Some ideas on playing semi-quavers easily (and musically)

It is a common experience of the improving player to feel anxious about trickier music – the more notes on the page, the more worried we feel! But there are strategies for improving the way we can approach ‘note-heavy’ sections of music so that we can play them without feeling concerned. We can apply practice techniques to get the semi-quavers under our fingers, and we can work on grouping notes so that they sound beautiful while still being relatively easy to play.

This week we’ll talk about strategies for learning the notes. Let’s get started.

Learning the notes, AKA taming the semi-quavers!

The first challenge with tricky passages is learning to play them! There are a number of practice strategies that you can use to help you become familiar with fast or tricky passages. The ideas below are the ones that I and my colleagues use most frequently to help learn the tricky bits.

Playing slowly

I’ve talked about this before in a previous blog, but it’s so important that I’m going to mention it again. The best way to learn to play things that need to be fast is to start by playing them slowly. In the words of YouTuber and bassist Adam Neely, you should begin by playing glacially slow.

I know that this takes a degree of discipline. Particularly when you know the work, it is really tempting to try to play at something approaching concert speed. The trouble with doing this is that you are likely to ‘fall off’, make mistakes, or find ways of ‘fudging’ your way through the passage and never really learn how to play it properly. Whenever you come up to that section, you’ll become tense because you’re not quite sure whether you’ll manage it today. It is SO much better in the long run to do the work playing slowly – and even more slowly than you think is reasonable – until you have developed the procedural memory to be able to play the passage more quickly.

Working backwards and ‘chunking’

In combination with playing slowly, you could try this technique – one of my personal favourites for learning a passage. You start with the final few notes and work on playing those well. Once you feel you have that final ‘chunk’ under control, you work on the few notes that come immediately before it, and work on playing them securely. This is your second ‘chunk’. When you can play the penultimate chunk well, you can try to join it and the final chunk together. Keep on working in this way until you’ve ‘chunked’ the whole of the passage you are trying to learn.

Why work backwards? For the simple reason that you will have repeated the end of the passage more often. Typically, when a player works from the beginning, they learn the beginning of the run very successfully, but their knowledge tails off towards the final sections of the run. This is problematic, because their concentration is likely to become harder to sustain as the run continues. So by the end of the tricky passage, they are at the limit of their concentration just as the security of their knowledge is also lessened!

If you work in the way I suggest, you actually know the semi-quaver run more securely as it goes along, meaning that you won’t have to worry about taxing your concentration.

Playing with rhythms

This is a favourite strategy of my duo colleague. Basically, if you have straight semi-quavers in front of you, try playing them in a dotted rhythm. Then try playing them with the dotted rhythm reversed. Be creative, and try to find other ways of breaking up the notes into different rhythms and patterns.

This strategy helps because it encourages you to loosen your ‘tunnel vision’ focus on the phrasing as it stands in the music. You are spending extra time on half the notes, giving you time to think about what note comes next. It seems likely that it also helps to formulate stronger and broader traces in your procedural memory. This will help later if you need to change your interpretation in order to fit with other players/accompanists.

Alternate fingerings

I and my colleagues are firm believers in using alternate fingerings to make life easier. The principle I follow is to try to keep at least one finger still on the instrument to help keep it steady while all the others are flying about! So if I have the following pattern in a passage for treble recorder:

Using alternate fingering to play notes like these helps make fast semi-quavers easier.

I will be using the 0 34 fingering for the E rather than 0 1, as it entails fewer finger movements.

Go through your passage, and if you come across something involving a lot of finger movement, see if you can find an alternate fingering that will make it easier.

Playing with articulation

Sometimes you’ll run across a passage with semi-quavers all slurred, or in groups of 2 or 4. If a passage has a lot of slurs, work on learning the notes without the slurring, or by changing the slurs to every 2 or 4 notes. Sometimes just playing with the articulation is enough to make the notes easier.

You may also find that if you have difficult jumps that the notes sound more clearly; at this point you may even consider whether the articulation in the printed music is playable for you. As a rule, I would rather the note sounded well and clearly than get the articulation score-perfect and have notes not come out clearly.

Little and often

When learning difficult passages, working on them in small concentrated bursts tends to be more effective than devoting a long practice session to just a few bars. There is a limit to what our powers of concentration can manage, and current advice from learning experts is that you will do a better job of strengthening the memory traces if you come back to the passage after a break.

Even 5 or 10 minutes can be enough to make progress on a chunk or two. Do that three or four times in a day, and you will have made significant progress on your tricky passage.

If you don’t have the time or it isn’t practical to keep coming back to your instrument over the course of a day, then do 5 minutes on the tricky passage, change to a different piece and work on it, and then come back to the tricky passage. Interleaving your practice in this way is a tried and tested practice technique.

I hope these practice ideas come in useful! Next time I’ll talk about the concept of grouping semi-quavers so we can make them both more musical AND more playable.

Problems playing bass clef? Try this…

Perhaps you’ve just recently bought a bass recorder. You want to become proficient at playing bass clef, but it sometimes feels really tricky. How can you improve your bass recorder and bass clef skills in a way that’s fun, but doesn’t necessarily involve spending a lot of money on books specifically for bass recorder?

