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Practicing Difficult Passages of Music

15th April 2020

A couple of months ago we recorded a number of videos with Benjamin Mellefont, Yamaha Performing Artist and Principal Clarinet in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In this particular video, with accompanying blog, Ben selects a challenging few bars of repertoire to dissect.

It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, the advice here works in all situations for musicians. In the blog & video below , we discuss:

  • The importance of knowing about the music & composer
  • Tips for researching the repertoire
  • How to ‘read’ the musical clues in the repertoire
  • Advice for de-constructing a flurry of notes and rhythms
  • Achieving success in your practice

Before Playing

Before you even put the instrument to your lips, it’s important to know some background. A great starting point would be to know more about the composer and the time period the piece was written in. If the repertoire was written in a significant historic time, such as war, then that should inform the musical intentions.

Why not use all the free resources at hand such as Google and YouTube. Find multiple recordings of the piece if possible, and listen to them. Think about how the different performers express their musicality and how that relates to your interpretation of the music.

Look For Musical Clues

Now you’ve done your background work, take a look at all the musical ‘clues’ and guidance in the repertoire. General things to be aware of would be:

  • Any markings about the style (‘Agitato’ in this instance)
  • Check the tempo, does it change at any point?
  • Be attentive to the key signature, is it the same throughout?
  • Look at the dynamics throughout the whole piece, this is a great ‘roadmap’

The pointers above are across the whole piece, but lets say it’s just 8 bars or so that you want to concentrate on. In which case:

  • Mark out the beats in the bar, this helps give some structure to complex rhythms
  • Look for any dynamic modifications in those bars, it will help shape the phrase
  • Be attentive to any repetitions or modifications in similar rhythms
  • Try to break it down into smaller ‘groups’ of notes

The First Attempt

Feels like we’ve done a fair bit of work before even playing…that’s right! But now, because we have some structure and knowledge, we can attempt a first blow. The top tip here is to take it slowly. The obvious question is “how slowly?” and the answer is however slowly it needs to be so you can play it with zero mistakes.

Whilst blowing through, pay attention to any transitions or leaps in fingering or tone that feel uncomfortable:

  • Look in detail at those areas that feel uncomfortable
  • Diagnose why. Is it fingering? Could that be solved with alternative fingerings?
  • Mark up any fingering changes in a notation you are familiar with

Cranking It Up

Slowly but surely you can bring the pace up, all the while paying attention to the musical shape and intention of the repertoire. The technique should always be in the service of the musical language. Once you have the passage under your fingers, it’s a good idea to play about with the rhythm so you can know it inside out. Then of course, revert back to the original and keep bringing the speed up.

In Summary

Let’s be honest with ourselves here; most of us want to skip the first few parts of this advice and go straight into ‘note-bashing’, am I right? Try to resist that urge, take the time and care to look at the music more deeply and understand the piece as a whole. This knowledge will inform your musical representation of the whole piece AND the trickier passages in question.

Secondly, if you approach more technically demanding passages in a considered manner, with careful and relevant practice, you will be far more likely to achieve success. Panic sets in due to a lack of preparation and then your air will close down and your fingers will tighten up – all leading to a jumbled mess. The final success is wholly linked to the initial prep and relevant practice. GOOD LUCK!

About Ben Mellefont

Benjamin Mellefont was born in Sydney, Australia. He was appointed Principal Clarinet of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019, having previously held the same position with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he also appeared as a soloist. He has also played as Guest Principal with many of the orchestras in the UK and Australia, and at festivals such as Salzburg, Edinburgh and Aldeburgh.

Benjamin graduated in 2015 from the Royal College of Music with First Class Honours as the Tegner Scholar, having studied with Barnaby Robson, Richard Hosford, Timothy Lines and Michael Collins. Whilst there he won the Clarinet Prize and Concerto Competition. He has examined and given classes at several of the UK’s conservatoires, and since 2019 has been a Professor of Clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music. Benjamin plays Yamaha YCL-CSGH Bb and YCL_CSGH A Clarinets.

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