Lesson with Lorenzo Micheli at the Conservatorio della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, Switzerland.
April 20, 2017
How do you approach learning new music?
“First of all, it depends on what you are working on. Every piece requires a different approach. Every piece requires a different amount of time. Depending on what I’m working on I use different approaches.
If the piece something that I’m acquainted with already because I’ve played other music in that style or by the same composer (for instance let’s say I pick up a new Capriccio de Goya by Tedesco, or a new Rossiniana by Giuliani, or a new Fantasia by Francesco da Milano) then in that case, there is no prepping in the work that I do. I just pick up the score and start reading through it from the beginning to the end, without writing down fingerings, without spending too much time on the hard parts. What I do is I just play through. Once. Twice. Little by little I become aware of which ones are the sections that will require more work, but I just leave them there. It’s like, all of the sudden, it’s almost as if I see this white page get colored with red spots, and every red spot means something that I know that i will have to focus on with deeper attention.
If I have to study something that is different than what I have studied before. If its something new or something who’s vocabulary I haven’t mastered, then there is a preliminary phase where I think of the music and look at the music before even playing it for a long time, sometimes even for years. There are pieces that have been sitting in my mind for years, and in my library too. I know they are there, and every once and awhile I look at them. Every time I look at them I discover different things.
My advice for you:
First of all, Library. Which means YOUR own library. If the space allows you to do it, make sure you have the physical scores, not just the PDF files. If it's possible, have the original books, if not possible print them out. No single flying sheets! Because your practice requires order. So bind single sheets together as if they were a book. It doesn't make any difference in how well you can learn a piece, but it does make a huge difference in terms of your mental order and eventually it helps you save a lot of time. Just think about how much time you spend everyday placing the pages in the right order, and multiply that by 365 days, that makes at least a good 6 hours a year that you spend. But it's not only that, it's a visual thing. Because learning music, in the 21st century (because its been different in the past, like learning poetry or literature), with the music of the age of enlightenment, all of the learning happens through visualization. We read and we learn. So the visual thing is important, having two pages bound together makes a huge difference in just the idea that you have, you will make connections that you wouldn't normally with bound music.
**Shows me a Janacek score he is learning.
You will see a lot of colors here, and the reason for this is that Janacek’s music is extremely irregular. For instance he will write things that are very similar: **Shows me** This this this, you see there are two different colors because the one in blue is slightly different than the one in yellow. These are details that when you are learning, you want to see the differences on the page in order to place them in the right order. This is mostly for memorization.
Memorization is a different issue from learning a piece. Most people, when they ask about how to learn a piece they really mean how to memorize a piece. It all goes together. There are pieces that are hard to memorize, there are pieces that the composer didn't mean for the piece to be memorized.
I’m studying this for a recording, way before I started physically picking up the guitar and playing it, I spent about a year just doing this.. **picks up the score and scan it** just looking at the score. By that I mean watching things happen on the paper, and having a rough idea of the kind of things that are required. At first you see all this black ink and fast notes in these sections, then little by little you start to see a substantial difference between the chords and the single lines. Then you start noticing the difference between single lines that have articulations, single lines that are written smaller.
I will look at it and then I will drop it, and then a week later I will have a look… and eventually when I sit down with the guitar I start reading. And I start with the things that I can already do. As soon as I move away from things that I can already do then I will sit down and work on the fingerings. I will work out how to turn the musical sign into a technical gesture.
If I have to work on something that I am not familiar with, I spend a lot of time before playing it just thinking about it. This is why I suggest that you print out those 10, 15, 20 pieces that you are thinking about playing and just have them around. Just have a physical contact with the music that you are planning to play. It's really important. It's the only way for you to build up a knowledge that will not fade away as soon as you are not playing the piece anymore. One professor I had used to say this quote over and over, “Dovete frequentare il testo.” (You need to frequently bring things to mind.) Even without necessarily studying them, but just the idea of opening the text and having a look. In my life as a musician, I’ve always done this before anyone told me to. Just because always since I was 14, I felt the need to have this music and open it and read through it. Even the music that I could not play. I’d just read as much music as I could. Once and awhile, I’d think: “I’d love to have a look at a particular page or measure of this piece because I like it,” and so I’d open the book and play. This eventually turned out to be an incredible help in terms of knowledge of the repertoire and sight reading, but also that's how I started developing a taste for certain things in music and how I learned to approach a new piece. I open a new piece and let my attention be attracted to something on the paper. Something that makes me feel the desire to learn it.
I have played so much early 19th century music that I can pick up any piece in the repertoire and play it through (with the guitar) from the beginning to the end. With classical music, it is much easier, Because you know the style and the context of the music, its easier for you to tell what is unusual or more demanding. For the usual parts, there is nothing that you need to do. After playing Giuliani, and Carulli, and Sor and Diabelli, and Carcassi, the writing always uses the same gestures (unless it's an unusual key). Musically speaking, you know exactly where the attention goes, because you know exactly what is different from the usual pattern. So you play a classical piece and you pretty much expect everything that is happening, you can see it happen in advance. And then all the sudden you get to a point that you were not expecting. **Gives example** Because not in every 19th guitar piece you find this, I use this as a source of inspiration that helps me move forward with learning the piece. This one element, or elements that are similar, I use them to feed my desire to work on this piece. I’m trying to highlight the important musical moments, the moment where you have something original to say. Then my whole practice revolves around that. (gives example playing giuliani, and shows how he is thinking of all the music leading to and from this moment in the music.)
When I'm playing in a style that I am familiar with, I go directly to these spots. It's a kind of practice that is more selective, where I go straight to the core of the music.”