I use a form of practice for myself that I call zigzag practice. It helps test and strengthen my memory by keeping me incredibly focussed, but there’s no way it will work unless I am concentrating fully. I also recommend it to my students, and I have noticed it has a multitude of uses, not least keeping eyes on the page when they are at the stage when muscle memory is taking over but when there is still plenty of guesswork going on in terms of notes, rhythms and fingerings. Rather than look at the page for direction, they seem to look at their fingers for inspiration. With zigzag practice you’ve got to look up, and I’ve noticed people enjoy it and seem to rise to the challenge.
Intrigued? I’ll show you how it works with one of the pieces I selected for the Online Academy’s Essential Guide to ABRSM Examinations portfolio of pieces – Handel’s Sonatina in G, set for Grade 3.
After you have a certain amount of familiarity with the piece and can play reasonably fluently hands together as well as hands separately, play one bar in one hand followed by the next bar in the other hand. If you started with the right hand and followed in bar 2 with the left, the next time you practise the phrase do it the other way around (begin with the left hand and continue with the right). Try not to interfere with the rhythmic flow and keep the pulse rock steady as you switch from one hand to the next.
There are two ways of zigzagging:
- End on the very last note of the bar – one hand passes the beat to the next, as though a baton in a relay race:
- Or, if you prefer, carry on over the bar line so you arrive on the first note of the next bar (there will be an overlap on the first beat where both hands play together):
It will be important to write in the fingering for the first note of each bar on both hands to avoid using wrong fingering. The process needs a tweak when there is a tied note that crosses the bar line, which happens from bar 4 into bar 5 (and elsewhere). Either play the RH D on the last beat of bar 4, or simply omit it and insert a rest on the first beat of bar 5 (I’ve included a hands-together version to give a better perspective on what’s going on in the score, but you’ll be playing just one hand at a time for our purposes here).
Often this will not make much musical sense, especially if the first note in the bar of the hand you’re not playing is the logical conclusion of a phrase. But do it anyway – it is excellent practice to inhibit the impulse to play the strong beat. This stops us rushing in performance and strengthens our control enormously.
Go back over your work, this time in units of two and then four bars. One of the acid tests for a piece you plan to perform from memory is to do all variants of zigzag practice – from memory!
For a walkthrough and detailed practice worksheets for Handel’s Sonatina in G, follow this link