Why playing bass clef matters

Students usually start learning on a soprano recorder, and after a little while move on to a treble. After gaining proficiency on these two instruments, it’s completely reasonable for players to want to branch out into consort playing – because it’s fun – and they start wanting to learn to play tenor and bass recorders. Tenor functions like a very large soprano and so is relatively easy to learn. Bass recorder, however, for many players involves learning a whole new clef. Even if the player has bass clef skills from keyboard or another bass instrument, it can still be a challenge to link bass recorder fingerings to the notes on the stave.

But it’s really important to learn, for two reasons. First of all, it vastly increases the amount of music you can play, and your versatility as a consort player. And because of this, you’ll have so much more fun. That, by the way, is the second and most important reason for working on your bass skills: you’ll have so much more fun!

Playing bass clef…

Once you’ve started to get used to the bass recorder and you can (mostly) reliably get your fingers around the notes, I suggest this. Instead of buying lots of expensive books where music is adapted for bass recorder, try taking advantage of some of the music you probably have hanging around already. For example, if you’ve been doing grade exams, you may have started collecting editions of sonatas by Handel and other Baroque composers. These usually come with a keyboard part and a part for basso continuo. This part, usually for a cello or viol, is a great practice ground for the novice bass recorder player.

Take a look through the basso parts you have, and try and find one where most of the notes fit the range of the bass recorder. Then work on learning the basso part. A good example is Handel’s sonata for recorder in B flat major, HWV 377 (also known as Fitzwilliam Sonata no.1).

Handel sonatas like these Fitzwilliam Sonatas are great for playing bass clef from basso continuo parts.

This sonata has a lovely cello line that is almost entirely playable on the bass recorder. Not only that, but it uses notes that are quite high up on the instrument in places: this will help you to learn how to play high notes on the bass and not be afraid of them! If you don’t have any sonatas lying around the house, try searching IMSLP, using a search term like ‘Handel recorder sonata’, and see what you find. There are plenty of good sonatas out there.

The advantage of this approach is twofold. You get practice playing bass clef, and on parts that can be relatively easy. But you also get to hear Baroque bass lines, which will be really useful for your solo line playing; you learn what the cadence points sound like, and the sorts of harmonies that composers like Handel used regularly.

And bonus practice on the treble…

The other advantage of playing the basso continuo part of a recorder sonata is that you can double up by working on the solo treble recorder line, too. You could even try recording yourself playing one of the parts, and then play along to your own recording. 

Working like this will sharpen up your bass recorder and bass clef skills, and get you to a point where no intermediate level consort bass recorder part should be a problem. You’ll be able to join a group and know that you’ll hold your own. And then you can have tons of fun.

Why a pre-performance performance is a good idea

Having all the gear - like the guitarist's footstool - is part of the pre-performance performance

You’re ready for the performance. You’ve done your pre-performance checks. You have your recorders, music, stand; the really organised people have stands or blankets for resting instruments waiting to be played… But have you made sure you know which recorder to pick up at which time?

I have a clear memory of the last time my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It’s a classic illustration of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

I was reminded of this recently because at a recent gig there was no time for a pre-performance run-through (through illness and injury we had to organise a fresh set less than 24 hours before the performance). My mind was so busy with doing the chat to the audience between pieces that I forgot what was coming next, and picked up the wrong recorder. It caused great hilarity, but I would have been happier not having it happen at all!

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Why we should all start practising long notes

What do you do when you start practising?

A long note - because practising long notes is a great warm-up.

Most people, if they’re honest, generally start their practice session by picking out a piece and starting to play. A few minutes in, and a number of mistakes in fingering and tonguing later, they pause, take stock, actually look at the music, and start thinking about what fingers and tongue really ought to be doing.

Of course, I would never start a practice session this way… *tries to look innocent*

Why do we avoid long notes and technical work?

Here are my best guesses:

  • We think we’re saving time
  • We prefer playing ‘real’ music over exercises
  • We think (secretly or otherwise) that working on scales and technical work is boring and difficult

The fallacy of this as a practice strategy has been brought home to me by watching my son work with his trumpet. He starts nearly every practice session by ‘buzzing’ with just the mouthpiece, and then by running through basic flexibilities – a series of exercises designed to work on breath pressure and finger control. Once he has done these, he turns to his pieces. And what I have noticed is that he plays the pieces so much more effectively and accurately after the flexibilities, far more than if he skips the flexibilities (which happens rarely).

Recorder flexibilities?

So I am wondering what would happen if we recorder players behaved a bit more like brass players in our attention to warming up. It seems likely to me that we would benefit from spending some time on thinking about breathing, breath pressure and co ordination with fingers before embarking on repertoire.

So let’s have a go at playing long notes at the start of a practice session. I’ve been experimenting with it, and have noticed the following:

  • I think more about how I am lifting the instrument, so experience less tension;
  • I think about my breathing;
  • I listen to the sound of the instrument I’m playing. Each note has its own timbre, and varies depending on dynamic;
  • Playing long notes gives me time to focus my attention on the activity I am about to do. I find myself thinking about playing recorder in the present moment, rather than the rest of the things on my to-do list.

My experience is that playing long notes helps my focus, breath control, and the efficiency of my playing, and all of these help me when I start to work on scales or pieces.

So… will you give it a go?

Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.


* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.