We have all heard student performances where the beginning was good – secure, well-known, confident – then after a page or two we notice a decline as skill levels start to dip. Thereafter, there is a gradual diminuendo of accomplishment for the rest of the piece, which often ends in a whimper.

This happens, of course, because the pianist tends always to start practising from the beginning. My suggestion not to do this is hardly going to come as a blinding flash of revelation to anyone – it’s just plain good sense – but I have noticed people are reluctant to divide their pieces up into manageable, logical sections for the purposes of practising. I mentioned in a previous post how the great teacher Rosina Lhevinne would hear last movements before first movements, and codas before introductions. This is an excellent way of supporting students in not starting from the beginning. When giving an assignment, I give sections from the beginning, middle and end to be learned simultaneously.

Unless the piece is short, or unless you are playing a run-through or have decided to play it through at half speed for the purposes of general maintenance, you’re not likely to get through every section of the piece in any given practice session. I think of an analogy with the farmer who might select one, or two or three of his fields to work in on a particular day. He may choose to work in a particular field for two or three days in a row, spending the bulk of the day there, but perhaps visit one or two others for a particular reason (which might not take that much time). He may be allowing another to lie fallow for a while.

Take your score and mark in the different sections and come up with a weekly practice plan. Be creative here: perhaps in week 1, your time with section B will be devoted to memory work whereas section C you are aiming to increase speed, etc.

START ANYWHERE

I’ve heard it said that a good way to settle an argument as to which tourist attraction to visit on a given day is to close your eyes and stick a pin at random in the map. The destination closest to the pin wins! Here’s a good idea for practising – using this random number generator, enter 1 in the first box and the last bar number in the second. Press start and play from the bar that comes up. Not the bar before or after for convenience, but the bar specified, even if it is in the middle of a phrase. If you have divided your piece into several sections like tracks on a CD, you could, of course, use this number generator for that.

QUARANTINING 

Remember – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Identify those spots in the piece that cause you to stumble and make sure to practise these before, during and after your routine practice. Even outside of your allotted practice time, you might wish to return to these troublespots for the odd minute here and there (while waiting for the kettle to boil, or during that annoying commercial break). For more on this, please see my post on this.

LIKE WITH LIKE

Have you found, while learning a sonata, that as soon as you begin to learn the second subject material in the recapitulation, your playing of it in the exposition is now confused? You could play it perfectly well in the dominant key until the composer scrambled your brain and you now have to play it in the tonic too! It’s a bit like coming to a fork in the road, and you’re not certain which direction to go in. The same is true of themes that return in the same key but with slight differences or variations, or sections that start the same but have different endings.

A good practice plan is to extract these two like sections and practise them in alternation until the differences and similarities are crystal clear in your mind.