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Where Do I Start?

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Every musician has to make this decision when they start a new piece of repertoire: in what order should I learn this? But it always feels like it matters more when you’re a making the decision on behalf of an entire ensemble: what approach will help the performers learn grasp it with most efficiency, security and confidence?

If you make a poor choice of strategy in your private practice, it’s only your own time and emotional energy you’re wasting. If you take a sub-optimal course of action leading an ensemble, not only are the wasted person-hours multiplied up, but you may create obstacles to your musicians ever really bonding with the piece. (No pressure.)

There are four basic approaches to this, each of which has points in its favour:

  1. Start at the beginning and work forwards. This is probably the default approach most people take as a matter of course. It has the intuitive reasonableness of getting to know the music in the order that the audience will perceive it in performance, so helps form a clear basic narrative shape. It can get a bit bogged down, however, especially in longer or more complex pieces as you plough further and further into the detail without a clear sense of where it is all headed eventually.
  2. Start at the end and work backwards. This has the advantage that you are always working from the less familiar to the more familiar in performance. Putting a newly-learned section into context involves an increase in confidence and fluency as you move into from the new material into the previously learned material. On the other hand, people take longer to build up a clear mental picture of the whole this way.
  3. Learn the easy bits first, then progress to the harder sections. This is a sequence I’ll often advocate for things like arranging, analysis assignments and exam papers. It allows you to get familiar with the musical world of the piece, and get a feel for how it operates at the outset, and score some immediate wins. This gives you both confidence and increased understanding with which to handle the trickier parts. Its big disadvantage of course is that those tricky bits can end up less well embedded as even if they receive the same amount of rehearsal time as the simpler parts, they have had less between-rehearsal sinking-in time to become familiar.
  4. Learn the tricky bits first, then progress to the easier sections. This has the fabulous advantage that, by the time you get to the performance, the hardest bits are the ones the performers are most familiar with. It only works, however, if there’s a considerable degree of trust in the working relationship, since you are asking performers to grapple with material that is musically and/or technically challenging before they have built any kind of relationship with the piece. When you get it right, though, it is lovely to find yourself getting to that moment in performance and feeling everyone actually relax.

So, as usual, there’s no single right answer, but multiple possible answers with different kinds of rightness. Some pieces will suit one approach better than others; many directors will have their preferred methods likewise. Still, it is always worth asking the question rather than just going on autopilot. Personally, I like to vary the approaches, but even if we end up doing what we always do, it’s better to do it because we have chosen to rather than because we haven’t thought about it. Not least because, once we have a clear rationale for our choice, we will have given attention to mitigating the downside to our preferred methods’ advantages.

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