I was chatting with a friend online last night about a piece of music he is trying to get to grips with and which he found quite daunting. He sent me a copy and there were one or two features in the landscape that I would be spending some time on if I had to play it but most of the ground was relatively easy going. I shared with him what I think as my ‘bridge’ strategy for getting to grips with a piece of music.
First, I recommended that he highlight the sections he felt he could play, starting with whole bars but probably moving down to the level of beats. If it looks like the answer is most of it, it would probably make more sense just to mark the more challenging parts but using a pencil. It is probably wise to play through the ‘solid ground’ at this stage, just in case there turn out to be any awkward shifts and jumps. Keep the beat going through the hard bits but don’t attempt to play them. Instead, aim to come back in at the right place. If there are long gaps or very fragmented sections, leave them for now – the present goal is to make sure that what you thought was easy really is so.
Once the groundwork is done, pick a gap that doesn’t look too long or deep. Spend a bit of time figuring it out in isolation. Perhaps it is a run over a wide range of notes, so figure out the route you are going to take and practise it – first without any timing and then with slow, even notes. If the rhythm is tricky, try tapping out the pattern without worrying about the notes. If the pattern is too fast, try treating each note as lasting twice as long. If you are getting caught out by ties, ignore them for a few passes before building them back in. If missing notes are throwing you, try playing muted notes instead of leaving rests to get the rhythm before going back to dropping them out.
As you master the challenges, try and put it together so you can play through it in time and at the proper speed. The final step is to put your bridge into place in the overall song. Start a bar or two earlier and play through until a bar or two later. A metronome is very useful here even if you haven’t used one so far. You don’t want the listener to be aware there is a bridge, so keep the timing solid and remember to breathe! If you can do it, cross back and forward over the bridge a few times, move onto another one and remember to come back later, at which point you can add it to you list of safe stretches. If not, either have a think about what is tripping you up and focus on that some more, mark it as unfinished and move onto a different spot or just take a break and do something else for a while.
One of these days, what seems treacherous ground now will feel like solid footing as you attempt pieces you wouldn’t dream you could play now. Also, much sooner, you will be able to spot the gaps and build the bridges on the fly.