Practice makes perfect: Shifting 101

I am having a lazy, yet productive Sunday so far. After waking up without an alarm (bliss!), starting laundry, and eating breakfast, I started to practice. I'll be playing with ISO again next week, and wanted to be sure I had any tricky spots identified and fingered before the first rehearsal. We will be performing Dvorak's 7th Symphony, which is simply my favorite Dvorak symphony. I can't wait to play it with such a great ensemble! We'll also play Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto, with pianist André Watts, which will be amazing, I'm sure!

After going through the Dvorak, I finally got around to grooming Tula a bit. For weeks now, she's desperately needed to have the hair between her toes trimmed, and around her eyes and mouth. She's not a big fan of the trimmer (I think it must tickle something awful!), so it's not a task I'm fond of doing. But I got it done, and trimmed her nails, and finally she's not slipping all over the floor anymore... though she is still quite fuzzy everywhere else, to keep her warm during this cold spring!

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After lunch, I started practicing again. I'm working on the Franck sonata, the second movement. And here's the truth-- If I break difficult passages down enough, I truly can fix and perfect them. I just spent approximately 25 minutes on three measures. Yes, three (very difficult) measures!!

When I began breaking down these measures, they looked like this (since I fingered them back in December).

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Then, as I isolated the problems, my music looked like this.

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The bracketed notes are my shorthand for identifying trouble shifts. Not all shifts need special attention, but in this set of measures, most of them do (it's not having an E string that truly makes this passage devilish). The shift that's circled is especially difficult, as the high F# requires a completely different hand position than the D from which I'm coming before. Therefore, those two notes got a circle. I don't often use circles, as they can be vague-- but if you don't use a circle for everything, you have a better shot of knowing why you circled something! And the X at the start of the line helps me quickly find a spot in the music that needs extra attention, so if I only have a limited amount of time to work, I can easily isolate trouble spots. This is a much more effective practice method to always starting from the beginning and addressing issues as you work forward (which seems to be a common practice technique among younger students-- hint hint!).

You'll also notice that not all shifts have a shift mark (the little line going up or down, like on the first note of the second measure). For some reason, the two shifts that I marked with the little dash were especially tricky, and my brain didn't recognize the finger marking (the number) as a shift. By marking the shift with a little line, I gave myself an added reminder that I need to move my hand.

So in these three measures, there are seven shifts, four of which needed extra attention. I practiced each shift separately (by going from note to note and back again-- practicing shifts in both directions-- under a slur, so you can hear what's happening) MULTIPLE TIMES. It's not enough to get a shift correctly once-- you must drill it until you get it right at least five times in a row before moving on. I work in different rhythms and speeds, always being cognizant of my hand position (i.e. is my entire hand in 5th position, or only my first finger?), until I am confident in the shift. Then I'll add a note or two on either side of the two shift notes, so that I am working into and out of the shift. So now I'm playing four-to-six notes, with the two shift notes in the center. Once I'm happy with those notes, I'll add a few more, which in this passage leads to another shift-- which means I start the process all over again on the new shift, before trying to incorporate two shifts that are a few notes apart.

In this way, by identifying, isolating, and practicing specific problems, I was able to play these three measures MUCH cleaner than when I first starting working on them. I know the passage is not yet secure, so the X will remind me to spend some extra time here next time I work on this movement.

See? Productive practice, even if I didn't get through the entire movement.

Happy productive practicing!