Try This Strategy If You’re Having Trouble Learning Difficult Music

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It has been my experience that 95% of the music we learn can be fully learned and successfully performed by what I would call “linear progression”. Full disclosure, I did not make this up. I stole it from the fitness community, as I saw how the benefits in weight training mirrored the benefit in music. The definition of linear progression as applied to music would be this:

Progression over time by manipulation of one variable — the tempo.

Simply put, you would apply linear progression by starting at a tempo that is appropriate to your current ability, and slowly increase the tempo until you have reached performance tempo. This is a strategy that is commonly used because it works. Unfortunately, we have all experienced trying to learn music that falls into that last 5%; the music that just doesn’t seem to get under control.

The Problem

In my experience, the biggest reason some music falls into that last 5% is due to technical difficulties. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s just really hard. We may have no trouble at all increasing the metronome the first 25 BPM, but that last 5 BPM might seem impossible. I’ve also experienced situations where I have the technical ability to play the music in front of me at performance tempo, but I just cannot think fast enough to be in control.

The Solution

As with many problems in life, the solution to this problem requires thinking outside of the box. If ticking up the metronome hits a plateau that we can’t seem to break past, we need to develop a plan that will allow us to work with faster tempi so we can begin to bridge the gap. Enter supra-maximal work.

In terms of workout programming, supra-maximal work is a way to lift weights that are heavier than you can currently lift on an exercise that decreases the range of motion. If your deadlift off of the ground is 405 pounds, you might use a block pull (a block pull is when you set the weight on blocks that raise the bar off of the ground, reducing the range of motion) to lift more than 405 pounds, teaching your body what that weight feels like.

For musicians, we can use this same concept to help us break through tempo plateaus. If you can play an entire etude at 100 BPM, but you can’t seem to play it any faster, you might incorporate 3-4 measure chunks at 110 BPM to help you feel a faster tempo. This supra-maximal tempo approach allows you to perform short repetitions at a tempo that is faster than you can play the whole thing. When you go back to performing the etude at 100 BPM, it should feel much easier.

A Real Life Application

I have shared this before, but it seems appropriate to share it again, given the content of this post. If you take the time to understand this section, you will know exactly how to use supra-maximal tempo work for your benefit.

In the summer of 2019, I started a challenge for myself to learn one etude each week, record it, and post it on Facebook. The catch was that I let other people choose what etude I learned. This meant that some weeks I would get “easy” etudes, and some weeks I would get “hard” etudes. It didn’t matter what was going on that week, I made it a priority, and did my best to put out a great recording.

One particular week, a friend of mine named Jon Hoehne, chose the first etude from Verne Reynolds’ etude book. It looks like this:

(You can click on the image to enlarge it)

2 straight pages of chromatic 16th notes at quarter note equals 132 BPM. I wasn’t not very happy about this choice. But I made a commitment, and I knew that if I could dig deep and find a solution, I would be better for challenging myself like this.

I began my practice the same way I practiced every etude each week. The first day of each week consisted of me playing the whole etude 3 times at 50% of the goal (performance) tempo. For 95% of the etudes I played, this was no problem. For this etude.. I couldn’t play it once at 50% tempo. Here’s what I did on day 1:

(I denoted the section for this etude as such: Section 1 – m. 1-7, Section 2 – m. 7-14, Section 3 – m. 15-22, Section 4 – m. 23-30, Section 5 – m. 31-end)

  • 1 full run at 50 BPM (37%)
  • S1 – 4 times at 50 BPM
  • S2 – 4 times at 50 BPM
  • S1 and S2 – 1 time at 50 BPM
  • S3 – 4 times at 50 BPM
  • S1, S2, and S3 – 1 time @ 50 BPM
  • S4 – 4 times at 50 BPM
  • S5 – 4 times at 50 BPM
  • S4 and S5 – 1 time at 50 BPM
  • 3 full runs at 60 BPM (45%)
  • 3 full runs at 66 BPM (50%)

As you can see, my goal was to perform the etude 3 times at 50% tempo. On most etudes, that was no problem. In this case, I had to work my way up to being able to perform 3 repetitions at 50% tempo.

Day 2 was no different. My usual goal for day 2 was to perform 1 repetition at 80% of the goal tempo, then 2 repetitions at 60% of the goal tempo. Because of the difficulty, here’s what I did instead.

  • 2 full runs at 53 BPM (40%)
  • 2 full runs at 66 BPM (50%)
  • S1 – 3 times at 79 BPM (60%)
  • S2 – 3 times at 79 BPM
  • S1 and S2 – 1 time at 79 BPM
  • S3 – 3 times at 79 BPM
  • S4 – 3 times at 79 BPM
  • S5 – 3 times at 79 BPM
  • S3, S4, and S5 – 1 time at 79 BPM
  • 2 full runs at 79 BPM
  • 1 full run at 100 BPM (75%)

As you can see, none of this work is very linear. I wanted to get a lot of great repetitions on each section, and then slowly piece them all together. Day 3 looked like this:

  • 2 full runs at 66 BPM (50%)
  • 2 full runs at 79 BPM (60%)
  • S1 – 4 times at 100 BPM (75%)
  • S2 – 4 times at 100 BPM
  • S1 and S2 – 1 time at 100 BPM
  • S3 – 4 times at 100 BPM
  • S4 – 4 times at 100 BPM
  • S5 – 4 times at 100 BPM
  • S3, S4, and S5 – 1 time at 100 BPM
  • 1 full run at 100 BPM

It was at this point that I realized that linear progression was not going to get me all the way to 132 BPM. I could play it at 100 BPM, and I knew I had the capability to double tongue at 132 BPM, but I just could not think fast enough to react. I knew I needed to get some repetitions in faster than 100 BPM, but I knew I had to keep the sections short so I could stay focused. Here is what day 4 looked like:

  • 1 full run at 66 BPM (50%)
  • 1 full run at 79 BPM (60%)
  • 1 full run at 100 BPM (75%)
  • Lines 1-19 2 times each at 120 BPM (90%) (Play the line, pause, repeat the line, pause, move on to the next line)
  • Lines 10, 11, and 12 2 times at 110 (82%) BPM
  • Line 16 and 17 2 times at 110 BPM
  • 1 full run at 110 BPM
  • Lines 1-19 1 time each at 126 BPM (95%) (Play the line, pause, move on to the next line)
  • 1 full run at 116 BPM (88%)
  • Lines 1-19 1 time each at 132 BPM (100%) (Play the line, pause, move on to the next line)
  • 1 full run at 122 BPM (92%)

As you can see, I played short sections at a fast tempo (120 BPM), and then backed up and did a full run at 110 BPM. It was amazing how much easier 110 felt than 120, and I was playing it faster than 100! I continued that work 2 more times: Short sections at 126, a run at 116, short sections at 132 and a final run at 122.

On Day 5, I ran it 5 times, playing it at a progressively faster tempo each time. In the end, I believe I recorded it around 126 BPM. I didn’t quite reach the 132 I was aiming for, but I was incredibly proud of the progress I made in one week. I was even more excited that I was able to come up with a plan on the fly that allowed me to be successful on this project.

You can watch the final video here:

Although it may be dense, I hope you take the time to break this article down. This method can be extremely effective if used correctly. The two things to remember are:

  1. The fast sections must be short
  2. Perform a slower run of all of the material being worked on

Be sure to send me a message if you have any questions! Happy practicing!

“Thinking outside of the box allows you to get rewards outside of your reach” – Matshona Dhliwayo