I recently handed out solos to my students for the Solo and Ensemble Contest. Some took the music, excitement shining through their eyes at the upcoming challenge. Others pushed their chair back, afraid the music would hurt them somehow. “That’s a lot of notes,” they told me.
So what do you do to learn a new piece? There’s no doubt it can be an overwhelming task. Learning a new solo can be like putting a puzzle together. The box has a beautiful picture full of the promise of beauty and enjoyment. But when you open the box, there are hundreds of tiny squares, all shapes and colors and you wonder if it will ever look like that box. Where do we start?
Piece by Piece.
Strategy #1: Set Attainable Goals. If I know that I have three months to learn my solo, I need to set a goal of how much I should learn week by week in order to pace it out. Let your teacher help you set these goals if you’re not sure how to do this. Make sure your weekly goal is not too high. Otherwise, you may get frustrated if you don’t achieve it. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to learn half of my solo by Friday,” say “I’ll learn two lines of my solo by Friday.” For beginning flute players, this may be four measures by Friday.
Strategy #2: Mark Your Music. Always mark accidentals, key signatures, and counts for difficult rhythms straight into your music. You may even want to use highlighters to color code your dynamics or other markings that you are likely to miss during the actual performance. As you are learning the piece, if you miss a note, mark it.
Strategy #3: Break Solo into Learnable Chunks. I’ve found that if I break my solo into learnable chunks first, it’s not so overwhelming. This also includes the difficult passages. Work on them first. Many people procrastinate when it comes to learning the runs or technical passages because, let’s face it, they are the hardest parts. The problem with this approach is that runs take the longest to learn. So if you start them early on, your fingers will develop enough muscle memory to sustain you through the pressure of the actual performance.
After you learn all the pieces of your solo, then you’re ready to start piecing the chunks together. You might add two parts together, then three, etc., until you can play the entire length of your solo.
Strategy #4: Use a Metronome. Always learn your solo under tempo. As a general rule, I teach my students to start out at half speed, and then work the tempo up slowly. Once you can play the entire solo at the slower speed, including the runs and technical passages, then you are ready to move the metronome up to the next tempo setting.
Strategy #5: Polish Your Solo. Allow yourself a few weeks before the performance to polish the piece and perfect it. It’s during this stage that you can continue to build speed if your solo requires it, and enhance the musical elements such as style, dynamics and vibrato. This is where the musical magic takes place.
Strategy #6: Don’t Procrastinate. There’s nothing worse than putting an entire puzzle together, only to find the last piece is missing. If you wait until the week before your solo to learn it or work on the challenging elements, you’ll be nervous when you go into perform and won’t know what’s going to come out of your flute. That beautiful picture you wanted to create in the beginning will most likely be a blurred version of the original and the musical magic will not take place.
Whatever strategies you choose to learn a solo, we have to start piece by piece until that musical image comes into view. Best of luck to you as you put together the musical puzzle of your solo.