Blog - LMP - Practice and Preparation
December 01, 2020
The key to any successful recording is being prepared. Recording is draining and a touch stressful so any holes in your prep work will manifest in a big way. I always say that once that record button is pressed, I will play 8% worse than I do when I practice so the key is to make sure that 8% doesn't take you out of the A grade range.
This project has the added challenge of being definitionally about playing pieces that do not have recordings; I don't know what they sound like. I've had to put in some extra lifting at the front end to make sure I don't get caught off guard by something in the booth, or, worse, discover I've learned a part incorrectly which will then ripple outward into the other parts.
Also, because this project involves two instruments I currently barely play (mandola and mandocello), learning and recording the parts is necessarily going to be a serial process. I'll have to start recording, say, the quartet Cello part and Viola 2 part before i'm fully able to play the Violin 1 and Viola part. If I don't start until I know all the parts to all the pieces cold I'll never get started. Build the wings on the way down. (I'm also going to need the early parts to have something to practice the harder, later parts along with.)
To get a sense of what the pieces sound like, I manually transcribe them into a program called Sibelius, which is a powerful but pretty easy to use software that, critically, has a midi playback function. You input all the notes for all the parts, press play, and then you get to hear a weirdly digital sounding version of the song. This is my first cut at seeing whether I like a piece enough to record it and get a sense of the tempo and difficulty.
Inputting the score manually is time consuming; I'm teaching myself the Sibelius software as I go so there's a bit of a learning curve. The score input exists in the painful Venn diagram overlap between "very tedious" and "requires a great attention to detail." It is very deflating to lay down 197 measures of the second violin part only to have it not be the same length as the cello part. Which one is wrong? Which part did I miscount, or did I skip a measure, or skip an entire line by accident? Sometimes it's an error in both parts which takes bloody ages to find and fix. (Amateur tip: Number your measures on the scores in advance before you start inputting and check as you go).
I've also encountered errors in the scores I'm looking at. These take the form of measures that have the wrong number of notes in them, i.e. a measure that should have 4 beats in it only has 3.75 or has an extra. Usually the fix for these is pretty obvious and doesn't require any mental heavy lifting. The potential mistakes that worry me are a note error, which might not be obvious. I can only hope I can tell from the MIDI playback and the context, but especially as we get to 20th century music, which tends to have fuzzy key centers and lots of accidentals, I'm not sure I'll notice.
Nothing too scientific here. I go to IMSLP and search for an instrumentation combo I want to do, then I basically immediately discount anything by a composer I've heard of. (I doubt Haydn or Mozart have ANY surviving scores that have not been recorded). Then I spend some time googling around looking for any recordings. If there are none, I then either sight read a bit of what appears to be the main melody of each section on the mandolin or input it into Sibelius and play it back. As long as I don't hate it, it goes on the list.
I'm looking for variety in instrumentation and in era, and also, at least for now, looking for pieces that aren't too long. Until I get better at recording this type of music I don't want to break myself on a 20 minute piece right away and shatter my already fragile confidence.
Also, a piece gets bonus points for having something interesting about it. The Barbella Serenade has a first violin that is tuned to ADF#C# rather than the standard GDAE, which to be honest I didn't even know was a thing in Baroque music. (Though it is kind of a pain in the ass; maybe that's why this hasn't been recorded before.) Sometimes the point of interest is even more arbitrary or silly. I chose the Josephus Fodor Quartet because one of my best friends is a J. Fodor. Felt like finding that was a message from the universe.
Practice, Practice, and Some More Practice
One I've selected the piece, I do a pass / play-through each part of the score. I'm looking for fast passages that may give me trouble or parts that have tricky fingering. I had to abandon ship on one quartet that had a section that was so fast and difficult that it wasn't worth the opportunity cost of the immense practice time it was going to take. Abandoned... for now? Maybe after I do a bunch of these and level up I'll be good enough to revisit it.
I am extra careful and conservative vis a vis viola since i can barely read the music; I'm terrified of a lurking passage that will be too tough to play that I won't be able to tell until I've already practiced the hell out of the other parts. Though mandola technique is basically identical with the mandolin and i've been at it the mandolin long enough that something has to be both very acrobatic and pretty fast for me to really struggle with it for long; both things I should theoretically be able to tell by looking at the score.
Once I've identified the trouble spots, I create a practice plan and then drill, drill, drill, drill, and the drill some more. The plan has the measures I need to rehearse, the speeds I need to start and arrive at and the progress I'm making. (One ✓ means I've just started, 2 means I've got a good handle but am not there yet, and three is done). I have to be disciplined about what I prioritize and what I attack if I want to be successful in the recording booth.
My practice plans looks something like this:
The actual drilling involves something my piano teacher calls "climbing the ladder." I start at a slow speed on the metronome, a speed where I can play the identified measures perfectly. Like no shit, no mistakes at all four times in a row. Once I can do that, I bump up the beats per minute (BPM) by 5 and then try it again. Once I hit a speed where I can't play it perfectly, I back it up a few BPM and keep going. It takes a long time, but learning complicated and/or fast passages is about building muscle memory as well as an intellectual understanding of what to play. In the recording booth, you can't think your way through a hard and fast passage. You have to have internalized it to the point where your fingers know the way by themselves. (This is extra important for me, as I have a really loud and persistent inner monologue and can easily psych myself out.)
Fortunately, and perhaps because of my intrusive inner monologue, I find the act of running a part over and over again sort of calming. I have a very very long attention span and an immunity to boredom so I don't have trouble staying attuned during a focused practice session.
The rehearsal process is more complicated on the mandocello and mandola. The mandocello because the technique is so different than the mandolin, due to the much much larger size of the instrument, and the mandola because I am almost illiterate on the music. I haven't internalized the mandola's alto clef the way I have with the mandolin's treble clef or even, to a much lesser extent, the mandocello's bass clef. Drilling a part takes much longer as I have to fight to read the music. Because of this I've shifted the priority of the mandola parts to later in the process. Hopefully I'll crack the code when I'm dedicating more time exclusively to it and this won't be an issue as I get further along.
Learning a new clef when you already read music isn't so quite learning a new language; I'd say it's more akin to learning a new alphabet system and applying it to a language you already know.
When it comes to recording anything I'm actually pretty organized. For Beemo albums I always put together a list of the tracks we're going to need, the beats per minute (BPM) (i.e. tempo) and work out what order would be the most efficient for recording. All that practice is going to come in handy for the LMP.
I'm going to have to be even more intentional about what order I record the parts in, which in turn will dictate what order I learn them. I have to balance what I can play at my current skill level against what parts I need to play first to make recording the full arrangements easier. This in theory will become less important as my skill level increases on the mandola and mandocello.
My recording plan looks something like this:
Notice I have the Cello parts first as they are the base for the other instruments followed by the (easier) mandolin 2 parts, then the mandolin 1 parts, and the mandola parts last to give me the most time to learn to read the music. When I start on this plan, I'll only really be comfortable with about 4 things on this list; I'm going to be drilling all the rest in parallel and hopefully I'll have timed the learning curves to where there won't be huge gaps in the recording sessions while I wait to get a part up to speed.
I think it's a pretty good plan and I'm going to be as prepared as possible. But then again, von Moltke had a point: "No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force."