Happy Flute Friday! Today’s topic is dedicated to those of you struggling with crazy technical passages and pieces written in never-ending chains of 16th notes. How do we practice music that simply does not sit well under the fingers? Is practice and daily repetition the answer? One solution, of course, is to use some crafty trick fingerings, but another more reliable alternative is to practice in chunks. Before the introduction of smart phones, whenever we needed to quickly memorize a phone number (whether our own, a hotel, or that of a friend) we did not memorize 7 numbers but rather a sequence of 3 numbers followed by a sequence of 4 numbers (ex. xxx-xxxx). Why? Because it is easier for the brain to input truncated numerical sequences into our short-term memory rather than longer patterns. In fact, according to psychologists, the brain can only hold up to 7 items in the short-term memory reserve at once (see http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/remember-numbers-by-chunking.html ). If we add an area code to the sequence of numbers, it becomes impossible to memorize the number without truncating as follows: xxx-xxx-xxxx. This method of truncation is known as “chunking,” and can be applied in the same way to music to break up longer passages, or technically monotonous sections, into streams of shorter motives.
There are no “rules” to how a passage should be chunked. You must use a bit of creativity and interpretation to decide where you hear the natural breaks in the music. A good starting point is to select certain notes that act as pick up notes to the downbeat. In the opening of Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Movement II, by J.S. Bach, the phrase can be chunked realistically in 2 different ways. The first is to hear the last two 16th notes in each beat as pick up notes to the first two 16th notes in the next beat.
The running 16th notes in this movement can also be chunked with the final three 16th notes in each phrase leading to the downbeat 16th in the next group
The most effective way to practice these chunks is to isolate them using long rests, or railroad tracks, between each segment. This gives your brain plenty of time to process individual mini-segments before moving to the next chunk in the sequence. After playing isolated chunks, put the music back together and play as written. You will find that your brain “hears” the phrase as interconnected segments that work together to form a cohesive phrase rather than a long meandering phrase of 16th notes searching desperately for a cadence.
Chunking is also quite effective for ironing out extremely difficult technical passages. Practicing in chunks may save you from moments of extreme frustration in the practice room that eventually lead to Facebook posts cursing the day that so-and-so composer wrote such an unplayable work of nonsense (been there – it is not pretty). One of the most difficult passages in our flute canon is the climax of Jolivet’s Chant de Lions. The passage found 2 measures before letter L looks like a volcanic eruption of angry notes, flying high and erratically at the top of the phrase. Fair enough. However, the passage can be practiced slowly in chunks to smooth out the rather complicated fingerings, creating a more fluid, easier to play, cohesive line. Simply hear the last two 16th notes in each triplet figure as leading to the first 16th note of the next triplet group. Practice by placing railroad style rests between each chunk.
Chunking magic! Put the phrase back together again and you will immediately notice how each chunk seamlessly leads to the next, producing a line with poise and direction. Not so difficult anymore, right?
Finally, chunking is an excellent way to smooth out virtuosic runs, particularly those in the high register, that simply do not fall well under the fingers. The below passage taken from Muczyski’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Movement I. Allegro deciso, is an example of a run that we all tend to rush. To prevent rushing, practice the phrase by grouping the final 3, 16th notes in each figure as pick-up notes to the downbeat, inserting railroad track style rests after the 16th note downbeat in each chunk. After the smaller segments begin to come together on their own, play the phrase as written. The run should now sound coherent and the 16th notes significantly more even. This run, therefore, becomes much more relevant to the musical texture than the random passage it appears to be on the page.
When the smaller segments begin to come together on their own, play the phrase as written. The run should now be a bit more coherent and the 16th notes significantly more even. This run therefore become much more relevant to the musical texture than the random passage it appears to be on the page.
Whenever you are running short on practice time or simply want to isolate the technical bits of a piece, practice your chunks. Break difficult passages into smaller components and, like a jigsaw puzzle, put them back together to find the bigger picture. This saves you from numerous mindless repetitions of the Phrase of Frustration in the practice room and helps your brain digest your music one piece at a time. Performing a piece of music should not be a race against the clock to get the double bar finish line. It is, instead, about uniting a collection of shorter ideas that work together to form a larger concept.
Do you use musical chunking in your practice? How has chunking helped you iron out technical passages? Do you have an example of a phrase or piece that was easier to perform after practicing in chunks?