As clarinetists we often have to conquer difficult musical passages that have a lot of fast notes. This can seem like a daunting task but with determination, a plan, regular practice, and the right approach any passage can sound effortless. Here are some tips to mastering technically challenging music:
- The first course of action is to plan well in advance so that you have enough time to learn the music well. Panicked time crunched practice often yields poor results.
- Start slow! If you are making mistakes you are going too fast. Use your metronome to ensure you aren’t speeding up. Don’t be in a rush to play the passage up to tempo. My teacher in my undergrad use to say “It’s never too late for slow practice”. Slow practice allows you to learn the challenging passage without mistakes. It’s better to learn music slowly well, rather than learning it fast with a lot of mistakes.
- Focus on the sections you can’t do well. It’s easy to play what we can do well, but in the end the problem areas are the ones we should focus on.
- Distort the rhythm. If a passage is running 16th notes, practice in irregular groups of 3, 5, 7. The emphasis will be in different places in the measure forcing you to draw attention to different points in the passage.
- Play in short sections. If the difficult section is long, break it into small chunks. Master the small chucks slowly then merge the small chunks together. A chunk can be a 1 or 2 beats, a measure, or phrase.
- Learn the passage from back to front. Often times we want to play long sections of music which can be counter-productive to learning small chunks. If you start at the end of the passage you are forced to stop. Also working backwards allows you to learn the end well, which can often be neglected.
- Long-Short-Short-Short practice. If a passage has running 16th notes making one note in the grouping long helps you to focus on different parts of each beat. If the passage is in groups of 4 16th notes, practice it quarter, triplet; quarter triplet moving the quarter note to the first, second, third, and fourth notes of the grouping.
- Have anchors. In running 16th note passages have anchors or goal notes at key points during the passage. These are points of emphasis often at the beginning of a phrase, measure, or a high or low note in the passage. I often mark them with a tenuto or accent in parenthesis.
- Think of ways to make the passage more difficult than it is and practice in this way. When you play it the way it is written it will be easier.