Practicing Triage

Since I’m not a full-time musician, I don’t have time to practice every piece I’m working on every day. On a typical day, I prioritize as follows:

  1. Music that must be learned immediately. Often this is for gigs that pop up on short notice, such as funerals or memorial services. Sometimes I get plenty of advanced notice, but the other musician has waited until the last minute to provide me with music.
  2. Music that I’m still “getting in my fingers.” Once a piece is “in my fingers,” I can play it up to tempo accurately and automatically.
  3. Music that is already in my fingers. If I’m short on time, I’ll play these pieces twice through — once slowly and once at tempo — so I don’t forget them. If the music will be performed for an audience soon (master class, recital, etc.), it bumps up to Priority #1, and I will spend considerable time refining details.

Tonight I have a lot of #2 practicing. In particular the piano part of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is challenging me. Mahler composed both orchestral and piano accompaniments for this song cycle, and the complex voicing of the piano arrangement is not friendly to my small hands or my brain.

If you’ve ever played a Bach Fugue, you know how it is: You learn the right hand and left hand separately, and when you put it together for the first time, it all goes to hell. Unfortunately nothing but slow and careful practicing will solve the problem. I’ve heard some singers call this “wood-shedding,” but I’m not sure how the term originated. Ideas?

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