One of my young ABRSM Grade VIII candidates brought Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 for his lesson. It is a piece he knows very well, having successfully performed it already some months ago. He had put the piece away for a while, and now has to revise it for an exam.
In the lesson, it was clear the Prelude had become rather stale and lacklustre. Recent practice hadn’t quite had the desired effect of getting the hands to play precisely together at all times, and his interest in the piece seemed to have waned. Because of this, he was not engaging in the practice room – just dutifully going through the motions from time to time.
I needed to get him to reconnect with the piece, to rekindle some passion and interest for the music itself.
Even though the hands not always being quite together seemed like a technical issue, I decided to try and find a creative solution first. I could have sat with him analysing each movement, correcting and adjusting it, but in this instance I wanted to try working with the imagination.
All I did was to pick up an album of pieces sitting by the piano. We opened it up to some random piece and observed the title, tempo and character indications; we also aimed to catch the general feel of the piece from a cursory glance.
The first one we got was Nocturne in B, op. 32 No. 1, by Chopin, marked Andante sostenuto.
My student sat for a moment taking in as much as he could, before I asked him to play the Prelude in that style – in the spirit of a game, as though Bach were wearing Chopin’s clothes.
What came out was something quite lovely. He played at the same tempo as the Chopin, crotchet for crotchet, but the effect was much suppler than before. There was attention to beauty and quality of tone, flexible phrase shaping and a dreamy character that contrasted perfectly with his original take on the piece – the one he had got so used to hearing it had ceased to register.
The next random piece we opened to was the Menuetto and Trio from Schubert’s Sonata in E flat, D. 568, marked allegretto:
After absorbing the gist, he next played his Bach allegretto and piano, resulting in more rhythmic poise, more dynamic interest and a certain Austrian lilt that he dared to inflict on Bach’s supposedly dry facade.
Finally the book fell open to Liszt’s Kleines Klavierstuck No. 1, with sehr langsam (very slow) and a metronome mark of crotchet = 56.
At this tempo, the music came out sounding rather like slow practice, but with one crucial difference. Rather than the slow practice sounding mechanical, he played each note with meaning and colour as he articulated the semiquavers pianissimo portato.
As he returned to his own vision of the Bach original, rather than feel he had to trot out his previous recipe that had lost its meaning, he was free to recreate and come up with something fresher and more engaging – for him as well as me. The technical issue seemed to have corrected itself, but how?
With constant repetition, it seems we become habituated. When we are constantly stimulated by something (such as the notes of a Bach Prelude), our brain tells us it is not so important. This is why if we’re disturbed by the sound of a humming refrigerator as we enter a friend’s kitchen, we are less likely to even notice it after a couple of minutes. Our brain simply filters it out and we become less responsive to sensations and stimuli.
Looking for a purely technical solution to the hands-not-being-together problem ended up not being necessary. He had not even noticed his hands were not together until he started really listening and engaging again. The playing that came out at the end of the lesson was altogether freer and more spontaneous, much better coordinated, and above all fresh again.
I am no scientist, so let me leave you in the hands of an expert who is qualified to explain how habituation works: