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Developing a Classical Piano Repertoire and Building a Music Library
One does not need to be a concert pianist to take the time and effort to develop a large repertoire. What does “repertoire” mean anyway? In short, a repertoire is a set of works or songs that form the core or foundation of the pianist. (Technically, a “song” has lyrics while a “work” or “piece” does not. The word “song” is often misused.) Many pianists believe that one should keep all pieces “under the fingers” or easy to play at all times. and that this constitutes his repertoire. However, I believe that this repertoire implies something more extensive. Let us now examine the term and explore the most effective ways to develop, expand and nurture it:
Five Golden Rules of Building a Substantial Piano Repertoire
1. Practice, practice, practice
2. Microcycle works that you are currently practicing
3. A macro cycle works throughout your life
4. Consider that no job is ever “finished”
5. Constantly add books and sheet music to your library
The first rule of exercise hardly needs explanation. To become better and more capable at anything, you have to do it, do it often, and love doing it with all your heart and soul. Tiger Woods didn’t become a great golfer by snacking and watching TV. The best surgeons in the world didn’t get there by hanging out in bars and drinking beer. Likewise, an aspiring pianist wanting to have fun and success playing hundreds of songs or works will never get there by neglecting to practice regularly. Ideally, one should practice not out of obligation, but rather out of love for music and a passionate desire to improve.
The second rule of microcycling works constitutes the pianist’s short-term plan, which can vary anywhere from a few weeks to several months or perhaps a year at most. This is what most people mean by the word “repertoire”, because it is the time frame in which one could at any time sit down and play (preferably from memory) a certain number of works. I’ve found the best results for micro-cycling by focusing on about five works at once. For example, I will often spend an entire week practicing exclusively one work (like a Joplin rag), the next week exclusively another work (like a Mozart sonata), and the next week exclusively another work (like a Liszt étude). Then, I might not even touch them at all for two months and, returning to one of them, it feels like “meeting an old friend” which accelerates its relearning phase. What once took a week to complete now only takes a few days. Ideally, the pianist should strive to learn, forget, and then relearn works in monthly, weekly, and daily cycles. This is the eternal and endless plan I follow when I practice and prepare my YouTube videos.
The third rule of macro-cycling works constitutes the pianist’s long-term plan, which can vary anywhere from one to ten years. A thirteen-year-old just starting out usually doesn’t realize that what is learned in these formative years lays his musical foundation for life. Writing this article at the age of 47 and starting piano at the young age of 6, I am constantly amazed at how resilient and powerful the human brain really is. For example, I started practicing Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso” this week after it lay dormant and completely untouched for 27 years, and I was shocked when it came back to me memorized in just three days. What took me three months to learn well at age 20, took me just three days to relearn as well or better at age 47. This is one of the intriguingly satisfying aspects about music and piano repertoire. All music ultimately remains in your conscience and forms your “musical identity” until the day you leave this earth. It’s never too late to learn piano, develop a repertoire and tap into the power of your musical memories. After I work on the “Rondo Capriccioso” for a week and record it for YouTube, it’s very likely that I won’t touch it again for several years.
The logical successor of the third rule of macro-cycling is the fourth rule of considering a work never finished. When I was a freshman music major in college at the young age of 18, I thought that works became “finished” after performing them in a recital or concert. My usual plan of action was to work on a set number of pieces over the course of a semester or year, “finish” them, and then move on to the next pieces my professor assigned. Now 47, I can’t help but smile at my youthful innocence. As demonstrated with my “Rondo Capriccioso” experience, I have learned over time that no job is ever finished. Never. Micro- and macro-cycling piano repertoire is the bread of the pianist’s musical life. These cycles continue until the end just like food and water. I am constantly reviving works that were once supposedly finished, and I have never been more satisfied with my musical development and progress.
While the first four rules constitute the mental or intangible components of developing a large piano repertoire, the fifth rule of constantly adding books and sheet music to one’s library constitutes the physical or material component. Just as you cannot wash dishes without first buying or acquiring plates, cups and utensils, a pianist will never succeed in developing a large repertoire without buying or acquiring printed music. Most people refer to all printed music as a “score”, however this is really a misnomer. Technically, “score” refers to single works of up to about four pages maximum. For example, I recently ordered “My Heart Will Go On” from my favorite music company, Sheet Music Plus. (Although I am primarily a classical pianist, I also enjoy practicing pop music from time to time.) Being a single title, it is properly called a sheet music. On the other hand, “Complete Rags For Piano” by William Bolcom, from whom I also ordered Sheet Music Plus, is not a score at all but rather a “music book” or “music volume” because it is thick and contains 21 titles. (Please forgive me for this explanation, but the term “score” is often misused.)
I love my music library and still play from books I’ve had since I was 10 years old. I am always finding new books and sheets to buy, like and add to my library. I am constantly branching out and exploring new repertoire. In the age of the internet, the use of free PDFs has become too rampant in my opinion. PDF prints often only last a few weeks at most because they are so easily lost or torn. I do rely on free PDFs on occasion, however 98% of my music library consists of sheet music and books that I have paid for. Although any music published before 1922 is in the public domain, and thus legally free to all, it is a mistake to rely too heavily on free PDFs. Books last a lifetime and can be used and reused until the end of their life. Refusing to buy music and trying so desperately to get everything for free is like eating off paper plates and plastic utensils. A pianist will never greatly expand his/her repertoire without acquiring the physical accessories (ie books) along the way. Let’s conclude with a story.
Once, when I was teaching piano in college, a student came to his lesson with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” copied on twelve thin sheets of fax paper. They didn’t stay on the music rack and kept falling to the floor. This went on for an entire semester until I almost tore out all my hair and had a coronary. Forever after, I banned the use of PDF prints in my studio and started encouraging students to buy the music from a store like I did when I was in college (pre-internet days, imagine that!). If my student had invested some money in a volume of Beethoven’s sonatas (as much as it costs to go to the movies and order popcorn), he would have had the “Appassionata” and thirty more great sonatas for the rest of his life. . However, instead of investing in his future he chose the cheap way. The moral of the story is that quality and longevity reign and that it is in one’s own best interest to develop and nurture one’s music library over the course of one’s life. The immaterial and the material work in unison. Physical and non-physical. Yin and Yang. (In Chinese philosophy, the “yin” or “feminine” corresponds to the immaterial or ephemeral aspect of practice and cycling while the “yang” or “masculine” corresponds to the material accessories such as music books and sheets.)
So here it is in short: exercise, microcycle, macrocycle, no job is ever finished, constantly adding music to your library. These are the five golden rules of building a great piano repertoire. Thanks for your time, and happy practicing!
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