Friday, 9 November 2012

A New Beginning

Looking back at my previous posts, I would like to say I am amazed at how long it has been since I wrote anything.  However, I'd be lying. It's now time to recommit, and I'm sure it won't be the last time I will "reboot" my efforts to contribute.  For now, let this suffice.

In the two years that have passed, of course a lot of things have taken place.  The U.S. Army School of Music has now fully deconsolidated from the Navy school, and though we still occupy the same building, we train our Soldiers completely differently.  A number of things has kept me from practicing consistently, including going to the Advanced Leader Course (held at ... the Army School of Music!) totalling a car and breaking a finger in the process, and welcoming a new daughter to my family.  I also began an MBA program through UMUC, which has been challenging trying to keep up with it all.  No matter how you slice it, time is at a premium for me, and I bet for many other people.  This is why I first began looking for ways of hopefully increasing the efficiency of my practice time, leading me to explore Spaced Repetition Learning as a viable option.

So, on with the show!

I'd like to see if you agree with the following propositions.

Assuming that you have developed the required skills demanded by a piece of music, i.e. if it requires flutter-tonguing or altissimo, you can actually perform those techniques,

(1) there is a tempo at which every element can be performed in proper sequence from beginning to end, and

(2) there is one spot which is (initially) harder than all others to perform accurately and which will break down first as the tempo increases.

I recently had an opportunity to put this to the test when I was asked to premier a saxophone sonata written by a composition student at a local university.  In preparing this piece, I began with a SmartMusic accompaniment set to the target tempo and played (read) until the first time I felt I was unable to perform it accurately.  At this point, I reduced the tempo by one increment and resumed from that measure.  Occasionally I had to bump the tempo down two or three times to get through a spot.  Eventually the tempo settled down to a level that I was able to "stroll" through the rest of the piece with ease.  Subsequent passes began at the last successful tempo and got moved up gradually if I could play it at that tempo with no errors.

From that pass through the piece, I knew the following:

1) where my first "hot spot" was and approximately what tempo I could play it,
2) that I could play everything before that hot spot at least at that tempo,
3) that I could play everything from that spot on to the end at that same tempo, at least, and
4) each of those large chunks also had their own "hot spots" with a slightly higher tempo.

I tracked all this in a spreadsheet format with a pass number, the starting and ending measure number, the tempo expressed as a percentage of the goal tempo, the measure number of the "hot spot" and it's tempo.  So, the first entry coverd the entire piece (I just used beginning and end for measure numbers), and when I found the hot spot I made new entries, #2, to record the first half up to the hot spot, and #3, after the hot spot.  The next pass found the hot spot for #2, generating entries #4 and #5, and so on.  After several passes, it resembles the structure of an Ahnentafel table from family history research!

Anyway, I ended up boiling each movement down to about 5-10 hot spots interspersed with passages I was confident I could read at tempo.  I could then focus the majority of my attention on reviewing my collection of hot spots, applying all my practice tricks such as memorizing the measure, using uneven practice techniques, performing backwards, analyzing structures, and so on.  I then went back and played those larger chunks to make sure I could perform them in context.

Looking back, I think I could have improved the efficiency even more by taking note of each time I had to reduce the tempo on that initial pass.  However, I would have to be careful to distinguish those truly difficult hot spots that require a lot of effort from those that may have been difficult only because of reading issues.  My intent is to be able to process a new piece of music in such a way that I quickly ferret out the parts that need the most work consistently and use a spaced repetition system to schedule reviews of those parts so I can focus my energy on only those parts that require it to maintain a certain level of performance.  Right now, I find I spend about as much time on record-keeping and data entry types of actions as I do on playing. Hopefully, though, I will learn from this process just what the requirements are to streamline everything, thus reducing the administrative time to an absolute minimum.

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