A Helping Hand

When I was in my teens I had the good fortune to participate in Christopher Elton’s masterclasses at Downe House summer school. One of the things he got me to do was to play the left hand part with two hands, to make an arrangement that was technically far easier to manage so that I would be able to recreate the sounds the composer envisaged with reduced technical difficulty. I could use the two-handed version as a crib, an aural role model for the one hand to aspire to. I heartily recommend this way of practising! Play the two-handed version in alternation with the one-handed (intended) version, aiming to make the single hand sound as good, if not better, than the hands together. The two hands teach the one hand how it’s done. There are a few more applications of this way of practising, especially good for memorising. Take the music written in the bass stave, for example, and make an arrangement using two hands. There will be more than one way of achieving this, and it will be good practice to exhaust all the possibilities.  I stress the bass stave only because it is often hidden from active listening by the right hand which is above it not only in terms of pitch but also in musical importance, but of course do this with the contents of both staves. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to this really – try to retain the integrity of a line by playing it in one hand if possible but even this is not necessary. Have a close look at a score and you will very often find that the notation is “stems up, stems down” – the composer, […]

The Three S’s (Part Three)

And so to the last installment of “The Three S’s” – “Sections”. I realise I am in danger of repeating myself here – much of what is contained in this post has been mentioned in previous ones – but for the sake of completeness, a little recapitulation isn’t a bad thing. We practise in sections as a way of processing and digesting information easily, much as we eat a meal in bite-size chunks. While the association of meal times and repeating is (in most cultures) considered ill-mannered, at the piano we will need to repeat our small sections in order to correct, refine, polish and – not least – to form a habit that can be automatic and which bypasses the need for conscious control. Nobody formed a habit by doing something just once, no matter how well. All it takes to form a habit is repetition, but as I have already pointed out, we need to make sure that what we are repeating is as good as it possibly can be, since every part of what we are repeating will be ingrained. There was one time I was practising a passage and (quite contrary to my own instructions about total concentration) I suddenly remembered there was someone I had forgotten to call. For the next half hour that person shared the stage with Beethoven, after which I got up from the piano and dealt with it. Lo and behold, the next day the instant I came to that place in the piece, that person popped into my head again. I am sure this must be related to NLP in some way. Since we are likely to bring with us onto the stage whatever thoughts […]

The Three S’s (Part Two)

The next installment of “The Three S’s”, this week SLOWLY. I confess to having appeared in print many times on this subject. You can read the full text on my website – http://grahamfitch.com/articles.htm#2 (then scroll down a bit). For those who don’t want to read the article, here’s a summary: We practise slowly so that the brain can move faster than the fingers. Each note is carefully pre-heard, then played and evaluated. It won’t help only doing this once or twice, it’ll need to be done daily for some time for it to have any lasting effect. It’s human nature to do this once or twice then to want to play it at the proper speed. Try not to, try to go the distance and do it for a week or so! And yet… no amount of slow practice will equip us to play fast, so there has to be an interim process. You can speed up gradually (each time you repeat the passage it can inch towards the full speed) or  – I much prefer this –  you can build up sections by playing ever-longer soundbites at full speed. You start with two or three notes which you think of as one unit. Do a few repetitions at full speed (or close to full speed). Don’t be mechanical though – play with the intended dynamics and range of expression as though you were performing. Then, add another note or two and repeat. You’ll now have a longer soundbite. Go on adding notes until you feel like you have a section that is still within your grasp, then establish a new starting point. That starting point could be the second bar, or half way through the […]

The Three S’s (Part One)

I couldn’t get far into this blog without talking about one of my mantras, “The Three S’s”. That (for me) stands for “SLOWLY, SEPARATELY, SECTIONS”, despite the array of alternative possibilities on google. This is a neat way of referring to nitty-gritty practising – the sort of thing we do to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits, to revive old pieces, and to memorise. In a nutshell, the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work. The tripartite title lends itself to three separate blogposts, and as a follow-up to the last post on practising the Goldberg Variations, I would like to start with “SEPARATELY”. (“SLOWLY” to follow next week.) I am a great believer in practising hands separately, especially the left hand (the hand one does not always actively listen to). There is no better test of memory than playing the left hand (from memory, of course) from beginning to end. The same goes for the right hand. One thing I do with students, and this is not a comfortable process, is to get them to start with one hand. As soon as I clap my hands, they have to remove the hand they are playing and go directly to the other hand, without stopping. They won’t know when the changeover is going to happen, and as you can imagine, one clap might follow on very quickly from the last. Or not! This is a fantastic workout for the brain hemispheres and I guarantee regular doses of this will help to secure the memory in performance. Try playing one hand normally on the keyboard, but play the other hand on your knee or just above the fallboard of the piano. This will reveal much more than merely playing […]

Keeping Repertoire Alive

It seems such a shame to spend all those hours learning a piece only to forget it after the exam or the recital. A piece, once learned, is an asset for the pianist and will need just a little maintenance every now and again to keep it in the fingers, to keep it alive. Maybe we can think of old pieces like departing friends whom we have come to know well. We have hung out with them and yet now it is time for them to leave. Do we escort them to the door with a sense of good riddance, or might we feel sad they are going and pledge to keep in touch? It depends on the piece of course, and probably our experience of playing it. I think our examination culture has a lot to answer for here – so often our associations are negative or stressful ones. As a professional pianist there have certainly been pieces I have learned for a specific occasion only to shelve them afterwards, but actually not that many! If I have liked or loved a piece, I will want to continue my relationship with it. I have an old filing card system near the piano, a sort of geriatric Rolodex now rather outdated. One of these days I will get around to putting it onto my computer, but in truth I’m rather fond of it. Each card contains the name of a work and the composer, and any important details (year of composition, etc.). I write the date I started learning it, and then the date and details of each performance. This way, I keep a living record of my repertoire. Each week I remove a card from […]


I am lucky. My pedigree as a pianist is an excellent one, and I have had teachers from the beginning who showed me very clearly how to practise, but not all students of the piano are so fortunate. Is practising an art, or is it a science? It’s both! It cannot be described as an absolute science, because what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, or for the same person at a different stage in the learning (or relearning) of a piece. But I do think it is helpful to make practising as scientific as possible by formulating concrete concepts and precepts while at the same time guarding against dogma. I think I must have vexed my teachers by asking “why?” when they told me what I had to do. I wasn’t being cheeky, I was just very curious as to how it all worked. I still am! I ran a university practising clinic for a time, which was a voluntary, informal drop-in class for pianists to discuss various ways we might solve problems in our daily work at the keyboard. The room was often packed to the rafters, and there was always much lively discussion and experimentation. Since I had to be extremely careful not to tread on my colleagues’ toes by giving technical instruction, I had to find a way of distinguishing between the technique of manipulating the keyboard (which varies from teacher to teacher, depending on what schooling they offer) and the technique of learning (which should apply to all of us, more or less). I don’t have to be quite so careful about this here, but I would want to stress that just as there are (most […]