Painting a Musical Landscape: The Benefits of Concept-First Learning

When learning new repertoire, music students usually dive in from the first measure and build bar to bar; this sometimes may go counter to the intent of the composer and the piece.

By Scott Flavin | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine

Imagine if you were an artist creating a landscape. Would you start painting each blade of grass, or the leaves on every tree, without any sense of large-scale form or composition? Of course not! Without considering the whole structure, this detail work might be totally unsuitable to the final painting. Yet when learning new repertoire, music students usually dive in from the first measure and build from bar to bar in a linear fashion without first taking the time to understand and connect with the spirit and form of the music. The result is that, quite often, much careful work will not be applicable to the “final product” and sometimes may even go counter to the intent of the composer and the piece. In order to avoid that trap and practice more efficiently, consider using a concept-first learning model.

Why Concept-First Learning?

In analyzing teaching methods, educators distinguish between top-down (concept-first) versus bottom-up learning models. A top-down teaching style introduces students to the larger view of a subject first, and then works down to the specific details. Unlike top-down, a bottom-up teaching approach begins with the component parts of a subject and gradually builds up to the whole. Studies have shown that students who first study the larger goals of a subject and then learn the steps to achieve those goals have an improved and more comprehensive learning experience than students who start out by learning the smaller components.

Sketching the Big Picture

Apply top-down learning when studying a new piece of music by starting with the big picture:

  • Learn about the time period in which the work was written.
  • Listen to other works of that period, of that country, and of the composer.
  • Listen to the whole piece you are studying.

It may feel strange to start the learning process without getting your instrument out to make music. However, spending even a bit of initial practice time working from the largest possible perspective may bring much greater results in your subsequent practice.

Notice what these larger concepts teach you: What are the musical and artistic aims of the composer and the period of music? How do they apply to the composer’s works and to the piece of music you are studying in particular? Some more specific issues that may be revealed right away in this approach might include tone color, phrase lengths, and articulation.


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Prioritize

Now that you have some understanding of the work and its larger forms, start applying it to the music. To do this most effectively, concentrate on what is important at this stage—this means letting go of perfection in favor of connecting with the forms, shapes, and moods. Run through large sections, movements, or even the whole work; if you have to approximate or “gloss over” a technically difficult passage, that’s fine. Remember that your priority is to gain an understanding of the broad shapes and forms. If you find this too difficult to do on the instrument, sing it, or hear it in your head.

Add More Detail

Once you have more understanding of and connection with the composition being studied, continue the process of top-down learning by breaking down the work in this order.

  1. The entire movement (What are the high points and low points, the overall mood?)
  2. The sections within the movement
  3. Forms within each section
  4. Larger phrases
  5. Individual phrases
  6. Gestures
  7. Motifs
  8. Shapes from note to note
  9. Shape of each individual note

Review an Example: A Bach Canvas—the Chaconne

I encourage a top-down approach when a student starts working on Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, and in particular the Chaconne. First of all, what is the overall thrust of the entire Partita? The piece begins with a Baroque suite, consisting of dance forms of relatively standard length: a stately Allemande, a more active Corrente, a somewhat melancholy and introspective Sarabande, followed by a brilliant and virtuosic Giga. By understanding the overall thrust of these Baroque dance suite movements, the closing Chaconne’s placement makes sense.

Sketch: Build a Chaconne Map

When my students are ready to study the Chaconne, I first ask them to “map it out” in some graphic representation—this doesn’t have to be a standard formal analysis but can be approached in any way they’d like, even of their own devising. This gets them thinking first of the overall form and big picture of the piece. In this case, the Chaconne is a series of variations on a thoroughbass, consisting of three large sections: one in D minor, one in D major, and the final return to minor mode. (In fact, I encourage students to use three sheets of paper, one for each section). The goal is to represent in some graphic form the shape within each of the sections. For example, there are large-scale arpeggiated harmonic progressions in the first two sections, both of which have an overall shape. Once students have a good grasp of the high and low points of each section, they then can begin to see how each variation fits. From there, they can map out how each measure contributes to that shape. Now that they have a pretty good idea of the role of each variation, and even each bar, they can start working on it with instrument in hand. 


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The beauty of this method of working is that they have developed an understanding of how each note fits within the whole, allowing their initial learning process to be always connected with the larger purpose of the piece. 

By spending your initial practice time gaining an understanding of the whole, you can use a concept-first approach to gain significant benefits in learning a new piece. Start painting!

Concept-First Learning Strategies

Context: Spend time away from the instrument to learn the “terrain” (composer’s time period, style, other works, whole piece).


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Sketch: Allow imperfections to happen, connect with the broader concepts and larger sections of the work (whole piece, whole movement, larger sections of movement).

Details: Continue the top-down approach, gradually practice from larger to smaller components.