Practice techniques for learning variation sets
by Dick Hensold © 2001

These practice tips are an expansion of some remarks I made awhile back, when someone on the NSP internet list asked for suggestions for learning traditional Northumbrian variation sets.  Peter Dyson and I continued the conversation, and he has persuaded me to share it here...

1) Take the half dozen or so most difficult beats, (or measures or some other small unit) and spend some time working on just that.  In other words, get the hardest bits under your fingers before placing them in a musical context.  This is more important than a lot of people think; learning technique in a musical context develops all sorts of bad habits: it makes the ultimate phrase more mechanical, makes it harder to hear if you have timing problems, it makes it harder to generalize that figure into other pieces of music, etc.  Make the hard parts into short little exercises, and then when you learn the piece, you'll have the dexterity to make them into music.

2) Try dotting the fastest passages like they were hornpipes (dotted eighth-sixteenth), and get the staccato clear and controlled, and then spend an equal amount of practice time dotting them the other way (sixteenth-dotted eighth), also paying attention to the accuracy of the staccato.  This will reliably smooth out the bumps, increase your speed, and give you the rhythmic flexibility to play the phrase any way you like.


Peter Dyson: You said "paying attention to the accuracy of the staccato." How do we do this ?


Mainly just by listening, and slowing things down enough so that you’re sure you’re hearing what you need to hear.  It’s very easy to commit a multitude of errors with staccato on Northumbrian smallpipes.  Players will speed up on a staccato passage, or the spaces between the notes will be erratic, any given note can be too early or too late, and often the spaces between the notes can disappear altogether. Sometimes the player is not even aware of these problems.  But all these are addressed by the practice technique of dotting a passage both ways.

3) When you have some familiarity with the hardest parts, then put the whole thing together, checking yourself with the metronome to make sure that you feel everything at the same tempo. 


Peter Dyson: How do you set the metronome ? Some people suggest you should set it by playing the hardest, most complex variation at a comfortable speed, and then play the whole tune at that pace from the beginning. This means that you dont start out playing the easy bits early in the tune too fast and then stumble to keep up when you get to the tricky bits later on.


It depends.  There’s not much point of forcing yourself to play the easy strains way below performance tempo.  That would just be a waste of time.  More to the point is, how do you set the tempo for the entire piece? The tempo for the whole variation set must take into account both the most difficult sections and the most boring sections -- you need to find a compromise tempo that makes the simple sections interesting and the difficult sections playable.  Some players will leave out strains in order to make this possible!  Another complicating factor is the question of whether the set is meant to be played at one tempo or not.  Most old variation sets are very likely meant to be played all at one tempo, but there are plenty of art-music variation sets from the later 18th century that had different variations in different tempos, and it’s likely that some folk sets were influenced by this.  Colin Ross believes that the set of “Sutters of Selkirk” from Peacock is one such, and I am persuaded by his reasoning.

Anyway, once you have decided on a tempo, and are capable of playing the difficult parts at that speed, you still need to use the ‘nome to make sure you’re feeling the different variations at the same speed.

4) A memorization trick that I thought learned from Matt Seattle, but apparently just made up: number the strains and when you practice each strain make a mental note of what strain number it is.  This makes it much easier to memorize the overall structure of the set.


Peter Dyson: Do you have any other tips to help people memorize a long complex tune ?


There are a number a ways to memorize a piece of music.  The most widely-used, and also the most unreliable in performance, is to memorize a piece kinesthetically.  If we practice a piece long enough, most of us find that the muscles in our fingers will play the patterns of a tune without our brains really thinking much about it.  It seems easy enough, but when adrenaline kicks in during performance, everything in our brain seems to change, and the finger patterns just vanish!  A better approach is to memorize the piece musically, by ear, as well.  Be able to sing the whole variation set to yourself, without your instrument.  Visual memorization works well for many people. Picture how the music looks on the page, which sections are at the top of the page and so on. In some places, especially transitional spots, it will be useful to memorize the actual note namesTheoretical analysis helps many people understand the structure of a piece, and so remember it more reliably.  Combine as many of these techniques that work for you, and that you have time for, to memorize a long piece redundantly, and I promise you your memory will not fail you!


Peter Dyson: How about drones ? Are they turned off so we can hear what our fingers are actually doing rather then what we think they are doing?


Yes, part of the time.  Playing without drones allows you to hear the staccato better, but you also need to practice playing with the drones for pitch, so you need to spend time practicing each way.

5)As I have said before, take care when working on a technically difficult piece to keep your hands as relaxed as possible, and rest frequently.  I read a book about practicing recently that pointed out some of the physiology of exercising your fingers.  Fingers are somewhat fragile, it turns out, because there are so many fewer muscle fibers per finger muscle than in any of the larger muscles, so the strain is concentrated.  When playing music, the number of possible repetitions is vastly greater than the repetitions involved in, say, running, and also the blood flow to the muscles that control the fingers is not as good as the flow to the larger muscles.  The point here is: don’t imagine that you are lifting weights; even if you are building finger muscles slightly, it’s not a very useful analogy. No pain equals efficient practicing!  Practicing music tends to be more training coordination than strength training, although in some parts of the technique, strength does play a part (I’m thinking specifically of notes played by the little fingers).  What you need to remember is that when you are practicing for coordination, you expect improvement as you work.  When you are practicing something that requires building strength, like repeated high A’s, you would expect to see improvement only after the muscles have had a chance to rebuild, which as we have seen happens comparatively slowly for finger muscles!

Now have fun with those variation sets...Dick Hensold


  All content © copyright 2008 by Dick Hensold.