Just an initial glance at this Caprice will tell you all you need to know: this one is for dexterity and endurance. Pieces of this style, a never-ending stream of notes, are called “moto perpetuo” which translates to “perpetual motion.” Both your hands and your brain are truly in perpetual motion here, and it’s akin to a sprint workout. Good in moderation, but also easily overdone.
“Moto perpetuo” provides the perfect opportunity to refine one’s practice technique because of the danger of wasting enormous amounts of practice time. I’ve had to face head on the fact that even as a professional, I’ve still fallen into the temptation of practicing this badly: running it, over and over, faster and faster, without much attention to details. This is a perfect recipe not only for wasting time, but also for getting worse at discerning good technique and intonation. Therefore, let’s approach this one carefully so we reap only the benefits, of which there are many, and avoid the pitfalls.
The Power of Habit
Our brains are remarkable at learning patterns quickly. After just one run through of a piece, the brain has already taken in massive amounts of information and has subconsciously set the bar for how the piece is supposed to sound. If this first run through was inaccurate, rhythmically sloppy, out of tune and otherwise, that is also becoming part of your brain’s version of how this should be played.
Just this week I discovered that in bars 15 and 16, I had been letting myself get away with imprecise shifts which made the ascending D major scale in the bass out of tune. This was after many, many repetitions of the passage in the context of run throughs, so it will take at least that many slow, discerning repetitions, in incrementally larger chunks of context, in order to erase my brain’s current habit and replace it with a new one.
So mathematically, mindless practice followed by corrective practice will equal more than double the practice time to learn a piece to the same standard as one could with slow, disciplined practice from the start. It feels pedantic and uninspiring to do this at first, which is why even with all this knowledge in the forefront of one’s mind, it’s so tempting to jump into the deep end and start with a quick tempo. Like any workout or diet, discipline is required and will save you time, and heighten your sense of accomplishment, in the long run.
Worth the Effort
Once you feel mentally ready to learn this as slowly as you must in order for everything to be precise, in tune and with good tone, this etude will reward you. It will make you a more poised sight reader, it will improve your facility with extended stays in upper positions, and it will train your eye to look simultaneously at the task at hand and a few notes ahead. It will help you to be more confident when you next open a piece and see overwhelming numbers of small, black notes. And, with short bursts of slow, focused practice, you can be done with this and move on much more quickly than you think.
Moto perpetuo is polarizing: if you practice mindfully, you will improve quickly and in many areas, but if you practice mindlessly it will deteriorate your sense of precision and accuracy. I would go as far as to say, if you aren’t prepared to learn this piece with discipline, save yourself the step down in your playing and do not learn it at all! Come back to it when you’re in the right mental space and it will reward you then.
Here are ways to discipline your practice with moto perpetuo and isolated passage work:
- long-short or short-long rhythms as opposed to straight notes. So, instead of six sixteenth notes at a time, think of three sets dotted rhythms.
- Choose one note out of six to make longer, and the other five normal length. Rotate through each of the six in each group, so first lengthen every first of six, then every second, etc.
- Use these first two suggestions with groups of four, if applicable. I specified groups of six because of the meter of Caprice no. 3, but the majority of passage work occurs in groups of four notes to a beat.
- Change the bowing. In this case, try separated bows instead of slurs.
- Isolate anywhere with a shift. Use guide fingers to map shifts precisely.
- For a particularly difficult passage, practice it out of context first, then gradually add small chunks of material from before (one beat, one measure, then two beats or two measures, etc) so that you get many repetitions of the difficult moment in context. Most difficult passages are only difficult because of what happens immediately before.
- Consistently play with a metronome and stay at least 5 BPM slower than what is comfortable.
- Listen carefully to intonation with patterns like scales or arpeggios. These patterns may be in parallel oblique motion with other notes, or even other patterns, in between, so they may not be immediately obvious.
I will be taking my own advice much more seriously with my re-learning of this Caprice. I hope these thoughts are also helpful to you!