In this article I want to share a few tips on how to study. This is not a technical or a musical lesson, nor is it a motivational lesson. Instead, this is a set of personal observations on the process of how to study. I realise that every one of us has a different goal in playing lute. Most of us are happy with playing at a recreational level without any ambition of playing in front of someone else, some of us like to perform for family, friends or fellow amateur musicians, some of us like to play music together and a few of us want to perform for larger audiences in a more professional setting. Although all of these different goals require different attitudes when studying, they all share a lot of study practices too. I’d like to talk about these shared study habits that can benefit all of us.
First of all, studying should be efficient. What I mean with efficient is not that studying should be hard work that will make us tired – after all, for most of us playing the lute is a hobby that should give us energy after a long day at work – or that studying should not be fun. What I mean with efficient studying is that it should improve your playing. Making your studying efficient requires you to think about your study habits. So don’t play through your pieces without a plan how to improve your playing but think about where you are now and where you want to go. And then make a plan of how to reach that goal. Whether you want to play easy pieces for yourself, to play your favourite music for your friends and family, to play the lute part in an ensemble with fellow amateur musicians or to play a concert in front of a real audience, you will need to make some sort of a plan on how to reach that goal. Making that plan, and improving that plan along the way, is what I mean with efficient studying. Inefficient studying is just playing through all the pieces on your music stand. Or repeating the same piece over and over again without any ideas on how to improve your playing. If just playing through the same piece over and over again is what makes you happy, please continue doing this, but it will not improve your playing as this is not efficient studying.
Efficient studying means developing good study habits and constantly improving on those habits. Efficient studying is an active process in which you should never be complacent about your current study habits. When you study efficiently you are always thinking about ways to improve your study habits and thinking about new study habits. Here are a few things to think about when you are making your own study habits.
When studying, you need to be concentrated. Don’t study out of a sense of duty or when you cannot keep your concentration. You can however increase your concentration by a few simple tricks. Make an effort to be interested in the piece you are working on, give yourself variety (study more than one piece at a time and study each piece in different ways), make sure you are not too tired to study, study at regular times and regular lengths, and work according to a study plan. If distracting thoughts come up, think of the Zen advice: don’t fight these thoughts, as that will only distract you more. Don’t grab the thoughts but let them fly away by ‘opening the hand of thought’. And for a more Western tip: keep a piece of paper and a pencil within reach to jot down any thoughts about things you shouldn’t forget to do after you finished your study session. This tip works very well for me, because when I write these things down on a small to do list, I’m sure not to forget them and I can go on with what I was doing undistracted.
Studying music is developing automatisms. We can only play a fast passage if we don’t have to think about every note in that passage. We can only play a sequence of complicated chords smoothly if we don’t have to think about the position of each finger in each chord. But automatisms should be flexible, because we want to be able to change and vary our performances. Therefore you must aim at so called ‘open’ automatisms, automatisms that are still under your control. Complete or so called ‘closed’ automatisms are not reliable under pressure; we cannot trust something we do that we no longer consciously control. Therefore you should never study to make your playing completely automatic, but always study with variety (in speed, dynamics, articulation, etc.) to maintain control over your automatisms. The right balance between automation and control is part of the secret of a good player. You will have to find your own balance by experimenting.
Stages in study
When we start on a new piece, there are four basic stages to distinguish in the study process. The preparation, the assembling, the consolidation and the gestation.
During the preparation we read the score, try and understand the music, see where the technical challenges are, try and make a mental image of how the piece will sound, make a plan on how to tackle the really difficult bits, and make a good plan about the musical interpretation so that we will use the right technique from the start. Don’t start with small details, but think of the whole piece, how it will sound, and fit in all the technical and musical details.
About studying the score
Know what you are playing by understanding the musical content of the score. The musical content of lute music written in tablature is a little harder to understand than music written in staff notation, so take your time to work out where each voice is going in polyphonic music, what the chords are, how long notes should be held and how the different parts interact rhythmically. Try to sing the melody in your head and make a mental image of how the music will sound. Figure out the phrasing, find the smaller and bigger breaks, know where to breathe and know where the accents are. Never just play the music like a robot on a typewriter. Playing music is a musical activity; the technical aspects are only an aid to the main goal of creating music. So the first step is to understand that music. Only then look at what technical abilities you need to perform that music. The musical content is always paramount and you should never lose sight of that.
The assembling stage might take up most of your study time. Work on all the smaller sections, make sure they are good enough, and then fit them into the whole of the piece again. Small sections can mean just a few measures of music, a melody, a tricky rhythm, a few difficult chords or a musical phrase. Return to the mental image of the whole piece regularly, to check whether the smaller sections still fit into this mental image you have.
