What is a Quick Study?

Several Leading Note Music Students have undertaken quick studies for music festivals. With a quick study, a student is given 24-72 hours to learn a new piece of music and then perform it.  A quick study tests sight reading skill, knowledge of musical terms and meanings, technique, artistry, and finally how quickly one is able to master a piece of music.  There is some luck involved too. Sometimes a student will be given a piece to play that caters to his/her strengths or abilities.  Other times, this is not so.  When this happens, it is a call to rise to the occasion and persevere.  Quick studies are a true test of music learning and skill and I encourage all of my students to undertake this challenge when it is offered in a competitive setting.  

The guidelines below will help in the preparation of a quick study but they are also appropriate to use in the preparation of any piece.

Examine the score

Upon receiving the piece of music, a thorough examination of the score should be made.  Check and note the following:

  • Key signature:  Make note of all the sharps, flats, and accidentals in the piece.  It can be helpful to identify all of the notes that are black keys with a highlighter.   Note any changes in key signature.

  • Time signature and rhythm:  Does the piece start on an up beat?  Establish how you will count to maintain rhythmic accuracy throughout the piece.  Note places where there is syncopation, if any, and areas where there are rhythmic complexities.  Work out the rhythmic complexities by clapping the rhythms while counting aloud.

  • Tempo:  Examine the metronome markings, if any, to gage how quickly the piece is to be played.  If there are no metronome markings, there may be dynamic markings such as allegro (quickly) or largo (slow) that will indicate speed.  Also, note any changes in tempo that occur in the piece.

  • Notes:  Is there mostly step wise motion?  Are there broken triads or arpeggios in the piece?  Are there any large leaps or register shifts?  Are there scale passages or chromatic passages? Write in the names of notes you think you will have difficultly reading.

  • Fingering:  Look for areas where fingering is complex.  Write in fingering where you feel you might have difficulty.

  • Dynamic markings:  Identify all of the dynamic markings in the piece.  Make sure you understand what they mean.  If you do not, look them up in a music dictionary (online or otherwise).

Character and Mood

The title can sometimes give a clue as to the character or mood of the piece.  For example, titles such as “Cat play”, “The Wind”, and “The Happy Farmer” all bring certain images to mind.  These are the images that you want to portray musically.  Other titles such as “Romanze” imply that a certain lyricism and tenderness will be required.  

Dynamic markings and articulations such as staccato give strong clues as to the character of a piece of music too.  Examine these carefully.  

The era in which a piece of music was composed is also a clue to its character.  The music of Mozart from the classical era is refined and elegant with beautiful melodies that sing out.  In contrast the music of Chopin from the romantic era is much more emotional, sometimes dripping in sadness.  Contemporary music often tells a story as in “The Mouse in the Coal Bin” for example.  In these cases, it is important to decide on what story it is that you want to tell with your music.

Hands Separate Practise

Start with practising hands separately counting aloud. The basic practice method of counting out loud shouldn't be ignored—even by advanced students.  Counting out loud helps to link what is going on inside you head to your hands and leads to the development of a natural and easy rhythm.   It is often helpful to count at different levels. Each level is helpful in a different way. For instance, if the piece is in ¾ time and has eighth notes, at the lowest level you would count:

1 & 2 & 3 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 1 & etc.

A higher level (feeling larger beats) would be:

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 etc.

A yet higher level (feeling one beat per measure):

1 1 1 etc.

Sometimes you can count at yet higher levels, feeling one beat per two measures or one beat per four measures.

Break the music down by phrase to work at tricky areas.

Once you have the rhythm and notes into your fingers, think about the phrasing.  Identify where the phrase will rise and where it will fall.  Practise your plan for phrasing as you practise the piece hands separately.  It is often helpful to sing while playing as your voice will often naturally lead you to where the phrase should rise and fall.

Section by Section Hands Together Practise

Divide your piece into small sections and practice each section until it is satisfactory. Then combine two small sections to make larger sections. Practice this larger section until it is satisfactory. Continue combining sections until you play the whole piece.

If you can immediately spot a section or sections that you know will prove to be more difficult than the rest of the piece, focus on these first.  Next, focus on the beginning of the piece to give you a strong start.  Thirdly, focus on the ending so that you will have a strong finish too.  After this, work on the remaining sections.

When dividing the music into sections, make sure that the sections make sense--a phrase, a half phrase, or two phrases, for instance.  At the start, your sections should be small.  As you get more comfortable with a piece, the sections will become larger. With an easy piece, the sections can be larger to start with.  With a difficult piece, the sections will be very small.

Practice for Perfection

Pick out a small section of your piece. Try to play it three times in a row without a single mistake. When you can do this, try playing it five times in a row without making a mistake. You can have different levels of perfection. At first, you might just try to get all the notes and rhythm. Then you may choose to strive for perfect tone and phrasing.  In later stages you may want dynamics and pedalling.    Work on just one small section and one thing at a time.  Eventually, it will come together.  

Once you can do the small sections, you can combine them and try to play the larger sections.   Keep combining sections until you can play the whole piece

You may never actually play an entire piece flawlessly but you might get very close.  You might get so close  that any slips or mistakes are so minor that they do not detract from the artistic impression you are trying to communicate.