The Floating Fermata

So you’re learning a new piece and you’ve done as much slow and separate-hands work as you feel is penance enough – at least for today – and now you want to play the darned thing through up to speed and just enjoy. Sounds familiar?

My first suggestion is go ahead and try that, see what happens. If you are consistently able to play accurately, fluently and comfortably then chances are you have indeed done enough groundwork. But if you find yourself stumbling, baulking, stiffening up or playing wrong notes, rhythms and fingerings then it would seem that the playing is not yet capable of being on autopilot and you still need the help of your brain! You need to dig the foundations still deeper and slow down while you process the information from the score. Call on your inner craftsman and take pleasure in the building process itself, knowing the playing will be stronger and more secure later on as a result. You will reap what you now sow.

There are several practice tools I use as a bridge between the slow, painstaking work and the exhilaration of playing through at speed. I have written about these extensively in the first volume of my ebook series on the practice tools, but I would like to share one with you here that is extremely effective. I call it The Floating Fermata.

The Floating Fermata

When we listen to unprocessed playing, we are aware of frequent stops and pauses while the player figures out what is supposed to be happening next. They are suffering from buffering, the playing sounds like a clip that hasn’t fully loaded. All might go well for a few bars and then there is a hiatus while the brainbox grinds into action. In order to get to the autopilot stage where everything happens automatically (without the need for conscious thought about which finger goes where) we can practise using controlled stops.

We might not have thought about it quite like this, but when we practise in different rhythms we are using controlled stops. Breaking up a pattern of semiquavers, say, into a dotted rhythm gives us a predetermined controlled stop every other note. A rhythm of SLOW-quick-quick-quick makes a stop on every beat, and so on. What if we don’t want to be so regimented or mechanical as this, or the passage in question does not lend itself to such practice? We can decide to place imaginary fermatas over notes of our choice, either equidistant or in strategic places. These act as watering holes on our journey, we stop there for a moment or two to recover and regroup before moving on. The beauty of this approach is the pause is not timed – we can take however long we need, and we’ll know when we are focussed and ready to move on to the next target.

In this example from Brahms’ Intermezzo from op. 119, we might pause on the bar line to prepare the next bar. Mentally rehearse it before playing, hearing the music inwardly and visualising the hands in action. The pause might start off as a long one but as the material is processed, it gets shorter until you won’t need it at all. After a two or three repetitions, remove every other fermata and think in two-bar units:


Practising with fermatas is also great for technical work. In this example from Chopin’s B minor Scherzo, pause for a moment on the marked notes making sure the other hand moves quickly into its new position:


To help organise the opening of Ginastera’s Danza del gaucho matrero, pause on the last note of each sub-phrase: 


For Wrong Notes…

If you have identified a wrong note, practise pausing on the note just before it, no matter where this falls in the bar. Then go back and pause on the note itself. Repeating this process daily for a few days will usually correct the error.

A couple of points to remember:

  • Decide on where you want the pauses to go before you start – otherwise they are accidents!
  • A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so unless you have managed the section between one pause and the next flawlessly, you’ll need to go back and do it again until you can.
  • The fermatas have a short shelf life.  Move them around a bit, and when they have done their job they are no longer necessary.


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© Graham Fitch 2013.

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9 Responses to “The Floating Fermata”

  • Hi Graham – great article! I’ve always read and heard that in order to prevent “stuttering” in playing/performing, one should practice in small sections, but in a way that links them together. This is to say, should the piece that you’re working on lend itself to being broken down into several four-beat one-bar phrases, for example, one should practice each phrase not simply in the context of four beats, but rather four beats PLUS the first beat of the following phrase – the idea being that this “overlapping” practice primes the pianist for smoothly transitioning from phrase – and in this case, bar – to phrase while eliminating the unnecessary period of struggle in which most students pause or “hiccup” trying to link phrases. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in comparison to your “floating fermatas.”

    • Hi Joey – yes, absolutely. What you say is also quite correct. One bar plus one note is the best way to link bar units up. I discuss this exhaustively in my chapter on stopping practice in Volume 1.

  • I can see this would be a great thing to do. I’m definitely going to try it ASAP. Do you actually mark these, or just make a mental note (especially when playing from memory)? Thanks.

  • Thanks for this tip; I tried it out and found it worked amazingly well. It directly targeted one of the major problems I’ve had with learning … for decades …
    I make the marks directly with a pencil – for easy removal later – because I am a terrible memorizer and I have to sight-read anyway.

    • Hi Christina – thanks for the feedback and I’m very happy to hear it worked so well for you! It occurred to me that the fermatas could be written on those tiny Post-it notes and then shifted around the page as needed.

  • Can you get Frixion markers/pens in UK? We can get them here in Canada. They are highlighters which can be erased with the special eraser on the end of the pen/highlighter. Work much better than a pencil as they stand out in their bright colours. And they can be erased after months of being in the book. They are great for finger numbers and those pesky forgotten sharps that sometimes crop up in a long passage of music. This is a great article. Thanks for all your insightful suggestions!

  • Are there any updates to this? Thanks! :-)

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