You will reach the consolidation stage when you are happy with all the smaller sections, and how they fit into the whole piece. You should keep your interpretation flexible by playing around with tempo, articulation and dynamics, but the basic idea of the piece should be fixed by now. This is a good moment to make a test recording or to play the piece for some friends. If you’re not happy with the result, analyse what needs to be improved and think about how to improve it.
The last stage is the gestation stage. When you are finished with studying the piece and feel happy about it, it is time to let go. Take a step back and let the piece ripen. You might even decide to stop studying it for a while and just play through the piece every now and then.
Go back and forth between these four stages when studying. The stages are not clearly defined, but you should have an idea in which stage you are with each piece, or with each section of a piece, to know what the best method for studying that piece or section is. It’s no use assembling when you didn’t prepare yet, and it’s no use consolidating when you haven’t assembled yet.
You can begin your study session with a warming up. Playing lute is not about muscles or a physical workout, so don’t overdo it. Warming up is gently touching your lute, coördinating your hands and fingers, getting the feel of the strings, getting in the mood and raising your concentration. Play something simple, and play softly and gently.
When we repeat something, we must be efficient with our time. Playing the same thing ten times in the same way is not going to help. After playing the same thing three times, you should bring in variations in e.g. tempo, articulation or dynamics. It will help you to consolidate the section much better, and it will keep you flexible in your performance.
Always work on more than one piece at a time, and regularly change between the pieces during your study session. Also, work on different sections of your pieces and change between these sections too. Remember that it is far more effective to work 10 times 5 minutes on a section than 50 minutes in one long stretch on that section. Variation is easy to create. When studying a melody, study it in different rhythms, with different articulations and at different speeds. When studying chords, vary the order of putting down the fingers of the left hand. Even with a chord of three fingers you can think of many variations: 1 2 3, 1 3 2, 2 1 3, 2 3 1, 3 1 2, 3 2 1, 1+2 3, 1+3 2, 2+3 1, 1+2+3. When studying how to move from one chord to another, see what each individual finger does, and then try all different combinations as explained above when moving between the two chords.
When making a mistake, don’t simply begin all over again to try and do it right this time. First try to understand what went wrong, why it went wrong and, most importantly, how to prevent it from going wrong again. So, stop and look at the score, make a mental picture of what your fingers should be doing and what the music should sound like. This will help. Here’s a little trick I use to get rid of mistakes and that helps me to improve my concentration and to improve my performance under pressure. If there is a section I find difficult, I play it three times consecutively without mistakes. This means when I make a mistake, I start again from zero and try again to play it three times without mistakes. The aim of studying is not to play something right just once, but to never play it wrong.
Efficiency and time pressure
When we are studying efficiently, there is never time pressure. If you cannot accomplish a task you have set yourself within a given time, then the task was too big for that given time. This is an important lesson that will need some time to sink in. Most of us will feel inadequate when studying, because we can never play as good as we want. We should not blame our playing, however, but we should change the task we give ourselves. Be realistic with your expectations, study efficiently and evaluate your results objectively. Growing annoyed with yourself is not going to help you to become a better lute player, but making a realistic study plan and studying efficiently will.
Always study with musical expression
Just studying the notes of a piece without the musical content, without musical expression that is, is extremely unmusical and an utter waste of time. Always play with musical expression, even if you’re just studying scales or intervals. The goal should always be to make music, and studying without that musical content is useless. You should always know how each small part you are studying fits in the bigger whole of the musical performance. So you should study every detail of a piece with the correct articulation, dynamics and phrasing. Of course you must remain flexible with these musical expressions, but playing without musical expression is useless.
Studying a piece in the right tempo can be difficult, if not impossible if it’s a new piece for you. To improve your speed, study slowly, and study in different rhythms. Especially dotted rhythms are good to improve speed, because then we play every transition between two notes once fast, followed by a pause that you can use to make a mental image of the next fast transition between two notes. When you study the same passage in two different dotted rhythms (long-short and short-long), you can study each transition once fast and once slow. Don’t make these passages too long, btw, but take short sections only.
When studying with a metronome, do it wisely. First set the metronome very slowly and play in time. This is actually the hardest to do well. Then study at a medium tempo, next at high speed. And finally, go back to medium and slow again. Don’t skip playing slowly again, as playing slowly but in time will help to consolidate fingerings and help to establish the mental picture of the finger movements.
