Learning Repertoire Quickly by Stephanie Galipeau

The following post is by Stephanie Galipeau.

For both professional musicians and amateurs, the ability to learn and perform music quickly is not only an invaluable asset but also extremely necessary. We’ve all been there: substituting at the last minute, receiving an unknown score shortly before a performance deadline, or even having to rapidly bring previously studied repertoire back to performance quality. With all of the varying situations testing our ability to learn quickly, I interviewed ACHT students Tegen Davidge, Matthew Lipman and Jocelin Pan in addition to faculty Edward Klorman and Hsin-Yun Huang asking the question, “If you have limited time to learn repertoire for an upcoming performance, what are the most efficient strategies you can use to learn the piece(s) quickly?”


Be Organized and Know Your Limits

Certain things to consider before beginning the learning process of a specific piece include timelines, knowing how you work most efficiently and also your individual capacity to learn and adequately fulfill commitments. As Mr. Klorman aptly recommends, “The first thing we can do, overall, is know our limits when we decide how many commitments to take on and to plan ahead whenever possible. Use free time during less busy weeks to start learning things you’ll have to play later in the season. Stay in good instrumental shape (scales, double stops, etc.) so your fingers are primed and ready to learn new material quickly.” Good organization and time management is advice echoed by Ms. Huang, suggesting to divide time up between long-term and short-term projects. As a student, making a lesson and studio class plan over the given time period is very useful. Although the need for flexibility in any plan is necessary, proficiency in personal organization by internalizing an overall timeline and knowing our learning styles creates a more realistic “plan of attack,” thus resulting in greater success in accomplishing our goals.

Strategic Planning = The Efficient Route

Especially in the case of learning repertoire quickly, beginning with a strategic plan will set off the learning experience with your feet on an efficient route. Although the interviewees collectively provided varied examples of what a strategic plan looks like, there was an across-the-board agreement that any plan that one creates should directly correspond with the performance deadline. For example, the journey to Ms. Huang’s performance of Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Viola in October 2012 began a year previously, working on the Prestissimo movement “painstakingly and patiently” knowing that this was a long-term project. This strategic plan of spreading out the learning process would have been shaped differently had she been allowed only two months to prepare – a situation in which Jocelin found herself when asked to play Andrew Ford’s The Unique Grave for Viola and Orchestra with The New Juilliard Ensemble this past September. Regardless of individual circumstance, learning styles and capacity; the function of developing a strategic plan is to create “check points” in the learning process to keep yourself accountable, and to evaluate the most efficient way to reach these check points.

An Inside Look at The Strategic Plan

Under the umbrella of planning one will find three main steps in learning repertoire. Although these three steps should always be considered in the strategic plan no matter how tight the time constraint, certain sub-points, such as studying other works by the same composer, can be eliminated to simplify and “streamline” the plan.

  1. Things done away from the instrument prior to learning on the instrument;
  • score study
    • marking cues
    • isolating rhythms
    • sketching fingerings/bowings
    • mapping out technical passages
  • listening to recordings
  • studying other works by the same composer
  1. Learning repertoire with the instrument
  • practicing parts in three levels of difficulty
  • timer method/experimentation
  • hyper-focus
  1. Performance preparation/refinement
  • recording practice sessions and/or rehearsals
  • rehearsing
  • practicing performing the work

1. Things done away from the instrument prior to learning on the instrument.
Before you even touch the instrument!
Potential Situation: You find out that you will be playing a substantial work that you have never played before in a recital in four weeks. With the score in hand and upcoming deadline in mind, you now know that you have to make a strategic plan in order for this performance to be a success. Great! But what will this plan really consist of?

Both Mr. Klorman and Jocelin begin their initial learning of the music away from the instrument through score study. Especially in the context of a sonata, chamber work or concerto, an analysis of the complete score provides the opportunity to mark in cues of other instruments while learning how your part fits in with these other instruments, to isolate and learn tricky rhythms, and to visually get an overall feel of the piece. Even certain fingerings and bowings can be sketched out in the initial study. Jocelin mentioned that during her preparation for the New Juilliard Ensemble performance, noticing what other instruments were doing through score study was quite influential in how she interpreted certain passages. For example: Through score study, she was able to know where she could play extremely loudly because of a thick texture and know how certain rhythmic passages in her own line corresponded with aspects of those of the orchestra. This thoughtful analysis can be extremely efficient, for if one can begin the on-the-instrument part of the learning process with all the tricky rhythms already learned, fingering and bowing options considered, knowledge of cues and other parts already incorporated, and a rough concept of interpretation possibilities already formed – then a large chunk of “trial and error” in the practice room (which can often lead to repetitive mistakes that end up slowing down the learning process) is eliminated.

Additionally, listening to recordings is a productive strategy despite being a double-edged sword. Although it is beneficial to have a piece in your ear before you learn it, this can also get a musician into an interpretive rut. Listening to an amazing performer playing different pieces (instead of the one you’re working on) by the same composer could be a good remedy for this, in addition to studying additional compositions of the composer and the historical context of the composition.

