What to Do When You’re Drowning in Music

DWhat to do when you're drowning in music.pngo you ever come home from a lesson and just want to collapse? You have four pieces in progress, one you’re trying to polish for a concert, and now your teacher just gave you a new one. Where on earth are you supposed to start?

It’s never easy to have a big workload, but here are a few tips to help you approach all that music efficiently and with minimal worry.


Prioritize

This one simple tip will solve most of your worries. All you have to do is figure out which pieces can be sacrificed for the week so you can concentrate on other, more important ones. And though none may pop out at you to begin with, try to mark at least one or two pieces as low-priority so that you have some sort of plan. Pressuring yourself with reminders that every piece is important sounds like a good way to overwhelm yourself. 🙂

Learn new music first

This is probably something you don’t think about, but it really helps to start working on your new music immediately; that way, even if you don’t practice it much for a day or two, you’ll at least have a start when you get back to it. Don’t get caught a couple days before your lesson with 4 pages to learn. (I’ve been there!)

Try to memorize your music immediately

The keyword here is try. It’s unlikely that you will actually memorize a brand new piece in a week, but in trying to, you will learn that piece more quickly and be a whole lot more familiar with your notes than if you hadn’t. And come on, isn’t it worlds better to be comfortable with your music than to be playing in a constant state of confusion and semi-panic? If you at least attempt to memorize your music, that will be a huge advantage in both becoming familiar with the piece and, later, memorizing it for real. Yes, it is rather laborious to slowly work your way through the piece phrase by phrase, but that’s what it takes. One trick you can use to memorize a phrase more quickly is to play it with your eyes closed so you can get the feeling of the phrase in your fingertips. (I would not trust muscle memory to guide me through a concert, but it’s invaluable when learning a piece.)

Play all your pieces every day

Of course, you want to keep your priorities straight, but if next week you decide to focus on your previously low-priority pieces, you’ll be glad they’re still in semi-practice. Run through each piece you’re working on every day, maybe clean up a spot or two, and move on to the really important pieces. That’s saving you time that you might have had to spend later if you found your pieces out of practice.

When you’re not practicing, practice!

You don’t have to be at the piano to be working on your pieces. One of my favorite tricks is using my rest time to analyze or research my music. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I can’t stand to step away from the piano when I’m in the middle of a practice session because it’s just so disheartening to leave it at that. I’m trying to stop this, though, because after two or three hours of practicing straight through, I could easily strain a muscle. So, to make myself feel better about stopping, I analyze my music while I rest. This also keeps me on-task so I can go back to the piano after a half hour not only still in the loop but also more informed about the music I’m playing.

Specifically, what can you do to put your non-practice time to good use? Take closer stock of dynamics and phrasing. Go through and circle things you might not have noticed at the piano. Write in fingerings. (If you’re confident that you’re good at adding fingerings without being by the piano. Sometimes fingerings that look perfectly sane on the page can be disastrous when you try it out on the keyboard.) Also, it’s funny I should be saying this, but remember to look at the basics, such as the key, time signature, and tempo markings. (Can you believe it, I often play pieces without knowing what time signature I’m in?!)

Put in the hours

If you have a lot of work, it takes a lot of time. And a lot of practice—not just passive playing. The most important thing to remember is to keep your head up. Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes it’s disheartening to get a big workload and difficult to know where to start, but you’ll get it all done in the end.


One last note:

Sometimes it seems as though your lessons are mini concerts and that’s how you must prepare for them. Once the concert is over and you’ve played your piece well, you can go on making the same mistakes as ever at home. As long as it looks like you’re making progress with a fast tempo and lots of pedal.

But a lesson isn’t a concert and your teacher is not an audience. Lessons are just little steps to whatever your goal is and teachers are there to help you get there. So, if you feel bad because you think you’ve accomplished very little this week, please bear in mind that you don’t have to have something big or flashy to show after all your practice. Just because you haven’t sped up your piece or added pedal yet, that doesn’t mean you’re not accomplishing something. Oftentimes, the more “tangible” results are not the most important ones; understanding the music and working toward higher-quality piano playing is a hundred times more valuable than making cheap and easy “progress” each week.

And believe me, teachers notice when you put your time in. They notice when you’re playing well, even if it’s just your right hand at half the normal tempo. You may not be able to see it right now, but thoroughly learning your music shows. Maybe it’s as simple as nailing a big crescendo and keeping your hand free of tension when you reach those big chords. Maybe it’s not even music-related; it could be better posture or not jamming down the pedal too forcefully when you come to an agitated section. These goals are just as real and worth accomplishing as other, more noticeable ones. In essence, try not to aim for flashy results. Aim for quality results.


Thanks for reading!

~ Maggie

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