The other day I was practising Chopin’s 3rd Scherzo, a piece I have played regularly over the years. Because I haven’t touched it in a while, I found it needed a bit of dusting off and some cobwebs removing before I could get it back into shape and find the sparkle and security it needs for performance.

The obvious thing was to go back to some slow practice, and this is great of course. But because slow practice is only part of the story, I decided to work on the coda (from Tempo 1 below) by mixing up slow practice with up-to-speed playing. I’ll explain in a moment how this works.

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With extended fast passages such as this coda, it’s not just finger control we need but of also control of rhythm. It’s so important to know, and to feel, where the first beats of each bar come – even if we don’t want to end up emphasising or accenting them as such. In music in fast triple time, we often feel each bar as one beat of a larger 4-bar unit. We can of course count it “123, 123, 123, 123″, etc. (fine at slower tempos) but at speed it is more natural to feel “1 (23), 2 (23), 3 (23), 4 (23)” or (more simply) “1 2 3 4“.

Here are the stages I recommend:

  1. At a slow speed, count aloud each crotchet (quarter note) beat, emphasising the first beats.
  2. At a medium speed, count aloud the first beats of each bar according to the longer phrase structure (“1 2 3 4“), emphasising the 1s.
  3. When this is easy, begin alternating two tempos – fast and half speed – in a controlled and methodical way. Be ultra-precise about the change from one tempo to the other, this needs to happen without any fumbling or loss of control whatever. Use a metronome if this helps you.
  • One bar fast, the next bar half that speed (quavers become crotchets).
  • Once this is comfortable, reverse it so that you start with the slow bar (one bar half speed, the next bar fast, etc.)
  • Two bars fast, two bars at half that speed (and then the reverse)
  • Four bars, etc.

Play the fast bar(s) lightly, the slow bars more firmly and deliberately.

There are two main benefits to practising this way:

  • As you change from one tempo to the other, you are deliberately challenging and interrupting (and thereby strengthening) motor skills.
  • Deep learning tends to happen when the mind is focussed and engaged in what we are doing. This type of practice demands our full concentration – we won’t be able to daydream.

Apart from reviving old pieces, this process will work for any suitable piece you know well. I don’t recommend it for the note-learning stage but use it when you want to build up speed, endurance and control. As with everything we do at the piano, make sure it feels and sounds good.

I’ll leave you with the magisterial Artur Rubinstein playing the work from a live studio recording (the coda begins at 6:24)

For advice on using accents and different rhythms in practice, follow this link to my post On Passagework

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