Furthermore, mapping out technical passages into three levels of difficulty is something Mr. Klorman suggests as being extremely efficient.  He recommends “identifying (1) technically demanding sections that will need a lot of intensive practice and ‘drilling’, (2) intermediate sections that will need some practicing, and (3) sections that are basically sight-readable.”

2. With the instrument in hand!
Continuing on the idea of the isolation of technical passages in three levels, it is important to begin learning the “level 1” sections first. Set goals for both a broad perspective on when each level will be learned, as well as mini-goals to break up practice time dictating when a certain passage will be learned, played at half tempo, at three-quarters of the tempo, etc. Keeping track of progress is a good way to keep yourself accountable to the strategic plan you set for yourself!

Tegen has found it very beneficial to learn repertoire on her instrument with what I will unofficially call the “timer method.” After taking time to initially look at the score, she divides the music into appropriate sections (anywhere from half to full pages), sets a timer for 30 minutes, and works on one section for the allotted time with the goal of being able to play through the entire section at one consistent tempo without stopping (even if very under tempo) when the timer goes off. Variables she considers when determining the length of sections are: how much the piece is already in her ear, the performance deadline, difficulty of the work, amount of practice time, and knowing her own learning capacity and being realistic about it. Tegen’s approach to learning music is unique; she describes it like learning a language: to really learn it you have to immerse yourself in it. That is why she dives into the learning process so intensively, and follows it with and “experimentation period.” This period is when she plays through sections of the piece experimenting with different fingerings, bowings, and colors in order to explore interpretive ideas and “really get the music into her soul.” This, in combination with additional timer work for technical passages, is Tegen’s strategic plan for learning repertoire.

The immersion that Tegen desires when learning repertoire is similar to the “hyper-focus” that Matthew expresses as the most efficient way for him to learn music. He describes this method – which varies in length according to the repertoire – as a process in which you map out literally everything that is technically going on within the music (contact point, bow placement, bow speed, bow weight, vibrato, fingering, and bowings), sticking to those technical decisions. The sooner this process is done with a piece, the faster it will be learned and the better it will stay in the hands.  He advocates this approach because it means that the music is being learned based on conscious decision making rather than mindless repetition.

3. Performance preparation and refinement!
As we all know, working on repertoire in the practice room is significantly more difficult than playing that repertoire in a performance setting. That’s why it is important to consider performance practice a vital part of the strategic plan – even if you do not feel completely ready. This can be done by pulling people into your practice room for a listen, envisioning and imagining what the concert venue will look like/sound like/feel like, playing the work for a recording device, rehearsing in concert dress, and rehearsing in the actual concert space – all to ensure comfort and confidence. Staying healthy by eating well and sleeping well at least a few nights before the performance is also very important for mental preparation. But in the end, as Ms. Huang says, “Possibly the most important mindset to have is that once you are on stage, there is just no more excuses and it IS a performance … then we have the responsibility of carrying that off even if it is imperfect.”

A Few Extra Notes on Efficient Practicing…

The word “efficiency,” especially in the context of learning repertoire fast, seems to bounce around frequently – but what does it really mean? After looking up the exact definition on Oxford Dictionaries Online, the definition I would like to focus on follows:

Efficient – adjective

  • 1 (of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense: more efficient processing of information
  • [in combination] preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource: an energy-efficient heating system

With limited time to learn repertoire, wasting time and energy is not a viable option. Although this may seem obvious, what is sometimes not so obvious is why efficiency is something not present all the time in the practice room. Too often I personally find myself mindless practicing, repeating things over and over again making dumb mistakes and not building a consistency of technical success. However, when under pressure, I can snap out of that zombie state and slip into a hyper-focus mode and learn music quickly by figuring out passages with conscious decisions, working in small units graduating to larger ones, only repeating when using thought and silence between each repetition, and focusing on making as few mistakes as possible. So if it is possible for me to learn music quickly in high-pressure situations, why do I not do it all the time? I am under the impression that I learn music slowly, yet time and time again I prove myself wrong. I think there is definitely something to be said for understanding our own limits and capacities to learn, but I think it is possible we often label ourselves incorrectly.  When that label is supported only by evidence created through consistent bad practice habits, we make it difficult for ourselves to push to the limit and see how fast, how consistently, and how effectively we can learn all the time.


It’s All About Perspective – Stay Positive!


When peering at a looming deadline of a performance for which we are trying to frantically prepare, “worrying” and “stressing” are two verbs that easily occupy our minds. We generally think about the negative components of our progress, usually thinking about how we are unable to play this or that specific passage consistently or in tune.  However, what we should really be doing instead is keeping perspective of the progress we have made and understanding what we can and cannot control. You can control how efficiently you practice, but you cannot control the rate at which you improve (and that is OK!).

For good reason, Tegen spoke of the importance of keeping things in perspective and relaxing, – even journaling when necessary. Negative thoughts take up a considerable amount of energy, and because we need as much energy as possible to learn repertoire quickly, negativity will only take away from the learning process. Keeping things fun and in a positive perspective will further enable you to learn the music as quickly as possible.  Through allowing yourself to be confident in your skills and preparation, the ultimate result will be a positive outcome: a much more enjoyable performance experience!


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