Preparing pieces for performance – six levels of commitment

November 4th, 2011

My good friend Miguel de Maria asked me if I could write a few words on how to prepare pieces for performance. I really don’t have much to say as I don’t have any fixed system, so I thought I’ll just share some general observations on what I’ve seen others do.


Over the past years, I’ve hired a number of handymen and repairmen and one thing I’ve noticed, they all seem to have different levels of commitment and standards when it comes to their work.

Some take a lot of care in what they do, they would stand back, admire what they’ve done, and they would not stop until they’re fully satisfied with their work, while others would simply slapdash the job together and call it finished and leave.

What do handymen and repairmen have to do with preparing pieces for performance, you ask?

Quite a bit, in fact.

I’ve noticed the same varying levels of dedication and commitment in players when it comes to preparing pieces for commitment.

For instance, some players are just concerned with notes.

They will simply learn the notes and they think they’re ready for prime time. They totally ignore rhythm (and other aspects of music) and they play without any reference to a rhythmic pulse.

If you were to ask them to tap their foot when they play, they will be unable to do so because they have no idea where the beat is. This is the first level of commitment.

At the second level, you find players who are a little more sophisticated. They will faithfully read the notes and rhythms, but they totally ignore fingerings – left-hand or right-hand. In fact, you will see them grabbing the first notes they can find with their fingers when they play.

At the third level, players become aware of the need for good left-hand fingerings so they take time to read them in the score and apply them. Some will even come up with their own fingerings.

But they’re impatient to learn the piece, so they ignore right-hand fingerings because they don’t think it’s important. And because they don’t have any thought-out right-hand fingerings, they often end up playing with the same right-hand finger on consecutive notes.

This may work okay during practice but they quickly find that the repeated use of the same finger on consecutive notes can create havoc during performances.

At the fourth level, players become even more sophisticated. They take care reading the notes and their rhythmic values. They work on fingerings – left hand and right hand – and if you were to look at their working scores, it’s full of penciled-in fingerings for the left hand and right hand.

But there’re no dynamic and expressive markings. They’re so focused on the technicalities of executing the music, they haven’t put much thought into expression. Their playing is stiff and dry and mechanical.

At the fifth level, players have all the fundamentals in place, they make sure they read the notes and rhythmic values carefully. They invest time in finding out the best fingerings that will allow them to execute the notes in the most efficient ways possible.

And they analyze the music and come up with a clear plan of execution. Their scores are full of fingerings, dynamics, and other expressive markings.

And when they play, you feel as if they know exactly what they want to do in the music. Their playing is full of shadings and dynamic contrasts, with clearly defined climaxes and cadences.

But something is missing still. Their music doesn’t sound right. It’s almost as if they have learned all the words but they’re pronouncing them all wrong.

At the sixth level, players take care of all the basics – notes, rhythms, fingerings, dynamics, articulations, sectional contrasts etc.

But they go one step further. They spend time immersing themselves in the music they’re playing. And they do this in a fundamental way – through listening.

If they play South American music, they will listen to all the South American musicians they can find, from popular to folk to classical. If they play Fernando Sor, they will spend time absorbing the music of Mozart and other Classical composers, and if they play Tarrega, they will listen to Chopin and other Romantic composers.

They know music is not just a bunch of dots on a page but a living vibrant thing and to make it come alive, you must immerse yourself in it and feel it at your very core.

So they listen and they practice, and they don’t stop until they’re able to get the music to sound just right, with all its natural inflections and nuances.

To go back to that language analogy, until they’re able to speak it like the natives.

Six very generalized approaches, each one reflecting a different level of commitment and priority.

8 Responses to “Preparing pieces for performance – six levels of commitment”

  1. Miguel de Maria Says:

    Philip, thank you for writing this. I wish I had read it a few years ago–I see myself in these stages of first, very shallow, but steadily increasing awareness and attention to detail. I have been playing a lot of Sor lately, and after reading this post, I went and listened to three piano sonatas. I will keep this all in mind as I learn my music to make sure I am attending to the proper things. Miguel

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Hi Miguel, thanks for suggesting the topic and glad you find the ideas useful. ATB.

  3. Douglas Seth Says:

    This is all true and a good account of how many guitarist evolve. It reminded me of something one of my JKD teachers used to talk about, the 4 levels of learning.
    1. Unconscious incompetence- You don’t know very much and you don’t know, how much you don’t know.
    2. Conscious incompetence- You still don’t know very much and aren’t that good, but you know how much you don’t know.
    3. Conscious competence- You have developed a good skill set, but you have to think about it the execution.
    4. Unconscious competence-Effortless mastery. At the highest levels, it does you, you don’t even have to think about it. You and the art are completely one.

    I think the same could be said about music.

  4. Philip Hii Says:

    Yes, Bruce Lee – one of my heroes. I think he was the first one to come up with those stages of learning — the three stages of cultivation — as he called them. These are the primitive stage, the stage of art, and the stage of artlessness. Somewhere along the line, the NLP folks co-opted those three stages and turned them into their four levels of competences. But yes, a good parallel there.

  5. Kristo Says:

    I don’t think you actually answered your friend’s question. There are clear solutions for how to work with new pieces. For example Ricardo Iznaola’s little book “On Practicing” distinguishes the following stages:

    • Finding notes (and applying fingerings)
    • Connecting them
    • Adding rhytmical elements
    • Tempo manipulation
    • Slow metrical practise
    • Tempo practice

    Each stage needs some explanation but this is something that I have recommended to many of my students. Sadly, often they don’t have the patience to through those 20 pages and prefer to go for piles of philosophical assumptions 🙂

  6. Philip Hii Says:

    Hi Kristo, thanks for the comment. You’re quite right. I didn’t set out to answer my friend’s question because I don’t have a system to speak of. So I focused on possible goals. Different people work differently. I’ll have to be honest and say that I probably wouldn’t be playing guitar today if I had to follow 20 pages of instructions on how to practice either.

  7. John Lee Says:

    You have brought me to this point where I have realized the mistakes im making so far.

    Years ago when I was still in High school, I had a private teacher teaching my classical guitar once a week, he would remind me of many of the things you have pointed out above.

    But after I came out to the society to work, I haven’t had much time to take lessons, so I’ve been practicing at home.

    Been doing that for years, around 3-4 years and realized that I’ve been circling at stages 2-4.

    Thank you for your article, this is definitely a wake up call for me.

    Warmest regards from Hong Kong,

    John Lee.

  8. Philip Hii Says:

    Thank you, John. Good luck!

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