In 2015 I published a series of what turned out to be six posts on how to begin a new piece. At this time of the year, many people are starting a new academic year and embarking on a new programme of study, and judging from readers’ responses this series really helped them. I decided to republish them, and you’ll find links to the remaining posts series at the end of this post. Next week will see a return to new and original posts – do please let me know in the comments area below if there are any topics you would especially like me to cover.

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I have a pet theory that, if playing the piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. I mean – who wouldn’t want to create moments of beauty and meaning in their day by strolling over to a piano and playing a Bach Suite, a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven Sonata? The fact is playing the piano to a standard we can be proud of is very far from easy; it is a highly challenging and skilled activity requiring intelligence, sophisticated motor control – plus tons of hard work and dedication on an ongoing basis.

The Process of Practice

One of the biggest obstacles to reaching our goal is not appreciating the difference between the process of practising and the act of performing (or playing through). This dichotomy is often misunderstood even by conservatory piano students who assume they are practising when they hammer through their pieces, hacking at errors until they consider them vanquished. Hours can be wasted doing it this way, with no guarantee of successful results at the end of it all.

We may be so impatient to play that we take short cuts, omitting steps that would make our end product so much stronger, more durable and of far greater quality if only we kept in mind that the learning process is a journey that takes time and patience. While practising is often enjoyable and fulfilling, like any discipline it can sometimes be challenging, frustrating and difficult. We have good and bad days at the piano as in life.

Even those who know about certain practice procedures (such as slow practice, or working in small sections, for example) don’t seem to appreciate that these steps need to be repeated more than once, over the course of several days.

Practising is a mindful activity involving thinking, listening, judging and reflection. Paradoxically, when we get to the stage where our piece is automatic and we are ready to perform it, it is in our best interests not to think too much – knowing how to get out of our own way and let it happen is key to success.

Firm Foundations

Let’s say you want to build an interior wall. Bare bricks need to be cemented together precisely, and a coat of plaster applied (and allowed to dry) before several undercoats of paint can be layered over. Only then can the top coat, the part that you actually see, be put on – as well as anything else you care to add by way of texture and embellishment.

wall

Please don’t assume I’m any kind of DIY expert (I’m not), but indulge me while I take this wall analogy a stage further. Let’s step outside, this time to the construction of a basic garden wall. If I wanted to build such a barricade, I would first need to dig down into the ground to a specific depth (a physically hard job that could take a couple of days). Thereafter, I add concrete and make sure it is level before waiting for it to set. The success of the wall depends on the quality of the footings, so if you want your wall to be straight and secure you need to do this job very carefully, thoroughly and to the best of your ability. If you cut corners here, you can be sure the finished wall will come tumbling down when put under stress – a windstorm, a wayward lawnmower, or possibly even a morbidly obese cat.

Are you beginning to see the parallels with preparing a new piece for piano performance? There’s stuff you need to do first before you can even get to the piano. Having done the groundwork, security and confidence in performance can replace those fumbles, stumbles and slips – and gone is that horrible situation where it was disastrous today but for some reason went perfectly OK yesterday.

I write this post now because a lot of my readers will be embarking on the new academic or school year – and approaching new pieces with renewed vigour and (hopefully) rigour after the summer holidays. So what exactly is involved in preparing these foundations?

There is so much to say on the subject that I will spread this information out over the next few weeks – beginning with some background research.

Background Research

Starting learning the notes of a new piece before you have an idea of the shape of the music and how it sounds is like going on a journey with no idea of your destination.

In this day and age it is possible to listen to almost anything for free, courtesy of YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, and others. But don’t listen to just one performance, and try not to listen to bad playing. Do the listening before you start learning the piece and avoid doing so during the learning process (or you’ll end up copying, or getting frustrated that your tempo in the Mozart Sonata doesn’t match Uchida’s).

Indiscriminate listening is not without its pitfalls. I did a little YouTube research for Bach’s Prelude in C minor, No. 2 from Six Preludes for Beginners, BWV 934 (also know as “Little Preludes”).

Click here for link to the score

Here are the first performances I found:

  1. A young player – presumably a candidate for the exam. The playing was very neat and accurate, but without any dynamic interest. Louds and softs were not explicitly marked by the composer in this period of course, but dynamic possibilities and phrase shaping are not only absolutely permissible but also part of natural musical expression. It is stylistically fine to detach LH crotchets (quarter notes), but we still need to feel where the down beats fall. Degrees of separation, and maybe even some slurs, would have added more rhythmic interest to the playing.
  2. Another young player. Elegant playing with much more sense of the shaping, but a very noticeable wrong note!
  3. Glenn Gould. Highly stylised playing, terribly slow and quavers (eighth notes) played unnaturally short. Certainly not playing to emulate in an exam.

