In the first post of this short series on learning a new piece, I discussed the need to construct firm and very thorough foundations before beginning work at the piano. I appreciate the overwhelming itch to get to the piano for our first physical contact with the new piece, but aim to delay this for as long as possible until we have an overview of the piece as a whole, and an image of how we want it to sound. We will reach our destination much more directly if we have a sense of the bigger picture rather than diving into the detail.
Some of the repertoire I was assigned as a young student I learned hurriedly, before I had an appreciation that practice makes permanent. When I replay some of this core repertoire nowadays, the original mistakes reappear. I spend time ironing them out until all is correct, perform the piece then put it away again. The next time I take the piece out, those original mistakes crop up yet again.
François Couperin taught his students at their homes. He would lock the harpsichord at the end of each lesson, reopening it only at his next visit. He did this until they had developed good habits and could practise without ruining all the careful work he had just done with them.
After we have done some solid work on our new piece, our highest aim ought to be not to fall into the trap of thinking we are doing any meaningful learning by repeated faltering and inaccurate read-throughs. Having the will power not to do this involves delaying gratification.
Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment ? In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, during which the tester left the room and then returned. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by school test scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.
One of the most effective ways to distract ourselves from a tempting pleasure we don’t really want to indulge is by focusing on another pleasure. So the next time you find yourself confronted with the temptation to sit and play through your piece rather than practise it, don’t employ willpower to resist it. Instead, imagine the different pleasure not immediately available to you – the deeper sense of satisfaction you’ll have when you have done all the groundwork and learned your piece thoroughly. It will be an asset, and one you will have for life.
In last week’s post I suggested we might start by listening critically to selected recordings (what you liked, what you didn’t like and why), background research and a certain amount of preparation in our heads. Brain work includes mapping out the structure of the music in a way that is meaningful to us, and hearing the music in our imagination as clearly as possible.
I realise that young players or adult beginners won’t be able to do this alone, but with guidance, supervision and encouragement from the teacher we can make the ground as fertile as possible before we begin the process of programming the piece into the fingers.
Our Imaginary Keyboard
I am beginning to learn some new repertoire myself at the moment. Having done a thorough analysis away from the piano, I am taking a couple of pages of my photocopy (the copy I use for all annotations other than performance directions) to the gym each day so when I do my run on the cross trainer, instead of staring at the TV screen provided I read my score. I make as many observations from the score as I can, hearing the music inwardly. I notice where the main cadence points and modulations are, the design of melodic lines, and how the texture changes.
As I do all of this, I sense how the music feels and sounds on the keyboard I have in my imagination, and I’m beginning to work out fingerings in the process. This imaginary keyboard goes everywhere with me, so I can do some meaningful practice when I’m away from a piano. I am in no hurry to get to the piano, because I know my practice is already well under way.
I highly recommend this not only for learning but also for going through trouble spots you’ve identified after you’ve started the learning process – you will be forming and strengthening the neural pathways you use when you are actually playing!
Sing the Lines
It is possible to push the right keys down on the piano without ever really feeling or internalising the shape of a melodic line. Singing is a great way to involve way more of us than just the fingers, and we can do this before we start the actual note learning. Take a few days over this, it will be well worth it.
Sing not only the main melodic line, but also the bass line and any inner voices. Slow them down if necessary, so we can feel all the intervals. Sing the lines with phrasing, musical meaning, timings and shaping, noticing where the natural breathing places are. Please don’t worry if you don’t have a good singing voice, just do it anyway (in the privacy of your practice room).
Singing is a musicianly skill – it improves our ear and our playing will become more expressive if we do this regularly.
There is going to come that time when we attempt to play through the piece as best we can, but we are only going to do this once. This is the only occasion when we are allowed to be approximate, because unless we are crack sight readers the chances are we won’t get more than the gist of it. But here it is the gist we are after – we try to capture the essence.
If there are chunks we can’t manage we just play a sketch – perhaps what falls on main beats, or random events. Or we keep going with one hand and sketch in the other. We try to tap into the energy of the music and, like a piece of examination sight reading, get to the end no matter what. So, no stopping to make any corrections and no waiting to figure out what the notes are. We aim for rhythm, flow and musical gesture and meaning.
In a lesson situation with a young player, it can work well for the teacher to play one hand and for the student to use both hands to play the notes in the other stave, or for the teacher to play the complete piece on one piano and the student does the best they can on the other piano (leaving bits out where the going gets tough).
Why Only One Read-Through?
I had a colleague who, apart from being a word-class pianist, was also the most amazing sight reader – give him anything and he could read it with the greatest of ease. He told me when he was learning a new piece, he would only ever read it through once. On a second reading he would already be ingraining sloppy fingerings, guessed or omitted notes in the middle of chords, etc. Tempting as it might be to learn by a process of repeated readings, this is the most colossal waste of time in the end.
One of the first jobs we’ll need to do next is to organise a fingering that works for your hand. Why? I have written a detailed blog post about this already, so please follow the link to Bespoke Fingerings.
In next week’s post, I will discuss how to begin learning the piece at the piano – the bit you’ve all been waiting for! In the meantime, a previous post – Structuring Your Practice – might be helpful.