Many music students fall into the habit of practicing a piece or trouble spot until they are able to play it correctly. Well, what is wrong with that? Actually, quite a bit. Being able to play something correctly one time does not give any measure of assurance as to being able to play it in a performance setting, especially when factors like stage fright and a new environment are present. Imagine a gymnast working on a stunt such as a backflip diligently until they are able to execute just one, at which point they consider it learned and move on to something else. How confident would you be in their ability to go out and execute one later on in front of an audience on cue? How confident would they be? While an underprepared performance on a musical instrument isn’t usually nearly as hazardous as an ill-prepared stunt, it is still just about as likely to be unsuccessful.
This is where the paper clips come in. This practice method is by no means new or unheard of, but for those who may not be familiar with it, can greatly alleviate the aforementioned practice tendency if done correctly. I am not certain of the original source, but it has always been a staple in my practice routine. The idea behind it is to gain the ability to play the section at hand more times correctly than incorrectly, thus increasing the chances of playing it well in any setting and under any circumstances. You first select a segment to work on. Unless there’s something very specific that needs perfecting such as a high note that is consistently inaccurate, I try to start with as large a section as possible, preferably working in phrases. You then set three paper clips to one side on top of the piano or music stand. After playing through the selected segment with a specific goal in mind (accurate rhythms, correct notes, lighter touch, etc.) you evaluate whether or not it was played to performance quality. If so, you would then move one paper clip to the other side away from the others. If not, it would stay there. After playing through again you complete the same evaluation. If it was done well again the second time you would move another clip over. If it was done well the first time, but not the second you would move the paper clip back. If it still was not done well no clips would be moved. You would then play through and evaluate yet again. If it was correct the third time all three clips would be moved over and a broader segment might be beneficial incorporating more measures before or after to help with transitions. Another variation is to try the section again with four or five paper clips to move over. If it was not done well any of the three times, it might be advisable to try a smaller section, slower tempo, or other such similar change. There is no negative area, so if you are able to play it correctly once, but then the next two are inadequate, the first clip would be moved back and none would be moved after that. The goal is to play until all three clips are moved over, in as many repetitions as it takes.
What is great about this practice method is that there are multiple ways to tailor it to your learning style. Instead of using paper clips, stickers, toys, money, or candy could be used. With the candy, if all three are moved over they could then be eaten as a reward. The money could be kept after three successful reps. This is a very buildable exercise that can have very tangible results if utilized correctly. Happy practicing!
-Tricia Lewis (Bravo Employee)