Mental Practicing: Studying Scores

This post is part three of my mental Practicing series. If you have not already, please check out my first posts about what mental practicing is, why it is important and meditation. This section covers the importance of score study with mental practice. Please be sure to check back for the other sections:

What is mental practicing and why is it important?

Meditative practicing – in general practice and before a big performance

Score study

Air Guitar (bass) practice

Listening to what you play – the advantages of listening to yourself perform, and multiples of records of the same piece.

The definition of score study, in this article, is the following:

The studying/reading of a score or sheet music, to better understand what is expected of the performer.

My biggest secret for sight reading a gig well, is this step in mental practice: Score study. It is not uncommon for me to be called last minute to sub for another player for a performance; and I will be required to show up and know the music just as well as the regular player who has spent time rehearsing! Often I will have some time to go through the music, but not with my instrument. This forces me to focus on exactly what I need to remember as I play. Rather than having the instrument in hand I will visualize myself playing through tricky sections of the music. (There will be more on this method in my next blog post). It is important to plan how to play the music before picking up the instrument to just play, figuring it out as you go along. By having a battle plan beforehand, we will be able to more effectively play and will be more likely to play the music/passages correctly.

My first step is to see if there is any music that I have played before. If I have, I will set it aside to later review in the score study session. Then I will see if there is music I have listened to previously, or have watched performed live (and I can remember the majority of the performance). If there are pieces that fit this category, I will put this in the second group I study. Finally, I will look for the music I have never heard or played previously. This is the music that will need the majority of my attention, so I will want to spend the most detailed effort making sure there are no surprises in the music.

After the pieces are sorted, I begin looking at the music itself. First with the least familiar, and moving to the most comfortable to play/most familiar. I will look through my entire part, for each of the pieces. I do this as though I am skimming for details in an article about a recent event in the news. I will look for any interesting key changes, large leaps in pitches (i.e., many octaves), specific bowings that are required, what time period the music was written in, tempo changes, dramatic changes in dynamics, or anything else that may stand out as I read through it. After I have located the sections that may be challenging to sight read in a rehearsal/performance, I can then practice playing through these sections in my mind, “air bassing” or more commonly, “air guitar” (more on this subject in a future post).

After taking the time to really look through the music, identifying areas you will make mistakes in, and the areas you will likely make a mistake during rehearsal or performance, plan your fingering through these sections. Plan what kind of bow stroke is needed. Are there specific phrasings that need to happen in the music? Also, having a knowledge of the pieces time period, style, and phrasing is helpful here. If you are not familiar with the time period or are limited on preparation time, listen to a good group/musician’s performance. This can also be very helpful. After this, play through these sections in your head as if you were actually playing your instrument (for more information on this process, please click here to my article on mediation and practicing) Then, if you are able, physically practice these phrases.

Very important to this entire process, is to write down notes or comments in the music! These notes, may be something as simple as circling a dynamic change in the music that you think you would miss, fingerings, or evening the reminder to breathe/relax before you play a section of music. This way the time that you have spent thinking through these passages of music will not be forgotten when you sit down to play the music.

I think one of my favorite things about this part of mental practicing, is that it’s something that can be done anywhere! Instead of reading a book, or scrolling through social media, mental practice could happen. This can be done by players who are away from their instruments for any amount of time or are not able to spend a lot of time with new music before a performance.

I used this tool recently. I was hired for a gig in December 2017, playing the Fire Bird Suite by Stravinsky. This is music I have played before, however, it has been almost 8 years since I last played it. In addition there would be other arias that I would be playing as well. In this instance, I only had time to play the music once before the performance. Rather than picking up the music right away to practice I sat down and went through the scores In the manner I described earlier. From there I visualized how I would play each part that might trip me up. I then added notes to the music to help remember how to execute the music to the best of my ability. After this point I played through each section I thought needed the extra attention. Then while I drove down to the gig I spent the time playing through the difficult sections in my mind. Because of all of this work I put into the mental preparation for the playing I felt more comfortable sitting down for this performance.

By giving our sheet music the mental energy and time it deserves, we will be a step ahead when we sit down to play the music. This can be achieved by someone sight reading their music for the first time, or someone who is very seasoned with the music. Through the help of score study, I am confident you will find the task of sight reading music and learning your music easier. For additional information on the other parts of mental practicing, be sure to check out my other article. Finally, let’s talk about this on my Instagram and Facebook page. See you there!