Kind-of, Sort-of

You have that new Beethoven in your hands—kind-of, sort-of. You’ve worked out the technical problems—kind-of, sort-of. And you’re getting nowhere. You have the "What Now?" Syndrome, and you’re wondering what to do next to improve.

Try Phrasewise Memorization: Play a phrase once, perfectly, with the score. Play it once, perfectly, without the score. Go on to the next phrase.

That crescendo to a subito piano on the downbeat is typical of Beethoven. Can you get its full impact by playing the crescendo as though it will go through the downbeat?

The two-against-three sounds mechanical. It should luxuriate!

That left-hand staccato is compromised by the pedal you use for the right-hand legato. What options do you have?

So, there’s more to playing this phrase perfectly than you had realized; but on the fifth try, you do it. STOP! Do not do it again! Close the score, or turn the page. Now do it again. It’s perfect on the first try? STOP! Do not do it again!



Conscientiously, you point out that you almost played something wrong. That’s fine; you didn’t play it wrong.

Or you feel that you "ought to" be able to play it multiple times perfectly? Quite right; but not today. Give your mind time to learn. (And tomorrow’s goal is not multiple playings, but to play again once, perfectly, on your first attempt.)

For now, today, go on to the next phrase. And when you’re ready, do the same thing with longer sections, working up to the entire piece. Depending whether it’s an easy piece or a major one, getting through it may take from a few minutes to days. (Of course you’re practicing other things in other ways at the same time.)

When you finish, you’ll find that the maddening kind-of, sort-of quality has disappeared. You’ll hear musical connections and interpretive possibilities as never before. Nothing lies between you and mastery now but the pleasures of deepening intimacy.

P.S. Each phrase should include a touch of the next or preceding one, so you don’t build gaps into your playing.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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  1. Max B.
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi James,

    I like this idea about playing the phrase one time perfectly, and then leaving it alone. However, tree of possibilities branches in ways that you haven’t covered. Please share with us your advice for the occasions when we play the phrase incorrectly, with or without the score.


  2. Max B.
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I remembered something you told me about your classes that seems apropos – that you assigned students one day a week to not work on any of your class notes?

    • james boyk
      Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Hi Max, yes I practice six days a week and urge my students to do the same. I don’t “assign” the day to them, apart from pointing out that it should not be the day before or the day after their lesson! More broadly, I find that a day off each week helps my creativity, and I think they find the same. Best, jb

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