How to Study a New Piece of Music
There are wonderful articles and books about how to learn the notes, rhythms, and other technical details of a piece. But how do we learn how to interpret a work? Here are some ideas for my students.
- Know the words. Within one week of getting a new piece of music, you should know all of the words on the page. They are just as important as the notes and rhythms. Look up the terms in the Harvard Dictionary of Music. You may also need to use a foreign language dictionary or an online translator such as http://www.microsofttranslator.com/ or http://translate.google.com Write the translations/definitions in your music. Don’t forget about the title!
- Learn about the composer and the piece itself. The Grove Dictionary is a great source. Answer the following questions:
- Tell me about the composer.
- When/where did he/she live?
- How did the composer make a living?
- Why did he/she write this piece?
- Write the composer’s birth/death dates in your music. If you can find the year in which your piece was written, write that down, too.
- Listen to several recordings while studying the score, with a metronome on and a pencil in hand. Mark tempos and other musical gestures from each performance. Read the piano part and try to listen to the piano, not just to the instrumental or vocal part. (Ideally, you should own a recording of every piece you study. Suggested resources include iTunes, naxosmusiclibrary.com, Spotify, and amazon.com.) Mark in possible breath marks (wind players and singers) and phrasing marks (everyone).
- Find the road map. It’s important to be able to recognize main themes, recurring sections, contrasting sections and key areas, key and meter changes, repeats/1st & 2nd endings/codas.
- Study the piano score/part. Instrumentalists: write cues from the piano score into the instrumental part. Play your part from the score. (Hint: When you give your music to a collaborative pianist, keep a copy for yourself.) Play the piano part if possible. Vocalists: listen to a recording while watching the piano part (instead of your own).
- Vocalists: Translate the text...or how will you know what you're singing about?