This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work.

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Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal.

One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way.

If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then suddenly we have two different kinds of notes: those that fall on the beat, and those that fall in between the beats. If we then imagine the notes that fall in between the beats as leading forward to the notes on the beat, we will achieve both a sense of forward motion and an avoidance of unwanted accents on the thumbs:

Practising with a beat in the other hand like this is much more beneficial, I find, than practising scales in both hands simultaneously, which is unnecessarily difficult, and quite rare in the repertoire. It’s a simple way of providing a rhythmic framework against which we can measure the accuracy of our timing and nuancing. You should also reverse the hands, of course, and then play three notes to the beat, then four, and in different keys, up and down.

We can use this method in our repertoire practice too. A couple of examples from Chopin’s E minor waltz, recently released in my series, From the Ground Up, will illustrate the point. At the very end of the piece, there is an E minor arpeggio that surges up and down the keyboard. Since the left hand provides no rhythmic context here, the temptation for the right hand to make accents in the wrong places, or to lose all rhythmic definition, is great:

The problem here, as in scales and arpeggios in general, is that the changes of hand position don’t coincide with the beats, but occur in the middle of them. We can see this misalignment more clearly if we re-beam the right hand according to its hand groups, and add a pulsing E in the left hand. As you can see, not once does a new hand position begin on a downbeat:

Once again, the solution lies in how we think the arpeggio rhythmically. If we think it in relationship to the underlying pulse, and are aware of exactly which note, and which finger, receives the accent in each hand group, the technical work of shifting hand positions without accents will largely be done.

The beginning of the piece contains a similar challenge, although here false accents may arise not because of changes of hand position, but because of the contour of the right hand’s waves, whose highest notes fall in the middle of the second beat, creating the potential for an accentuation in 6/8 rather than 3/4. The challenge, then, is to avoid accenting the pinky in each measure:

Adding a left hand pulse in quarter notes, as I do in the edition, will once again obviate much of the difficulty, but equally important is the way we group the notes in our minds. If we group the six notes of each measure starting from the first note of the bar and ending at the last note, as the musical notation seems to suggest, the music will sound vertical and stodgy. If instead we group them across the bar line, from the fourth 8th note (crotchet) to the 3rd in the next bar, we create a surging momentum that carries the music forward in waves. This grouping can be effectively practised by adding an extra beat in between the groups and by using careful dynamic gradations:

Afterwards, you play the rhythm as written, whereupon the false accents on the pinky will be gone, and the music will have a dynamic forward motion. In other words, instead of working to make your pinky play less loudly, you think the music in a new way, and the pinky obligingly conforms to your wishes, without struggle and wasted time.

These and other mental practise techniques are discussed at length in the From the Ground Up edition of this piece. They help us to learn pieces more efficiently, saving precious time while at the same time developing our mental, and technical, powers.

– Ken Johansen

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If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series, or the latest edition which features Chopin’s Waltz in E minor. Click here to view the walk-through on the Online Academy or click here to purchase and download a printable PDF version of the edition.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions:

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