Musings on Learning Music



Refinding your place in the music

SOOOO... How DO you find your place after you get lost??? This is a question I hear more than just about anything else. Briefly, it is all about:

  • Knowing your rhythms & feeling beat one
  • Listening to other sections in the band
  • Watching the conductor

Easier said than done?? Yeah. OK - some pointers


If you guess at rhythms, you will get lost -- a lot, even if you've practiced, because you will have practiced rhythms that sound good to you, but aren't accurate. Make yourself figure out the rhythms and play them accurately. (Boring... yeah, I know, but more fun in the end!)

Here is the "how to":

First, ALWAYS have a physical beat in your body. Move with the music (our Western Music culture is the only one where the audience sits still and listens!) Watch the best players, they don't sit still; they are moving and feeling the emotions of the music. So, start with tapping your foot, or moving your elbow or your head, or wiggling your ear (all in time to the music, of course). Find the beat. Practice that when you are listening to music - where is the beat, move to it, where is beat one??

Back to your written music: again, I say, "Feel the beat". Imagine how the music sounds and move to it (is it quiet and peaceful, a march, jazz, rock?) - don't play, just move to what you hear in your head. Sing/speak some of the melodies (I say sing/speak because this is effective even if you feel like you don't have a very good voice and can't hold the tune - you don't have to get pitches right to get the feel of the piece).

Now that you have that music style in your head/ears, go to one of the tough spots. STILL NO INSTRUMENT. Take a small section and figure out the counting. Are there any pickups? Where is are the beats?

Write the numbers (1, 2, 3...)*, or just a vertical line, under where the beat falls (no "+" or "and" right now, just the beat). Now, at a slow tempo, tap your foot or somehow get the physical beat in your body, and scan your eyes through the section. In doing this, you are trying to get a sense of what is in each beat; are there lots of notes between each beat, or are there rests, or are notes held out for several beats? (one of the most common mistakes in reading rhythms is not in the fast moving parts as much as in holding out notes and rests for their full value!). Keep the beat and scan the music a few times.

*You can also use the "du de" syllables if you prefer. Sixteenth notes are "du ta de ta".

Ready? Now figure out how the notes fit into each beat and remember, sometimes the note at the end of a beat is a pickup to the next beat!!!! Mark that by making a curved line linking it to the next note --like an opening parenthesis "("

Spend some time looking for pickups to measures and to beats within the measure. See example below. Look at this example; let's say you want to work on the 3rd and 4th measures (measures 7 & 8). Look for pickups, then go on to the text below.

example of pickup notes


The two eighth notes into measure 7 are obviously pickups, but did you get that there are two 16th note pickups into measure 8?

What about the pickups to other beats? In measure 7, there is a pickup to beat two and a pickup to beat 4! That first beat of measure 7 is one of the hardest rhythms to play unless you think pickups. Sixteenth, eighth, sixteenth. The counting is "1 e [silent +] a" (1e a). Very hard to think. But what if you think of it as two quick notes (1e) and then leave out the last 16th and think the first note of beat two. (1e    2) --keep the beat in your body. Now put in a pickup to beat two. (1e a2). Easy! (Make sure you are keeping a steady beat so that you aren't making the space too long between the notes.)

So now, to start working on the rhythm in that measure, just do the pickup to the measure through the two eighth notes of beat 2. (4 + 1e a2 +). Do that a bunch of times. (Remember, we pronounce "+" as "and".)

Now, notice that the beginning of the next measure is the same with one small exception - two 16th notes for the pickup, instead of 2 eighth notes. (+a1e a2 +). Do that several times, then go back to the first one with the two eighth notes and do that again - going back and forth to feel the difference, being sure that the two 16ths are quicker than the two 8ths and that they come on the "+" of the beat.

Now, move on to the 2nd half of measure 7 in our excerpt. All you've got is "+ 4" because we've already realized that the two 16ths belong to the next measure. Can you put it all together going from the pickups into measure 7, just up to the pickups of measure 8? (4 + 1e a2 +   + 4) Do that several times until you can speak it with ease (remember, I said no instruments and keep the beat in your body!).

Next, link the two measures by starting with the "+ 4" in measure 7, and going right into measure 8. (+ 4 +a1e a2 +   + 4). Do that several times and then put both measures together. Remember that the last two 16ths in this selection belong to whatever comes next, so don't bother with them until you are ready to link into the next section.

SO that is an example of how to work on rhythms. There is more if you go to the "Practice" section of my Bandnotes.info website.

And a website to help you see if you are doing your rhythms correctly is linked below - I recommend that you figure it out on your own first, then go to this website and see if you got it right!!! (The "du de" syllables that we use are the Gordon syllables.)


This is hard to do at home! But, you can practice it a lot in rehearsals. All of those times when the conductor is working with another section and you are not playing, try to hear what other sections are doing. Then try to get to where you can hear what two sections are doing at the same time: ex, what are the flutes and the snare drum each playing and how do they fit together? Then, if you have your rhythms and notes worked out (and the conductor isn't going too fast!), you can try doing the same thing while you play. The more you hear others, the better your tone and intonation, the better the balance of the sections, the better you will know the piece, and the easier it is to find your place when you get lost!

You can also mark some things in your part. If there is a place where you frequently get lost, write in something you notice others doing (ex: "trumpet scale up to 55"). Then, when you hear that scale up, you'll know you should jump in at 55!


Who knows, we might be making silly faces, or maybe smiling at something you did well! :-)

The first step in being able to watch is to have your music stand lined up between you and the conductor. The second step is making sure there isn't someone's head in the way of being able to see the conductor! Move things, and yourself, around until you can see. Now, you can catch some of what is going on with your peripheral vision.

What are you looking for when you check in with the conductor while being lost?

  • The conductor might know you (and others) are lost and will give you a big cue!
  • Where is the conductor's beat one? Match it.

Practice looking up at home:

  • Pick a spot on the wall in front of you (it could be a photograph, a light switch, a chip in the paint...)
  • Practice playing a few measures of something you know well and at the beginning of every measure, look up. (Most of the time in rehearsal you wouldn't look up that often, but our goal here is to practice looking up.)
  • The tricky part is finding your place in the music when you look back down; that is why I suggest picking something easy so you will be more likely to be able to find your place.
  • Now, go to some music that you can play well, and practice looking up at the key points (tempo change, end of section, your entrance)

Learning this skill will take time; don't be impatient, but work on it for 3-5 minutes at each of your home practice sessions.


So, when you get lost in rehearsal:

  • Find the next spot that you know you can play (could be the next measure or could be the next section).
  • Get ready for it (instrument/sticks in position, etc.).
  • Watch the conductor for the beat one as the measures go by.
  • Feel the beat.
  • Listen to the other sections.
  • Jump in!


This ability to jump back in doesn't just happen; it takes practice to get to where you can find your place when you get lost. Yes, there is that word again! Believe it. Practice does help. Go read the Practice and Faith elesson.

Oh... and no matter how experienced you are, you will STILL get lost sometimes and sometimes you'll have trouble getting back on track!!!! It is a given. I don't think anyone (even BSO players) can always keep his/her place!

SEE ALSO: Landmarks (Just like when driving, landmarks in your music can help you figure out where you are when you get lost.) (pdf)


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©Diane Muffitt