Further down I found another very personal performance, this time by Maria Tipo. Very slow and dreamy, it was Romantic in every sense. On iTunes, I found an interesting version by Ton Koopman, with embellishments, added ornamentation and even notes inégales.

Listening Assignment

I’m not sure I would want to let a Grade 5 candidate loose on this sort of research without some supervision – it could be most confusing. If you are a teacher, how about giving a preliminary assignment where your student listens to three different recordings of your choice and writes about what they heard? Click on the link below for a sample assignment form (very quickly thrown together – modify this to suit the age and level of your student). Finding the metronome mark for each performance is worthwhile, as it shows there is no such thing as the one correct tempo, even if one is given by the composer. Getting them to give a % mark to the performance encourages critical listening, especially when challenged on why they gave the mark they did, and where the missing marks went.

Listening Assesment Assignment

If you are studying by yourself, it is still very much worthwhile doing your own version of this assignment. You might choose three different performances and simply write a short reflection on each. Writing engages a different part of the brain from just thinking, and you might be surprised how useful this process is.

Reading

Many editions have a preface with interesting data about the music; the ABRSM includes biographical and background information as a footnote on each of the pieces they set for graded exams. I wonder how many people actually read them?

A little bit of googling on your piece will come up with all sorts of interesting stuff. I just googled the Bach Little Prelude I’ve been using as my example and there is a very thorough blog post on this very piece by Shirley Kirsten, including a harmonic analysis and suggestions for articulation.

Kids Music Corner is a neat website containing some interesting facts and is very user-friendly.

Neil Rutman has just published a book, Stories, Images and Magic from the Piano Literature, which  contains “a plethora of programmatic, poetic, or imaginative musical images and stories on piano works from the classical literature”.

Anecdotes and trivia about a composer really add value: did you know that Beethoven was so meticulous he counted out 60 coffee beans each time he had a cup?

Making a Timeline

There is nothing like setting a series of deadlines to focus the mind on completing a task, and helping us to organise the work day by day, week by week and month by month. If you don’t have an actual date in your diary, set a realistic date for the final performance of your piece and work backwards. Include the trial runs, as well as the first run-through for yourself or your teacher and diarise these as commitments. Teachers – let your student know the date of the lesson when you expect to hear the first complete run-through!

For full details of this process, see my post Tackling a Programme

Tracking

Make a photocopy of the score, and mark in the main sections as tracks. We might divide the Bach example into 4 tracks:

  • 1 – 13
  • 13 – 20
  • 21 – 32
  • 32 – end

We are going to use this copy for our scribblings not for fingerings or other performance directions, but on the design of the music – how the piece is put together.

We can also use it if we plan to memorise the piece.

For more on using tracking for memory work, see my post A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Write in as much information as you can by way of analysis, ask for help with this if you’re unsure. Please don’t let the term “analysis” scare you off! There are very many different ways of doing this and it does not have to be overly detailed. Where are the main sections? What key are you in, and where is the music heading? Where does the texture of the music change? What happens?

For more on analysing our pieces at the elementary, intermediate and advance levels, follow this link to Part 3 of my ebook series (click here)

Working Away from the Piano

A favourite book of mine is Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus, in which celebrated Juilliard teacher Adele Marcus interviews several leading pianists of the day. I was particularly struck by Gina Bachauer‘s comments about how she learned a new piece.

Bachauer never actually started to work on a new piece of music at the piano. Instead, she read it for 15 or 20 days in bed in the evening before she ever touched a note. She studied everything about the piece and only then approached the technical problems. She analysed the whole piece to see where the different themes were, and to find out what the composer’s message was. After 20 days, she felt prepared to practise at the instrument – at which point the work was almost memorised.

A. Marcus, Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (Neptune: Paganiniana, 1979), 11-12.

Follow these links to the other posts in the series How to Begin a New Piece:

How to Begin a New Piece (Part 2)

How to Begin a New Piece (Guest Post)

How to Begin a New Piece (Part 4)

How to Begin a New Piece (Part 5)

How to Begin a New Piece (Part 6)

 

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