This is the start of a new series where I’m going to highlight a practice technique in each post. I know that as a teacher, I often don’t have time to go into specific techniques of how to practice. This is because there is so much to get into during the lesson. However, learning how to practice is just as important as learning how to play an instrument. In fact, it might be more important, as you can take the skills you learn in how to practice over to different instruments. Today, we are looking at a practice technique that I think most people think of when they think about music practice – blocking.
What is the blocking practice technique?
Have you heard the joke of how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That is effectively what blocking is. We break down the piece into more manageable segments. Sometimes it is impossible to tackle a whole piece at once. Now, for some pieces, this is really easy.
For example, if you’re playing a concerto, it’s already broken up into three movements. That’s three blocks. But then you can break it down further. The first movement will likely be in sonata form. That will mean that one movement will have three extra blocks – the exposition, development, and recapitulation. Maybe a fourth block if you throw a cadenza in there as well. But then we can break it down further. The exposition will likely have two themes, so that’s two blocks for the exposition, and two for the recapitulation. But then you might need to break it down even further.
I’m currently learning Mozart’s 4th Violin Concerto. It has rehearsal marks which I’ve used to help break down the piece into smaller blocks. B through F is the exposition, that’s five blocks. F-G is the development, that’s 2 blocks. And H-M is the recapitulation – 6 blocks, and a cadenza for 14 blocks in total. And I can break down parts into smaller phrases if I need. It gives me manageable chunks to practice with a specific goal in mind.
Not just for larger pieces
Now that’s a piece that is a bit larger, but blocking isn’t just for larger pieces. Sometimes blocking can be really useful for smaller pieces as well. Take, for example, a piece many violinists learn early in their lessons – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is written in ternary form – ABA. That’s three blocks. But each of those parts can be broken down into two bar phrases, for example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “How I wonder what you are.”
I had a student who was struggling to find the third finger that was for the note “How” in that second phrase. I suggested to them that they block together the second phrase, so that they could start knowing their finger was in the right place. So they just practiced that little phrase over and over. Once they were confident in finding it, they could put the phrase back together and get it all going in one go.
Repetition is the key to the blocking practice technique
Repetition is the key to blocking.
Repetition is the key to blocking.
No, but seriously, the best part about blocking is that it enables you to practice the difficult parts efficiently. When you were learning your time’s tables, you would learn them by repeating them over and over again. It is rote learning, and it can be very effective at getting things from the short term memory and into the long term memory.
However, when things are too large, we can forget them before they have time to be processed into long term memory. Breaking them down into smaller blocks allows us to rehearse them – to repeat them – over and over in a manageable chunk that allows us to get them into our long term memory. We can focus on what we need to perfect – for example, that tricky fingering or the difficult rhythm, and get it in the long term memory correctly, so that it will come back over and over again when we need it.
You got to put it back together
However, you can’t just leave it in its separate pieces. That would be like getting a puzzle, and knowing where all the edge pieces are, and knowing where all the interior pieces are, but never actually putting them together so you can see the picture.
Take my Twinkle Twinkle example. Once my student had mastered finding the right note, we can put together the whole phrase. Once they can put together the whole phrase, we can add in the next one, and complete the song.
Blocking is a practice technique for learning, but it is just the beginning. It is often what you will do at the start of learning a piece, and you may come back to it in the middle, but once you are getting closer to performing it, you will switch to another practice technique. Stay tuned for more tips to help improve your practice.