The trick of playing fast is not to do with our fingers, because our fingers can play much faster than we tend to think, but it has to do with the limitations of our brain. The thing that stops us from playing any faster is the brain that wants to control every note we play. But there is a limit to our thinking speed. We can control only so many notes in a given time. So you have to automate groups of two, three, four or even more notes to be able to play faster. Studying a fast passage in small groups of e.g. four notes will help this automation process. So play four notes fast, then pauze, then four notes fast, then pauze. Of course, choose your groups according to the musical content, and vary them to make the passage go smoothly at high speed.
Also, play the whole passage really slowly to be conscious of every note and every finger movement, and then at speed, even if you cannot play every note right yet. Vary the tempo, study difficult sections, find resting points and study the bits in between.
Study slowly and softly
Playing slowly, softly and with lots of nuances leads to much better results than studying loudly and fast. Playing softly sharpens the senses and improves your hearing as well as heightens your concentration.
Know your limits
As a general rule, we only learn when we are doing things that are just within our limits. If it’s too easy, we don’t learn anything when studying, but if it’s too difficult, we don’t learn anything either. On a biological level, studying is creating insulation around the pathways between our brain cells and thereby making these neural pathways we use for that particular activity more efficient. If an activity is very easy for us, it means there will be no change in our brain because it is already capable of the task. When an activity is still too difficult for us there will be no change in the brain either, as the neural pathways are still too underdeveloped. So don’t study pieces that are out of your reach as you will not learn anything. Instead, choose an easier piece or break the difficult piece up in smaller sections, easier chords, or create manageable etudes that will help to reach your goal of playing the piece at some future date.
Annotate your score
Mark clearly and in a consistent manner things like fingerings, articulations, phrasing and dynamics. Doing so will help memorising and will stop you from having to figure things out again the next time you study. Give yourself all the help you can get and don’t be shy even notating very basic fingerings if you keep forgetting them. Remember that studying should be efficient and improve your playing. Writing things down is an efficient study habit.
Only the things we can imagine, we can do. Make sure then to imagine every aspect of your playing: the movements of left and right hand, the feeling of the strings on your fingers, what the score looks like and what the piece sounds like. Your mental image of all these aspects is what guides your playing. So actually, the most important aspect of studying is to train your mental image of the piece in all it’s technical and musical aspects. Perhaps I could have left out all other advice. Creating a mental image of all the aspects of a piece, however minute these aspects are, is the most important thing you have to do. You can only play what you hear in your mind, and your fingers can only make the movements you have made a mental picture of. You can train this capacity by sitting down with the score, without an instrument, and imagine playing and hearing the piece. The better and more detailed your mental image is, the better you’ll be able to play the piece.
Study the background of the piece
For most of us lute players this is part of why we were drawn to the instrument in the first place: its history, its composers, the life in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, historically informed performance practice, etc. Creating this world in your head when you are studying the piece, will give outside thoughts less chance to interrupt your concentration as you will be more engaged with what you are doing.
Learning how to study is the main goal of studying
The composer Franz Liszt said it like this: “The technique of studying is more important than the study of technique.” This may sound like a contradiction. After all, we study to be able to play a piece and we need the appropriate technique for playing this piece. This is true, but the only result of our studying this piece is that we can play this piece and this piece only. We have to repeat the process for the next piece, and then for the next, and the next, and so on. But the process of learning how to study does never end. Every next piece we study, we study more efficiently if we are constantly aware of the process of how we study. To become a better player is mostly a matter of becoming better at studying. If our capacity of creating a mental image of the piece increases, we can play the piece much better, and much sooner. So in a broader sense, learning how to study is the main goal of studying. Again we have some Eastern wisdom here: the way is more important than the goal.
Reflect and improve
The best way of improving your process of studying is to reflect at the end of every study session and see where you can do better. Make a note and try it out for your next study session.
I have not mentioned memorising as one of the study habits, because these observations are personal observations, taken from my own study habits and those that I teach my pupils. I could give you a theoretical explanation on how to memorise, and how it will benefit your study and your playing, but the truth of the matter is that I am not good at playing by heart, so I thought it better not to talk about this subject. This does not mean that I am against memorising, or that I think it is not a helpful study habit, it only means that I cannot say much about memorising from personal observation.
There is much, much more to be said about how to study. But the first step is made: making you conscious of the importance of thinking about how you study. Improving your method of studying, finding efficient study habits and giving emphasis on mental studying will improve your joy in studying as well as improve your playing.
David van Ooijen, 2017
This article first appeared in Nostalgia (Number 48, August 2017), the news letter of the Lute and Early Guitar Society of Japan.