Five Steps to a Polished Piece

by Laurel Ann Maurer

We have all heard a polished and confident performance of a piece of music. It creates an exciting experience for the listeners as well as the performer. Even a simple piece of music, played correctly, can be as inspirational as a difficult piece.

So, how do we go about polishing a piece of music to give it the life it deserves? From the teacher’s perspective, how do we help our students through this process? As part of my Suzuki training, I analyzed different pieces of music to discover each new technique I would need to teach a student. I hope you find the following step-by-step process useful in your teaching.

STEP 1: Preparation

It is essential that teachers pick level-appropriate repertoire for their students. Make sure that every new piece has only one or two new skills for the student to learn. After a few of these new pieces, include a “plateau” piece that incorporates and reinforces these new skills. The Suzuki Flute repertoire does all of this for us. Each piece is a building block with occasional “plateau” pieces along the way.

BEFORE the student begins studying a new piece, evaluate the requirements needed to perform the piece. What are the new skills needed? What are the difficult passages to master? Find or make up exercises that cover these techniques. I have the student listen to a fine performance of the new piece. Review all scales and arpeggios of the key or keys of the new piece. This all needs to take place before they play through the new piece. When the student has successfully mastered all new skills and difficult techniques, then the student can continue to the next step.

STEP 2: Beautiful Tone, Perfect Notes, Slow or Subdivided Tempo

Write in all the breath marks now so the student learns to breathe in the proper places. You may need to add a few “practice” breaths while the tempo is slow. Put them in parentheses so the student knows they are only temporary. Play through the piece slowly with the student. First impressions can leave a lasting mark. Make sure you play beautifully and with a steady beat.

If the student is new at note-reading, have the student read the notes aloud. Clap and count the rhythm. Find a metronome setting at which the student can play the piece well. I usually instruct the student to move up one notch on the metronome after they can play the piece perfectly three times at the previous tempo. The piece may require subdivision as well. This step is complete once the student is proficient in all correct notes, all correct fingerings, a beautiful tone (never sacrifice tone for speed!) and steady rhythm (under tempo).

STEP 3: Perfect Rhythm

Now the student is ready to perfect the rhythm. Intensive “spot” practicing may be needed as well as the consistent use of the metronome and continued listening to a recording. The goal is to bring the piece up to tempo with precise rhythm while maintaining all the skills from step two.

We are now at the most critical point. Too often I hear students performing at a masterclass or competition who have only completed the first three steps. The following two steps can transform a piece into music. Our duty as teachers is to teach the necessary skills to enable each student to play with sensitivity and musicality. Without these skills, music can sound rote and dull.

STEP 4: Dynamics and Phrasing

Many Book One and Book Two students are not ready for dynamics. I begin the techniques for this at the end of Book Two or the beginning of Book Three. But all students can learn the art of phrasing. Even a simple tune will have phrases, and the proper emphasis should be taught as early as possible.

STEP 5: Nuance, Inflection and Musical Rhythm

Nuance or even rubato must enhance the piece but never compromise the integrity of the piece. In other words, don’t overdo it! Students need to use these skills sparingly so they don’t detract front the overall structure of the piece, but they do need to absorb these skills so the piece comes to life. This can also be taught early on. A ritardando at the end of a baroque piece is a good place to start. A piece with a contrasting section (such as Allegro in Book One) call be used to bring out the difference in character.

Engage the student in dialogue exploring the character or mood of the piece. Take the time to listen to their thoughts and feelings. Show how they call infuse the emotion of the piece into the music so the listener will also feel the mood. Now teach the student to hear and feel the strong beats for a more flowing style.

If we guide our students in a logical and skill-building way, we can help them play with more confidence and joy!