Sunday, August 15, 2010


In my previous post, I talked about the importance – and the fun – of playing by ear, that is, without the aid of written music. In this post, I want to suggest a way of learning from written music that may be new to most of you, and is a fantastic tool. I always use it when learning a new piece, especially classical music, and can’t imagine doing it any other way. It’s called “outlining.”

When we write an essay (or a novel, for that matter), the first thing we would do is to outline our main ideas. Then we would proceed to fill in more details, which may lead to changes in the outline, until a satisfactory structure emerges, at which point we may begin writing the actual text. When we build a house, we build the foundation and structural components first, then more infrastructure, and the small decorative details come last. The same is true for almost all projects of any size that one can think of. This is intuitively obvious. Yet when it comes to learning a piece of music, the traditional way is simply to play note-by-note (usually excruciatingly slowly), from beginning to end, without regard to structural elements versus detail. Sometimes pianists will play one hand alone, then the other, from beginning to end. The slow tempo does not always give a true sense of the piece, and certainly playing one hand alone means that a great deal of the melody or harmony, or both, are missing.

Does it really make sense to learn a piece this way? Could there be another way? You will see that “outlining” a piece of music solves many problems at once, is ultimately much more enjoyable once you get the hang of it, and will give you a much better end result.

If you are trying this for the first time, start with a piece which is not terribly challenging for you. Music that is more “structural” would be easier – perhaps Mozart or Beethoven – rather than something more free or improvisatory, such as Debussy. Later, when you are more skilled at it, you will find any piece can be approached this way.

The process for outlining a new piece of music is roughly as follows:

At a relaxed tempo, yet one that is somewhat close to the intended tempo of the piece, play what comes on the first beat of every measure. It is important to play hands together, so that you can hear the full texture of the music. (More on the importance of hands together in future posts.) Keep your tempo steady, and do not hold the notes down for the full measure, but rather allow there to be “empty space” in between the downbeats, which will later be “filled in” with more detail. It is also very important not to stop to correct notes, as this destroys the rhythm, which is an integral part of the structure you are trying to hear. This is probably the most difficult practice for musicians to embrace, the concept of allowing the playing “wrong notes.” Although I will discuss this at length in future posts, here I will just say that you should try to remember you a playing essentially a “sketch” of the piece. Just as a painter may sketch out his painting with the rough outlines of his shapes, which may later change somewhat, you are also just “sketching.” It is much more important to continue without interruption than to constantly stop, correct, re-start, which destroys the “wholeness” of the piece. In outlining, “less is more.” If you are having difficulty, play fewer notes. If you can play most of the notes and/or chords that come on the first beats, you will hear the harmonic structure of the piece emerge. You will get a sense of “where the piece is going.” Ideally you are staying very relaxed, and REALLY LISTENING. I find that when people learn the traditional way, note by note, the process of trying to read and find all the notes is so all-absorbing, that there is very little actual listening going on. It is also desirable that you play with emotional involvement, right now, right from your very first brush with the piece. My students usually look at me as if I am crazy when I suggest this, but yes, the emotional involvement (or what many would call “expression”) is not something like a coat of paint that you slap on at the end, when you know “all the notes.” It should be built in right from the very start, the first time your hands touch the music.

The first time outlining, try to get through the entire piece this way. (If the piece is in multiple movements, I am considering one movement to be the piece.) Later you can work in large sections if you find it necessary.

Once you are somewhat comfortable with just first beats, start adding more. Remember, you are listening for structural elements. Therefore, something like a trill or grace note is certainly detail, not structure. When adding in more, play what you feel is easiest to add in. Don’t try to fill in a difficult or fast arpeggio, for example. Find the elements you can play easily so you can stay relaxed, without any feeling of panic. If you need to, the mid-way point of the measure (e.g. the 3rd beat if the piece is in 4/4, or the second beat if it is in 2/4) would be easy and logical. However, it is most ideal if your sketch of the piece can be somewhat improvisatory. In other words, you have a very playful approach, very spontaneous, so that you yourself do not always know what you will play next. In fact, no two outlining sessions should ever be exactly alike. If you approach it in this way, it will feel like PLAY more than WORK, and you will have a more joyful experience, as well as a more fluid-sounding final product.

Some pieces can be learned in their entirety this way. For more challenging pieces, you will likely find it necessary to isolate certain passages for more detailed work, including, perhaps, some hands separately. But “spot work” can tend to chop the piece up, so I recommend balancing it with outlining, to keep a sense of the wholeness of the piece. Even after I know “all the notes” of a piece, I find that outlining with a sense of improvisatory playfulness keeps it fresh and interesting.

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