People often ask me what sort of studies they can do to improve a particular difficulty they are experiencing in a given piece. The underlying assumption is we can just practise some studies for a while, and transfer whatever skills we gain from these across to our piece. It would be nice if it were as simple as that; an alternative and often more expedient approach is to aim to solve problems from within the piece we are studying by formulating, more or less on the spot, simple contraptions that focus on the difficulty itself.

I’m especially keen on creating such exercises based on the difficulty we are trying to solve, making these as short and simple as possible so we can look down at our hands as we practise. Let me give you an example, from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prélude, op. 23 no. 5. The LH has to find a way of moving across to the F# on the fourth semiquaver (16th note) of the first bar. There is obviously no finger connection possible at this point; because of the speed of the passage the movement has to come from the arm, the hand staying as close as possible to the keyboard (there’s no time to come up too high). For me, the optimal motion is an arm shift combined with a rotation from the D, whereby the pinky side of the hand is lifted by the forearm as we play the thumb D. We feel the untwist in the arm as the pinky lands in the F#, the result of a rotation from right to left as we connect with the key.

This is difficult and cumbersome to put into words (I can hear some of you scratching your heads), but once we have the sense of how this feels we are on our way to automating the motion so we can allow it to happen naturally as we play in the context of the piece. If there is any difficulty with getting the hang of this at the keyboard, I would start by making an exercise based on the following patterns (wait as long as you need on the long notes). You may be wondering what is the point of the first bar, since it moves nowhere. I’ve included it so it will be rather easy to feel the rotary movement between thumb and pinky – from within the hand position (i.e. no shift yet). You might want to return to this as your control example – the motion is the same as the exercise progresses, when of course we need to add the arm shift across to the right.

I call this type of exercise target practice. The idea is to practise the movement landing on a variety of different notes, so we develop the skill itself rather than just drilling the spot from the piece. It works surprisingly well with any sort of shift or jump, and is enjoyable to practise. Don’t expect pinpoint accuracy with every landing but try and refine the movement so it’s as economical as possible and above all free, loose and enjoyable in the body.

Recently I had a really good chat with Josh Wright where we got into a discussion about this very thing. People seem to have found the whole video useful, but I’ve loaded it to start at the point where I demonstrate this exercise.

After the interview went live, I received a very helpful email from one of my subscribers (thanks, Matt!) who gave me a quotation from a book by David Epstein on developing skills, entitled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. The following paragraph seems to back up my target practice exercise with a little scientific research, always a good thing.

Interleaving is a desirable difficulty that frequently holds for both physical and mental skills. A simple motor-skill example is an experiment in which piano students were asked to learn to execute, in one-fifth of a second, a particular left-hand jump across fifteen keys. They were allowed 190 practice attempts. Some used all of those practicing the fifteen-key jump, while others switched between eight-, twelve-, fifteen-, and twenty-two-key jumps. When the piano students were invited back for a test, those who underwent the mixed practice were faster and more accurate at the fifteen-key jump than the students who had only practiced that exact jump. The “desirable difficulty” coiner himself, Robert Bjork, once commented on Shaquille O’Neal’s perpetual free-throw woes to say that instead of continuing to practice from the free-throw line, O’Neal should practice from a foot in front of and behind it to learn the motor modulation he needed.

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein

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