When I was going through the early grades myself as a lad, my teacher would instruct me to learn my new pieces bar by bar, and with each hand separately. I’m not sure how much I obeyed her when I was home alone though! I really do believe that if we teachers expect our students to practise in a particular way, we need to hear that practice in lessons – or there is little incentive for them to do it. It doesn’t have to take much lesson time – hearing just a bar or two, with words of encouragement and suggestions for improvement (if necessary) is all that is required to help them along in the learning process.

I am very happy to announce that we’ll be adding further works to our  Online Academy articles and worksheets on the new ABRSM syllabus, beginning with a selection of pieces from the early grades. The format is somewhat similar to the other study editions I have previously published, featuring text, musical examples and short embedded video demonstrations (as well as video walkthroughs) designed to help teachers and players in the learning process. Naturally, there are detailed practice suggestions suitable for the grade.

Bar by Bar – Plus One

One of the practice suggestions I use in my worksheets is working in small sections, and a bar is a neat unit. Here’s how it works.

In Bar by Bar Plus One we work one bar at a time. If we do this by stopping on the first beat of the next bar, the note(s) we end on will be the same note(s) we start on when we move on to the next bar. When we form good habits at the piano we need to do a certain amount of repetition. I suggest no more than three repetitions in one go – fewer than three probably won’t be enough; more than three and we risk our mind wandering. When the mind wanders and we’re not listening or concentrating, our fingers get up to all sorts of tricks and careless mistakes start to creep in.

When we repeat each bar three times correctly in a row, these repetitions have to be good. If we get it wrong on the third repetition we have to go all the way back to the beginning, like landing on a snake in a game of Snakes and Ladders. One way to help youngsters do this is to put three small objects (coins, buttons, cards – whatever you like) at the top of the piano keyboard. When the bar has been played perfectly, move one object to the bass end of the piano. If the next repetition is also perfect, then move another object down. However if you stumble or fluff it, you’ll need to put all the objects back to the top of the piano and start over again. When you have moved all of them from the top of the piano to the bottom, you’ll know you’ve played the bar three times correctly in a row and you can move on to the next bar.

Snakes and Ladders

Practising one bar at a time is actually really difficult to commit to, especially for youngsters, because we are primed to continue to the end of the phrase, the end of the section, and to the end of the piece. I’ve come up with some ways of getting around this problem, by presenting only the short section being practised in each step of the practice worksheets. This removes the overwhelming temptation to continue.

When we practise in small sections, our working memory is able to hold on to all the information from the page and we can work with it – making changes, corrections, improvements, etc. until we’re happy we can do what is necessary. This is absorbed and stored in our long term memory, for retrieval when required. Think of it like programming a computer – put in bugs at the programming stages and bugs will come out during use. Pretty basic, isn’t it?

Summon the inner discipline required to work in small sections. The process will look something like this:

1.     Decide which bar you’re working on, and how you’re going to play it

  • Hands together, or separately then together?
  • Up to speed with all expressive elements? Slowly and deliberately? Extremely slowly with plenty of thinking time before each note?  Faster than the tempo?
  • Focussing on? (fingering, dynamics, rhythm, a note I always get wrong, etc.)
  • With the pedal, or without? (where applicable).
  • Etc…

2.    Make an absolute commitment to stop on the last note of the bar (if this makes more musical sense) or the downbeat of the next bar and not a note beyond!

  • Spend a moment imagining what you’re going to play, hearing and seeing the bar as you would ideally want to play it. Again, this is not so easy for youngsters but it can be developed with a little training and encouragement. If the young player were taking tennis lessons, their coach would insist on this stage before making a serve so let us piano teachers take a leaf out of the sports coach’s book here.

3.     Play the bar and spend a moment reflecting on your result

  • Did I achieve what I set out to achieve?
  • Was I accurate in notes, rhythm, fingering, etc.
  • Did I manage to keep going or was there a spot where I paused or fumbled?
  • Did it sound good?
  • Did it feel good?

4.     Do I need to repeat it, or do I move on?

  • If the bar was correct and you were satisfied on all fronts, why do it again? As I have said, three correct repetitions in a row is good for forming habits but so much time is wasted and good work undone by mindless repetition – know when to leave it!
  • If you feel you need to repeat what was good and correct, then go through the bullet points in Stages 1 and 2 all over again. You may decide to shift your focus and repeat differently – bringing out the LH, concentrating on evenness, or commanding your RH 4th finger to land squarely on that pesky C#…
  • If your results did not match your intentions, you will need to figure out exactly why not, and exactly where you went off track. The more specific you can be here, the more detailed you can be when you go through Stages 1 and 2 before your next repetition (yes, you’ll need to go through the mental work again – don’t skimp on this).

Bar by bar practice is useful at various stages along the learning curve. You can use it to build up speed, to finesse expressive elements and to check and reinforce memory. This approach to bar by bar practice features prominently within Online Academy articles and walk-throughs of the ABRSM syllabus. Examples of works which include bar by bar practice are Handel’s Sonatina in G (Grade 3), JC Bach Aria (Grade 1) and Verdi’s La donna è mobile (Grade 1).

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