At all stages of a career, every musician has felt that a work of music is just so difficult. After each performance of the opera La Gioconda at the Metropolitan Opera, the wonderful Maestro Nello Santi always remarked what a difficult opera it was, although no one would have guessed he felt this way from his total command of the score.
For students a difficult passage may seem especially daunting and many do not know how to approach it. First, recognize that it is normal to feel this way and then look at difficult sections as a wonderful challenge. One of the many maxims I repeat to students is that confidence comes with knowing where the problems are and knowing how to solve them.
Clearly, a sea of black notes is frightening at first glance. Begin practicing them at a tempo at which you can play all the notes perfectly. That may mean a painfully slow tempo. Use a metronome; a good starting point may be half of the printed metronome marking. If you need to begin more slowly than that, do so.
Although playing so slowly may seem boring, make it a challenge to play it perfectly. If you have the luxury of a fair amount of time to prepare, play the section very slowly for the first few days. As you begin to become comfortable with the notes, start thinking about where the phrases go, what are the high points, what shape can you give the piece, and so forth.
Most importantly, learn everything at once including the notes, articulations, and dynamics. This will help shape the piece. When I was studying at The Juilliard School, I had the great good fortune to study ear training with Madame Renee Longy. One day she told this story “When I was a student in France, a young pianist came to audition for my teacher during a class. After the student finished playing her first piece, my teacher told the young pianist she had played very nicely and asked if she knew any Bach. The young pianist replied that she was working on one of the Bach Prelude and Fugues, but it was not ready yet. My teacher asked her to play anyway. The sounds that came out were just awful. My teacher inquired, and the student answered that her current teacher had her learn each piece with no accidentals and then add them one at a time. The Bach piece she played was written with four sharps, but in her practice she was only up to two.”
Now, I doubt if anyone would recommend learning a piece that way today. What it meant was that the student was learning the piece five times. However, if you learn the notes and only later add dynamics and articulations, you are still relearning the piece over and over.
Beginning a piece very slowly requires patience and discipline that is difficult for young performers. It is important to stress with students that they will actually learn the music more quickly this way than by beginning at a fast tempo and stopping often to fix mistakes.
Maintain the slow tempo throughout the piece, so that you play through from beginning to end with little to no stopping. In other words, play the easy sections at the same slow tempo as the more difficult ones. Doing this eliminates questions of relative tempos (and avoids rhythm problems) and gives a feel of the overall context. Use this time to become comfortable with the music as well as the notes.
After a few days of this slow practice move up the tempo. The first run-through of the day should be at that same slow tempo, then move up the metronome a few notches and play it through again. If both run-throughs go well, that may be all you need to do that day.
The next day, begin at the original slow tempo, and then play the next time through a little faster than the previous day. Remember, success rarely goes in a straight line, and it is perfectly fine to go back a notch or three from the slightly faster performance.
Continue moving up the tempo on a regular basis (how quickly will vary with the amount of time available) but always begin with the slower tempo. As it gets faster, often the sea of black becomes difficult to read again. If nothing else, starting at the slow tempo allows you to refresh your memory.
At this early point, think about where to breathe and mark all but the most obvious places. At any tempo, it is important to always breathe in the same spots. Take additional breaths while playing slowly, and as the tempo increases gradually eliminate the extra ones. That way you play the same way every time with the exception of the extra breaths.
Another tool for getting to the fast tempo more quickly is grouping. Studies have shown that the mind cannot remember more than five things at a time. People can remember four groups of three, but not a twelve-note run. Look at difficult passages to choose how to organize the groupings. Twelve-notes may work well if organized as three groups of four or four groups of three. Sometimes, because of the way they look on the page, or the way they fall under the fingers, a different grouping may work better. Perhaps try a group of five, or all twos, or some other variation.
One thing I try to do when grouping is to put the note that is bothering me as the first note of a group. That way, my attention is drawn to that note and I am more likely to play it correctly. Sometimes, it happens that a certain grouping works very well for a while then it suddenly does not. The solution is simple: regroup the passage.
Even when you can play at a medium to fast tempo, continue to begin with the slow practice. One option is to first practice fast sections at the slow tempo (a metronome is still very helpful), and then run through the entire piece or movement at the current quicker tempo. Always be aware of the music, what you want to say, and how to shape the phrases to make that happen.
An awkward phase occurs when a musician can play the music almost up to tempo, but not quite. Here is where the slow practice becomes even more important to focus on the notes and other details. Remember there are no brains in the fingers. What comes with time is not that you remember to do everything perfectly, but that you learn to remind yourself how to do things correctly. Regular slow practice helps accomplish this.
Set the metronome at the faster tempo as a reminder to keep going at that speed. As the performance approaches, one possibility is to first run through the music quickly without a metronome, and then play it slowly with a metronome. Then play it again up to tempo with the metronome. Beware of the danger of playing things too many times. If you concentrate well each time you play (at whatever tempo), three to five times in a row should be plenty. It is how you use your time that is most important. Playing things slowly gives you the chance to refresh the mind and fingers.
I followed this basic regime for my entire 32 years as principal flute at the Metropolitan Opera. I always began playing difficult passages slowly well before the rehearsal. I continued playing them daily at both the slow speeds and up to tempo through to the day of the last performance of the opera.
This practice method now helps me prepare for recitals. The day of a performance, I warm-up well and then only play through difficult passages slowly. This practice method has never let me down and gives me the confidence to deal with whatever problems there are.