Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones.

A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of nature (nerves, inferior pianos, noisy audiences, and so on).

Because this blog is all about practical ideas, here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Have the patience to work out a fingering that makes sense for your hand, and make the commitment to stick with it.
  • Make sure you never learn any wrong notes or wrong rhythms – if you never practise any, why should you ever play any?
  • Make the decision to practise a fast piece slowly for a period of time, resisting the urge to breeze through it at speed.
  • Practise a very loud passage softly, to retain quality of sound and physical ease.
  • Consider each and every note, each and every sound before going for the big gestures.
  • Take each hand alone until we can play it fluently.
  • Return to slow practice, hands separate practice and working in small sections regularly, long after you are able to play the piece though.
  • Distinguish between practising and playing.
  • Have a repertoire of easier pieces you can play through for fun.

Constantly review old repertoire, so you don’t lose it and so that you have something to play when called upon to do so, or for when you just want to experience the joy of playing the piano. This, after all, is why we do it in the first place.

© Graham Fitch 2013.

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12 Responses to “Firm Foundations”

  • Cziffra was once asked how he never plays any wrong notes; his reply: “I never practice any.” And it’s true – there is a recording somewhere online (you can probably get it on YouTube) of him practicing and not once does he play (or practice) a wrong note.

    For all her vague ramblings, Abby Whiteside did possibly have a good suggestion in sight-reading passages with one finger. Obviously you can’t read through all parts simultaneously like this (unless it’s a Bach two-part invention), but it’s not a bad idea.

    I think in my experience, the most important point is the second-last one you mention – distinguish being ‘practice’ and ‘play’.

    • I heard that same story of another, much older luminary. I’m sure some of these stories are apocryphal, or maybe both are true! Cziffra’s playing is astounding in its energy and virtuosity, of course. There are some wonderful examples on YouTube. I like the Whiteside idea very much – it is my firm belief, as you may remember, that muscular memory should be the last thing we attend to when learning anything.

  • I am often very guilty of this and will try to follow your suggestions

  • Critical for accompanists – who are under the gun to learn rep very quickly. Such a temptation to race through to see if I can just play it without actually practicing. Thank you for your timely advice.

  • Dear Mr. Fitch,

    I cannot begin to tell you how helpful and fantastic these articles are. I do appreciate your experience and willingness to write out these online ‘lessons’. The two YouTube videos of chord techniques are worth way more than the 20 pounds I just donated.

    Thank you thank you thank you!!

    • Dear Mr. Halford,

      Your words of feedback and encouragement are so welcomed, and I am very glad my suggestions are helpful to you! I do SO appreciate your donation, which will be used to defray the costs of keeping this site up and running. Thank you very much indeed for this!

      All best wishes,


  • Priceless advice in this week’s post – I only wish I’d had this quality of instruction in my earlier years .I’ve relied on fairly fluent sight reading as a substitute for real practice far too much over the years.

    • Thanks Kenneth – sight reading should never be a substitute for real practice but it’s an invaluable skill to have. I have often found the better the reading skills, the less secure students are when playing from memory.

  • Once again you have hit the nail on the head. Thank you for your timely, insightful Article. This one is a definite discussion piece with my students and their parents. ( often it is the parents who want to see immediate results).

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