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How to study a new piece for marimba – Part 2

How to study marimba

We are finally going to be studying!

Well, if this is what you think, then it means that you don’t grasp at all the utter importance of the work you should have done BEFORE starting with the actual study process of a new piece for marimba. In my previous post I already talked to you about the preparatory work that needs to be done.

Today we are starting with the longest portion of the our work, so…. let’s go!

 

SIGHT-READ THE PIECE

In my previous post, I already mentioned how important sight-reading really is.  Now I am going to explain why.

You have to realize that learning to play a new piece for marimba is like getting to know a new person.  If you have some preliminary information about that individual – such as his/her name, physical aspect, address, preferences – before actually meeting him/her in person, you can say you already know him/her a little.  This is exactly what you learned to do last week when you analyzed and listened to the piece.

If you then happen to actually meet the person, this first contact, this first meeting will tell you a thousand more things about him/her.  Some of your initial impressions might end up being wrong or unfounded, but after a first meeting you will usually have a much clearer picture than you had before.  Usually.

This is exactly why sight-reading a new piece for marimba is so important: it gives you a MUCH clearer picture about the piece in question.  Usually.

 

START STUDYING THE PART

Once you read your part a first time, you can start the actual study process.

First turn the metronome on.  Remember, the metronome is your best friend.  Please please please, use the metronome.

This is exactly what I tell my students when I catch them (usually in the classrooms next to where I teach my own class) studying a piece without a metronome.

Metronomo_o-Let’s in fact clarify something once and for all: the metronome is a wonderful aid to the study process and it does not kill your musicality. However, you must use your judgement when utilizing one. Here is how you can do that:

  1. Turn it on.
  2. Set a slow, very slow tempo.
  3. Focus on a short musical phrase or period (a structural analysis has already been performed as part of the preliminary activities) and start studying it.
  4. Once you are able to correctly execute the rhythm, the notes, the dynamics, the performance – in other words, everything – then…
  5. …don’t turn the metronome off.  Instead…
  6. …increase the tempo by no more than about 10 BPM.
  7. Repeat the previous steps starting with number 3.
  8. Move on to the following phrase or period and repeat the same steps.
  9. Connect the different phrases giving them a sense of musical continuity.
  10. When you know a good portion of the piece and you have been able to maintain the correct tempo, then you can turn the metronome off and have fun. In a one-hour study session, this last step should last no more than 10-15 minutes…

You can now understand that studying this way requires a considerable amount of time because of how the same phrase has to be practiced over and over, at a progressively increased tempo, until all the musical aspects of the piece have been perfectly mastered.

Well, it’s true.  Studying the right way takes time.  If you ever want some tips on how to organize your study schedule, you can read my post “How to Recover from a Period of Inactivity”.

 

SECOND DAY: FROM THE BEGINNING? NEIN!!!

Let’s say that on the first day you studied the first part of a piece. Today it is the second day; from where do you start? From the beginning? NEIN!!!

Once you have completed warmups and technique exercises, always start your study session with the parts you don’t yet know.

Playing over and over what you have already mastered is indeed fun and gratifying because it gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment. However, it is utterly useless and a total waste of time.

Set aside some time at the end of your study session to review and to tie together the sections you already studied with the new ones. See step 10 in the previous section.

 

MEMORIZING: YES OR NO?

Memorizing should not be an objective in itself. On the other hand, before learning how to play by memory, you should master your reading technique: in other words, focus on peripheral vision and practice.

Obviously, if you are playing a piece of a certain technical complexity, reading the part becomes basically impossible. At that point, memorization becomes inevitable.

In any case, debating the issue of memorizing or not memorizing is utterly useless. The issue is actually quite simple: if you study a certain way (refer to the section “Start Studying the Part”), you will learn that practice after practice, repetition after repetition, you end up memorizing the piece anyway, even without any conscious effort.

If you haven’t memorized the piece, it means that:

  • you haven’t studied enough;
  • the piece is relatively easy and allows you to read and perform at the same time.

 

SOUND AND PERFORMANCE

Right notes, right rhythm, right dynamics, etc.… but an ugly sound? Everything else becomes tainted.

Well, how can you obtain a beautiful sound on the marimba? Well, to give a truly satisfactory answer to this question I would need much more than one post.

Remember just a couple of things:

  • your sound depends on the way you move in space. Learn how to move.
  • for all percussion instruments including those, like the marimba, that don’t have a “natural” rebound.  Si-mu-la-te it.

That being said, right notes, right tempo, right dynamics, beautiful sound…flat performance? Everything else becomes tainted.

How can we then execute a beautiful performance? Well, we now risk entering a dangerous philosophical-esthetical territory that doesn’t belong in this post. We are not just talking about analysis but also, actually mostly, about “heart” and that, my friend, is up to you.

 

A FEW MORE TIPS

  • portrait of a young man learning to play the xylophoneHold your mallets low. If there is one thing I learned from the masterclass I took with the great David Friedman is to hold your mallets low. It is a matter of physics. The higher the mallets the more notes will be played wrong. That being said, you can still be amazed at the sight of a marimbist bringing the mallets down from above his/her head. However, remember this:  it would be really interesting to see a performance by one of these marimbists  while reading their part and to count how many notes they will play wrong. And if you are thinking “but Evelyn Glennie sometimes plays like that”, well, let me remind you that you are no Evelyn Glennie.
  • Keep your music stand low. How can you use your peripheral vision if your stand is too high for the keyboard? And above all, if you want to really impress your audience… let them see you! What the heck, are you or aren’t you a rockstar gripping four mallets?!?
  • Mark the stickings you find useful and do not improvise them during complex passages. Select, once and for all, what mallets you intend to use for a certain passage and write it on your part. You need to eliminate all useless work while you play. And then, a little teacher tip: when I see a marimba part with no stickings I immediately think that maybe my student has studied very little, and I am usually right.
  • Study a lot.
  • Have fun.

 

LAST STEP

See you again with the next and last episode of the series “How To Study a New Piece for Marimba”, when I’ll discuss the review phase and final performance.  And…drum roll… we’ll also talk about recording!

In the meantime, if you missed the first part, you can read the article “Preliminary Activities” where I discussed what you should do before you start “actually playing the notes”.

See you soon, and… happy studying.

And have fun!

 

Question: do you have any other tip you’d like to share on how to study a new piece for marimba?  Leave a comment.

PART 1 - PRELIMINARY ACTIVITIES PART 3 - PRE-STAGE OPERATIONS