Whether you are working through a passage that has a difficult note pattern or a seemingly impossible rhythmic pattern the best way to overcome the problem is with repetition. That can lead to the question, “How many times do you want me to play that”? The answer is, “As many times as it takes (without injuring your muscles)”.
Begin by identifying the passage that is giving you the most trouble and break it down by measure, working on just few measures at a time (or even just a few notes at a time for extremely challenging passages). I usually find that it is most efficient to begin with the rhythm, especially if it is syncopated.
The most important thing to remember is to begin very slowly. How slowly? Slow enough that you can drill the rhythm and play the notes without making any mistakes. If you only ever play something correctly then it goes into your head and your hands only one way – correctly! So, find the tempo that works for you on your metronome, listen carefully, feel the beat, memorize it.
Next, it is time to begin counting, stepping and clapping the rhythm, a method that we guarantee effective for getting the feel of the music into your body and your mind. Stand up and start taking one step for each beat of the metronome. Then clap and/or sing the rhythm as you continue stepping on each beat. This will train your muscles to react in a way similar to how they will need to when you are playing the piece. How many times do you have to count, step and clap that? Until it becomes easy. There is however a caveat. Stop when you become frustrated. Take a break and move on to other aspects of your practice routine. Return to the drill after a few minutes.
Once you can feel the rhythm in your body and hands it is time to sit with your instrument and learn to play the rhythm. It is often a good idea to pick a single note and to learn that rhythm on just that one note. How many times do you have to play that rhythm on just that one note? Again, until it becomes easy, provided that you take a break and move on when you become frustrated and then return to the task later in your practice session.
Now that you can play the rhythm it is time to add the actual notes written in the passage. At this point you should still be practicing very slowly. As you become comfortable you should begin to increase the tempo of the passage you have isolated until you have it up to speed. How many times do you have to play the passage? By now you know the answer.
You are almost done with this drill. The final step is to add the the measures before and after the difficult passage so that your transitions are seamless. You shouldn’t have to stop and brace yourself as you approach the hard part or hesitate to breath a sigh of relief once you have gotten through that hard part. Once again you will have to repeat that whole process until it becomes easy.
How many times will you have played the passage by this time? Way more than you want to know. Instead of focusing on that think of how much you will have learned. This is truly the most efficient way to learn to play a challenging passage of music. It certainly beats returning to the beginning of the piece every time you make a mistake which only serves to reinforce the easy stuff. All of that repetition might seem a bit tedious in theory but if you think of it as an exercise or a game it will be easier to get through it and you will be amazed at the progress you will make.
As an added bonus, you may not realize as you are drilling individual short sections of music, that you are practicing for everything that you are ever going to play. All of this drilling helps make it easier to learn the next thing that you work on. Music is full of repetitive patterns and the music that you are working on in one section may very well show up later in the same piece or in other pieces as well. You are working on them all at the same time!
A final word on drilling passages is that you may find that you need to do this same kind of practice on the same section of music for several days in a row or again next week. Do not be discouraged. That is normal! It will start to come easier and go quicker each time you drill the section. This is a necessary part of the process of learning music, something that everyone does at every level of music performance right up to your favorite star.