Practice Planning, continued

This past year I’ve felt like I’m trying to keep up with too many harp things all at the same time. It seems like I’m working on too many exercises, trying to learn too many new tunes, not keeping the tunes in my repertoire in my fingers, not getting tunes I’ve learned to be really performance-ready, not practicing sight-reading enough, and not keeping track of where I am with everything I’m doing.

Changing how I plan my harp practice helped me feel considerably less overwhelmed for the past semester, but I think I need to do more with practice planning to make harp practice more effective and harp life less overwhelming.

The semester break gave me time to notice how I plan my harp practice when I don’t have assignments or goals recommended by my teacher. I’ve worked on two new pieces: Grandjany’s Nocturne and Alfredo Orlando Ortiz’s easy version of Danza de Luzma. I’ve been diligent in deciding what I was going to accomplish in each piece during each practice session, and writing that down before I started practicing.  I broke each piece down into small sections, usually no more than 2 – 4 measures. I learned each section and put them together systematically in larger sections – first a whole line, then two, then half a page, then the whole page. I now can play both pieces at a still-a-bit-too-relaxed tempo when I am at home. (I’ll be going to my first harp lesson of the semester in a few minutes – I’ll see if this methodical work holds up in my teacher’s studio.)

I know that I need what, for a lot of people, would be an excessive number of repetitions of a measure or section to get it in my fingers, so that the correct fingering is automatic. If it’s a familiar fingering pattern, I might get by with fewer reps, but I still have to spend the time getting the familiar pattern grounded in its new context; i.e., what comes before it and what comes after it.  I’ve found out that just because I played a section correctly on Monday does not mean I will be able to play it correctly on Tuesday – I usually have to work on the same section on multiple days.  I’ve also learned the hard way that playing a section slowly does not teach me to play it at tempo, so I need time both to learn correct fingering slowly and then to get my fingers to speed up and play at tempo.

What I discovered over the semester break is that I plan to do way too much at each practice session. I grossly underestimate both the time and the number of repetitions it will take me to learn a section of a piece. I forget to plan for working on the same section on consecutive days. I plan to work on two or more sections, and either can’t do it all, or spend so much time doing it that I’m practicing two or more hours during the day. That’s been ok during the semester break, but won’t work when I also have to fit in recorder and voice practice.

I’ve generally set a goal of 20 correct repetitions of a section in a practice session. If I am doing very slow practice, focusing on learning correct fingering and not letting myself make mistakes, I can usually get 20 correct repetitions in 20 attempts, but it takes a lot of time because I am playing so very slowly. If I am working at getting a section up to tempo, or focusing on dynamics, or joining two sections together, it usually takes more than 20 repetitions to get 20 good ones. And that also ends up taking a lot of time.

I’ve also realized over the past month that once I have worked so intensely on one section of a piece, my brain is really done with concentrating that intensely for another section of the piece. I need to do something easy, like play something on my repertoire list, or take a break from the harp. Plus, when I add working on a second section, I think the work I’ve done on the first section does not consolidate in my brain, or it gets confused with what I’m cramming in next. So the next day I am having to repeat the work again for both sections.

Here’s the new plan: I am working intensely on only one section of each piece each day. If that section is two measures long, then that’s the two measures I’m working on. Period. But those two measures will be absolutely gorgeous when I am finished with them for the day!

I hope working this way will improve what I retain from each practice session, plus give me time to run through tunes in my repertoire, to polish the almost-there tunes so I can admit them to the exalted status of repertoire, to practice reading, and to do technique exercises. I’m declaring this my “grand experiment” for the next month. I’ll report on the outcome mid-February.

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