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Break It Down, Build It Back Up
Three Ways to Help Your Students Master Difficult Passages
By James Hill

Three time-tested techniques for breaking down challenging passages into manageable, "bite-sized" chunks.

Break it Down!

Class time is precious. If you're lucky, you'll see your students for two 45-minute classes every week. Five minutes for tuning, another five to warm up and 15 to 20 minutes on skills and technique leaves precious little time to rehearse repertoire. Don't fall into the trap of "practising" what students already know!

Class time is precious... Don't fall into the trap of "practising" what students already know!

Take an intermediate/advanced arrangement like the 2nd Movement theme from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, for example. The first few measures shouldn't be too much trouble. In fact, they should be sight-readable for most students with one of two years of playing experience. But when the sharps and flats start to fly and the rhythms become less predictable, what can you do to help students be successful? How can you break these (and other) challenging passages down into manageable, "bite-sized" musical chunks? Here are three suggestions.

Isolate the Melody

Ignore the rhythms for a moment. Just focus on the melodic material in a given measure or line. Have students pick every note four times, regardless of its rhythmic duration. It may sound very robotic but it will give everyone a chance to find out where the left-hand fingers need to go. Start by repeating every pitch four times, then make it three, then two, then one.

Isolate the Rhythm

"Creative review" [is] one of the most effective rehearsal techniques. It's "practise in disguise" and it's a fun way to get the job done!

Now forget about the pitches for a moment. Just focus on the written rhythms in a given measure or line. Clap the rhythm. Ask students to self-assess: "was that together?" Repeat. If necessary, echo-clap difficult rhythms (i.e. the teacher claps a rhythm and the students respond or "echo" with the same rhythm). To keep students engaged and on-task, keep them guessing: clap loudly, clap softly, snap your fingers, stomp your feet, vocalize the rhythm and so on. This is an example of "creative review," one of the most effective rehearsal techniques. It's "practise in disguise" and it's a fun way to get the job done!

Built It Back Up!

Split the Class

Now that you've practised melody and rhythm in isolation, it's time to put them back together again. If students still aren't ready to play the entire passage as written, try this. Split the class in two (e.g. left side vs. right side, January to May birthdays vs. June to December birthdays, front row vs. back row, etc.). Have group 1 play, for example, measures 9-10 of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 theme. Then have group 2 take over with measures 11-12. Group 1 returns with measures 13-14, and group 2 finishes with 15-16. Have fun with this! Pretend you're the "conductor" and treat each group as a different section of the orchestra. Now switch parts and try it again. Finally, have everyone play the passage as written.

These are tried-and-true ways of breaking down difficult passages for students. They work beautifully in the classroom context and can also be adapted for one-on-one instruction (i.e. where "group 1" is the teacher and "group 2" is the student, or visa versa). Think of these rehearsal techniques as three pedagogical "gears" to shift between as you help your students navigate a difficult musical passage.

James Hill is editor of Ukulele Yes! and co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom. His online video-lesson program, The Ukulele Way, is used by thousands of students around the world. Visit for more..