 28 '17 at 13:08
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    Related: this is why so many young musicians are terrific playing their scales ascending, but dreadful playing them descending. Whenever they mess up, they just start over again, meaning they've gone up that scale 1000 times while only going down about 100! – Richard May 28 '17 at 13:32
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    (Perhaps those numbers are, um, not to scale.) – Richard May 28 '17 at 13:32
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One of the difficulties you might be encountering is the identification of cadences (authentic and evaded) in Bach's works.

The reason it's so easy to break Mozart's Turkish March into 8-bar sections is the use of clear harmonic progressions and use of cadences. Every 8 bars or so, you can expect a clear cadence with some type of standard pause or rest in some or all of the voices; this makes practicing these chunks very easy.

In Bach, however, we don't really get that. So I have two main suggestions:

  1. Be on the lookout for weakened cadences (or chord progressions similar to cadences) of various types in Bach's music. I don't know what inventions you're looking at, but consider, for instance, m. 9 of the first invention; it's a pretty clear motion to G on the downbeat, yes? But less clear are the little tonicizations of C major and D minor on the downbeats of mm. 10 and 11.

  2. Also make sure to consider Bach's use of motive. In the above example, it makes much more sense to treat m. 11 as a boundary point than m. 10, because m. 11 starts some new motivic work in the upper voice. Similarly, depending on what size chunks you're looking for, you may consider m. 5 as a good starting point because of the new motivic environment.

For me, at least, this type of analysis really helps find some good landmarks to delineate these practice chunks (as well as the memorization chunks I discuss in What exactly do pianists/musicians memorize?).

3

If you don't want to get tied in knots trying to "analyze" a piece to divide it into chunks, one method is to work backwards from the end.

Start by practising the last bar or two. When you are happy with that, start a bar or two earlier, and stop playing when you get into the part you have already practiced. Repeat till you reach the beginning!

This has the psychological benefit that you are always working from "hard stuff" towards "easier stuff," not the other way round.

If you want to give yourself a psychological "treat" every few minutes of practice time, keep going until you reach the end of the piece. Getting to the end more or less successfully is more satisfying than starting at the beginning and having to "give up" when the stuff you haven't practiced yet is too hard.

  • So I just tried this with a new quick study and I found that I couldn't get the fingering right. I would set myself up for a given bar with the most natural fingering for that bar but that would then make it hard to string them together, since the fingering I'd end the previous bar on wasn't the fingering I would have chosen to start the next one of I were to play it on its own. Any tips on getting around that? – Michael Stachowsky May 29 '17 at 11:01

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