sep 24

Prep trifecta

Getting a concert program in good shape is always a challenge because there’s limited time and energy-resources to get everything just right.

It’s best to be prepared way before the concert, rather than just in time. But even if this is not possible, time and energy should be marshalled out strategically so preparation is efficient.


Recently, I’ve noticed that fine-grained preparation can be had with three tactics: the qualitative, quantitative, and intonational.

All three are crucial, but they don’t hold equal value: eighty per cent of my repertoire practice is spent with intonation work, which leaves around ten apiece for the other two.

I’ll delve into the most valuable, first.

Ringing true

Intonation practice requires lots of concentration but is worth all the hard work.

I run my program with a mezzo-piano dynamic (so I can hear acutely), and quite under tempo — to best reinforce correct muscle memory.

I tend to portamento between big intervals, so I get a sense just where the landing notes are located.

When in intonation practice mode, I disregard all rhythmic elements, for the most part. I do this, because I’m also focused on right-hand intonation, not just left-hand intonation. (You can read more about that here if you need an introduction to this concept.)

Right-hand intonation is best reinforced by starting each note with a mercato stroke.

This stroke isn’t haphazard, it’s crucial. Never pressing, always releasing the sound, one places the bow, then applies speed with a small amount of jettisoned motion. The sonority should resemble that of striking a bell.

This stroke is laborious and skews the rhythm quite a bit, as most the notes in order to be sonorous, require the same treatment. This is why I generally don’t bother trying to play in time when practicing intonation.

Also, I reserve intonational practice for a time of the day/week whereby I have ample energy to spare, both mentally and physically. It takes a lot of focus to spend hours in this mode.


Since intonation practice messes with the rhythm so severely, I spend at least ten per cent of my repertoire practice in quantitative mode. This mode of practice reacquaints me with the composer’s relative tempi.

With the tap of my foot — or metronome if you must — I run the program in big chunks, though I play much slower than concert tempo. Also, I keep the dynamic down to mezzo-piano to save energy.

I’m never too upset with my intonation when doing this type of practice. I just plow ahead no matter what.

I discover tons of interesting aspects in the score during this mode of practice. Sometimes, I’ll come to realize that a given note I’ve been holding for, say, two beats, is actually written completely different.

I find practicing in quantitative mode takes a good deal of time and energy. And it brings out some rough playing, in fact, so I certainly don’t engage this mode of practice too much.


The final type of repertoire practice I apply is qualitative practice. For this, with no exception, I always have the score in front of me.

Taking intonation and rhythm for granted, I slowly go through my program with acute attention to the musical markings the composer has made: accents, dynamics, agogics, etc.

This type of practice is always a revelation. And just when you thought you knew every little marking, lo, you bump into yet another detail that’s been hiding in plain sight.

I tend to take the dynamics so serious that the fortes and pianos are schizophrenically different. Moreover, when a pianissimo is indicated, I barely play the notes (again, to reinforce the possible extremes).

All in all, qualitative practice is the most rambunctious, so I gravitate to this type of ‘prep’ when I’m physically tired, or my will-power is low.


With one-hundred per cent of my repertoire practice spoken for, one might wonder when’s a good time to just plow through the program, in quasi concert mode?

I spent my first decades preparing performances in concert-mode. Kids have a ton of energy, and if I still had that level of energy, perhaps I’d still do it. But truth be told, I don’t run my pieces any longer because it seems so unproductive. (Though, I’m probably one of the few that neglects this mode of preparation completely.)

If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to spend oodles of time in these other modes of practice in order to learn the music intimately. These modes are short-cuts, after all, so anyone interested in saving time ought to consider them seriously.