Wouldn’t it be great if you could assimilate a new score by reading the piece through a few times, perhaps stopping to sort out some fingering here and there, and unravelling the odd problematic spot as you go. A few practices and you’ve got it.
You’ll probably find you can learn like this with music that is well below your current standard, but if you’re approaching a more complex piece that is not so readable you’re going to need to break it down to learn it properly. If you are planning to play the piece from memory, it’s absolutely essential to learn it extremely thoroughly from the very start – a process that takes time, commitment and patience.
I have come up with an easy-to-remember term for the most basic practice strategies we use when breaking a piece down – “The Three S’s” (slowly, separately and sections). We first work at the speed of no mistakes – slowly enough to give us ample thinking and planning time between one note and the next, avoiding to the best of our ability ingraining any wrong notes, faulty rhythms or fingerings we won’t end up using. We absorb the music by repeating and finessing small sections until our mind and ear have fully digested what is going on, and until the physical movements we use at the keyboard have become automated (meaning we don’t have to think consciously about which finger goes where). Because it is often simply not possible to play both hands together reliably and accurately at the start of the learning process, we practise each hand separately out of sheer necessity.
Even though most piano teachers seem to advocate separate-hand practice, there are some who believe it is not helpful beyond the elementary level. Detractors of hands-separately practice argue that we need to be hearing the complete soundscape right from the beginning of learning a piece, and that it is impossible to acquire the coordination for playing hands together by practising one hand without the other (and futile to attempt it) – you are permitted separate-hand practice only after you have acquired the basic hands-together coordination. The problem here is that piano playing is not an exact science; consequently there are disagreements about many things and it can be confusing to players who are presented with conflicting advice. Some pianists of repute say one thing, and others say the opposite. This should tell us one thing – that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to pianistic matters such as technique or practice methodology. In my work as a teacher, I am discovering more and more as the years go by how differently one student learns from another – what works for one might not work for another.
Many great pianists swear by hands–separate practice (according to his students, Liszt was a great fan), while others don’t seem to use it much, if at all. In Linda Noyle’s book Pianists on Playing: Interviews with Twelve Concert Pianists, Jorge Bolet is quoted as saying:
I’m a very firm believer in practicing hands separately, and slowly. I’m never concerned about getting anything up to tempo until I really know the piece well.
In the same book, Janina Fialkowska also claims to practise hands separately a lot, working the accompanying left hand so she can play it from memory by itself (have you noticed that many insecurities in a memorised performance come from not knowing the left hand well enough?).
Pianist Magazine has just published my latest article on separate-hand practice, where I demonstrate a few creative ways of using it in our day-to-day work at the piano. Specifically:
You’ll be able to see exactly what I mean in the video that accompanies the article.
Separate-hand practice is a practice tool and it is there to be used. For me it is very important that each hand be continually reinforced by itself, especially the left hand. This is why I come back to separate-hand practice again and again; it’s not just something we do when we are learning the notes (ingraining the note patterns, organising the fingering, solving intricate technical issues, and so on), but an activity we can also use for maintenance.