As musicians, we devote a lot of practice to the pieces we perform.  Hours tucked away from civilization trying to arrange an assortment of notes into a memorable performance.  There are many aspects of a successful performance, and many of those start in the practice room.  The key for most of us after working out the finer details is repetition.  Once the correct method of playing a piece has been achieved, we play it again and again.  We try to make the execution second nature.  It’s a universal maxim for performers: you practice it correctly so much that you can’t play it wrong.  There is no reliable short cut to this that I am aware of, but there is a way to improve the learning process that brings us to the final stages of practicing more reliably, and that is to… 

…pick a note. 

Which note?  Any note.  It is best, though, to choose one that would be considered background or part of the supporting cast in a piece of music.  Beyond that, any note will do.  Pick one.  Even what would seem to be the most insignificant note in a piece of music is a potential star, but it needs an advocate.  Pick that one note and make it the goal of the entire phrase.  It may not be as loud, low, long, short, or high as others, but for it to be able to fulfill its life in the texture that it is to be born, it must be cared for.  It must be nurtured for its entire life and allowed to grow to its full potential.  To do this, it requires your attention. 

What does this mean?  It is a state of mind, not a performance suggestion, and it is only meant to be attempted in the practice room, not on the stage.  Studying a piece from this point of view can deepen your understanding of every note involved as well as improve phrasing, rhythm, and overall technical execution.  In addition to these benefits, the music becomes easier to memorize.  Take a scalar passage as an example.  Usually the performer considers the outline of the phrase.  What is the high and low point as well as the tonality, or key?  After this has been determined, the phrase can be performed almost on autopilot.  This is a common approach since most musicians work on playing scales extensively in their training, but it doesn’t always lead to the best performance.   

We mistakenly rely on another experience while 
glossing over the meaning to be found in the present.

Another example would be to consider a note found within an inner voice.  Often, our attention is drawn to the outermost parts of a texture, such as the melody or bass line.  Inner voices are easily ignored once they are satisfactorily performed, but when we study these details further and elevate the status of background notes in our mind while practicing, we understand the piece more completely.   

No longer is the goal simply a successful execution 
of notes from point A to B, but a deeper understanding 
of the piece at any point in the music. 

The trick to this type of practice is to single out one of those seemingly insignificant notes and imagine it is the star of the piece.  Don’t water it down by including others with it.  Be selective.  It could be the fifth note of a two-octave scalar passage, or the seventh scale degree of a block chord.  After the note has been chosen, don’t worry much about where it came from or where it is going, but do anticipate it.  Focus on it.  That is the key.  Think: here it comes, here it is, there it goes.  The other important element to this technique is to be sure to play it the way it is intended without any additional emphasis.   

You are only emphasizing the note in your mind.   

As you play the passage with this new awareness, you will find surrounding notes take on greater meaning and the phrasing is more deliberate for the entire section.  The timing and articulation are more precise and your memorization of the section is more complete. 

Be sure to give this liberated note time to grow.  Avoid the temptation to drift focus away from it while it is the subject of your study.  It needs your attention.  You are its only champion.  The melody, bass, and other big name notes of the piece won’t nurture it the way you will.  Spend some time with it.  Move on from it only after you feel that it has fully developed in your awareness.  Repeat the process with another note.  You can select your next superstar note at random if you like, but I tend to look for areas where the technical aspects of a piece could be improved.  Most of the time, it is the overlooked, seemingly less important note that is the reason a passage remains troubling to execute. 

Not all notes are born the same.  We can see this most clearly in the manuscripts of some of the great masters.  Beethoven would often leave scalar passages illegible or even empty to be filled in by the publisher.  Mozart would leave piano parts unwritten…in piano concertos!  Did they undervalue certain notes?  Perhaps.  But they were writing in a style so well understood that they felt their intentions were going to be properly expressed even with a few details left out.  I often write from a “big picture” perspective, then go back and fill in, so I can relate.  It is often in the filling in that most of my time is consumed.  Maybe those guys were just in a hurry. 

Undervalued as they may seem, background notes are important.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there in the first place.  Sometimes it seems they are used to fulfill rhythmic and harmonic requirements on the way to a larger goal.  If that is their intended role at birth, then we tend to see it as such.  What if we looked at it differently, though?   

A new approach to these supporting notes can reveal a 
greater understanding of the bigger picture that surrounds them. 

This exercise shouldn’t be used for each and every supporting note in a piece, but with a select few of your choosing.  The notes surrounding the focus of your study are given new context, so they are inadvertently finding their status elevated and receiving more attention than usual.  I have practiced pieces where I only chose to focus on one note.  For others pieces, I have benefited from this exercise by cycling through a third of the notes in a particular passage.  For me, each situation is different.   

I try to give my performances an honest 
self-assessment to guide my practice strategy. 

This type of focused practice gives life to the notes that were once overlooked.  We can see the way they are able to stretch out their arms and embrace the texture they are a part of.  How they seem to balance themselves on one foot and smile over to the next nearby note.  That note winks back as it juggles its role in the harmony.  Suddenly, all are aware of each other.  All work together and all are free.  These notes become aware that they are being treated as the most important part of the piece and respond by revealing why they are there in the first place.  When the stars do finally take over, their light is brighter, the rhythms are more clearly understood, and the phrasings become more melodic.  In a way, the little notes are the stars after all.

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