Do you have a favourite piece you just love to play, but end up feeling disappointed that you’re just not doing the piece (or yourself) justice each time you drag it off the shelf?

If you learned it thoroughly from the start, remember with anything we play we can’t just put a cork in the bottle and expect the genie to emerge fit and healthy after the passage of time. Some of the great pianists have described the process of relearning, restudying or resurrecting works that they may not have played for a while but there is no pianist worth his or her salt who does not labour in the practice room.

Shura Cherkassky described his practising thus:

I practise by the clock, for me this is the only way. Four hours a day. If I wasn’t absolutely rigid about the whole thing I’d go to pieces. You need iron discipline – sheer will power. So many great talents disappear about a short while because they get conceited and don’t work properly anymore. You have to work all the time. (From an interview with Stephen Hough, 1991)

I would like to propose a challenge. Take a piece you would really like to get on top of, but have never felt totally comfortable with – probably something you have never really done the basic groundwork with. Decide on a timeframe that is meaningful and realistic to you and set aside a certain amount of time daily to attend to this task. It might be a week, it might be a month. You are about to undertake a commitment to a process, the end result of which will be palpable and well worth the effort. Before embarking on this, do a few things to motivate you and to reawaken your love for the piece. This might involve some background reading or research into the piece, or listening to a few different recordings.

Here are the first few stages of a multi-stage process (I’ll wrap it up next week or it’s just going to get too long):

Stage 1

  • Make a firm resolution not to play through the piece or any section of it either before, during or after this practice regime, unless instructed. Remember that every wrong note, misread chord, fudged fingering or passage regularly glossed over is etched permanently on your motor cortex, deeper with each repetition. The good news is that this is also the case with each correct repetition!
  • Take a pencil and place it on the end of the keyboard, within reach at all times.
  • Divide the piece into meaningful sections like tracks on a CD and number them. You might prefer to use a photocopy for this purpose (see my post on this).
  • If you haven’t done so already, make sure you have worked out a good fingering and written it in your score. Be generous with how much fingering you write in – you won’t need so much when you are playing the piece through, but you will need to know exactly what fingers go where when you are playing one hand alone, or starting from the middle of a phrase. Spend a whole practice session on this one thing – it will be so worth it later on.
  • If you don’t like the fingering in your edition don’t hesitate to change it to something that suits you. Once you have settled on something that works for your hand, stick with it. This is most important, as you will be forming muscular habits that will eventually become automatic. If you struggle to come up with a fingering, search for your piece on IMSLP. If the piece is out of copyright, chances are there will be a few different editions of it online, each with a different editor’s fingering. You should find this enough of a prompt.

Stage 2

  • Unless the piece is a very slow one, we are going to work at half and quarter speeds. It is up to you whether you use the metronome – some people find it very useful as a structure in their work, others find it intensely annoying and counterproductive. Do use it to find out your ideal tempo (or tempo range) for the piece, and write this down in the score. From that, you can figure out what the settings are for half and for quarter speeds.
  • Isolate any particularly difficult spots and place them in quarantine. Quarantine is a designated activity that you’ll return to many times during the course of a practice session – think of it as an intensive care unit in the hospital for patients who need constant supervision until they are strong enough to make it by themselves. You can attend to each of these excerpts not only before you start your practice but also in between, afterwards and at odd moments here and there (commercial breaks, while waiting for the kettle to boil, in your head as you sit on the train, etc.). The quarantine list will change regularly as “patients” recover and can be discharged. You may be sure, however, that the ambulance will arrive soon enough with fresh ones.
  • Select a numbered track (it doesn’t have to be the beginning) and work with each hand separately, playing in units of one bar plus one note at a time. It is helpful to add the extra note over the bar line, since this is the note we will finish on, and the note we will start from when we play the next bar. Do this at quarter speed if you have good concentration, or at half speed if you prefer. Do it with your full attention on the fingering, the sound and the meaning of the music (insofar as is possible with just one hand). If you make an error, STOP IMMEDIATELY and go back. Aim for three perfect repetitions in a row with each hand separately.
  • Repeat the above step with both hands together. Remember, you are not allowed to play at full speed yet!
  • When you have practised 2 bars like this, join them together and practise the two bars hands together as one unit three times perfectly in a row at a quarter or half speed (for other suggestions in the same vein, see a previous post on the subject). Go back to your separate hands work for bar 3, and then bar 4 and join these together in the same way. Then, bars 1 to 4, 4 to 8, 1 to 8 and so on until you reach the end of your designated section for the day.
  • Bookmark any especially awkward bars and put them in quarantine.

Stage 3

  • Go over quarantine spots in exactly the same way as in Stage 2.
  • Divide your remaining time in thirds. Spend the first third going over your previous day’s work (on whichever track you chose), using exactly the same approach as in Stage 2 but in units of 2 bars rather than I bar. Still aim for three perfect repetitions in a row, exercise patience and enjoy the process of deeply ingraining all the right notes with their correct fingerings. Do this religiously, with an attitude of devotion and craftsmanship, knowing that you know it! You’ll be covering the same ground as yesterday but it will be quicker and easier.
  • Spend the remainder of your practice session on the next track (or another track of your choosing), in exactly the same way as Stage 2.
  • End by spending a few moments going over the quarantine spots from the beginning of the practice session.

Stage 4

  • Continue in this vein, interspersing quarantine sessions into the routine work.
  • Divide the practice time so you go over previous work as well as a new section. Before you start the new material, spend some time on the track you practised the day before (let’s say track 2) as well as your work from the day before that (track 1) – I feel three days’ contact is good before letting a track go for a while. On the third day, you might dispense with the separate-hands work and just continue at half speed, now in 4- or 8-bar units. Immediately stop for errors and correct them there and then.

You’ll need top concentration and discipline with this process, especially as you are practising very slowly.  It’s not easy to stick to unless you know how to delay gratification and can take satisfaction from the process itself! I’ll show you how to gradually bring the piece together next week, but for now stick with the above stages for a week.

The great teacher, Theodore Leschetizky had this to say about concentration in practice:

Concentrate during every second of your practice. To concentrate means to bring all your thinking powers to bear upon one central point with the greatest possible intensity. Without such concentration nothing can be accomplished during the practice period. One hour of concentrated thinking is worth weeks of thoughtless practice. It is safe to say that years are being wasted by students in this country who fail to get the most out of their practice because they do not know how to concentrate. A famous thinker has said: “The evidence of superior genius is the power of intellectual concentration.” (Great Pianists on Piano Playing by James Francis Cooke, p.92)

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