I have admitted before that I like to stand outside institutional practice room doors and listen to what is going on inside. So often the practiser is just hammering through their piece at full speed, and triple fortissimo. When they make a mistake they hack away at it until it finally yields, and simply move on. What they have actually practised is getting it wrong three or four times in a row and right on the fifth attempt. What, then, are the chances of getting it right the first time in the context of the flow of the piece? I’m no statistician, but I would have thought very slim indeed. They are far more likely to get it wrong again until they take steps to get to the root of what derailed them in the first place. This takes conscious thought, self reflection and a spirit of enquiry.

Remember – practice makes permanent, and whatever you repeatedly do will become ingrained.

Instead of thinking of the mistake as an enemy we throttle until we destroy it, we might instead consider it a messenger. The mistake is there to tell us something, and we can learn from it.

  • What went wrong, and where exactly did it go wrong? If the derailment or slip happened in bar 28, was it something just before that caused it?
  • Was it a lapse of memory or concentration, or a technical problem?
  • Or was it that I haven’t really settled on a workable fingering, or organised my pedalling?
  • Am I really sure exactly what is happening in that bar, or am I winging it?
  • Does my LH really know the middle notes of that chord? How would I label that chord, and what is its function?

A lack of perception is so often responsible for errors that the player is quick to dismiss as technical. It’s easier just to blame it on the fingers (our servants) rather than our brain (the master). How many times in Brahms’ A major Intermezzo from the op. 118 set have I heard stumbles in the following parallel passages (please imagine a key signature of three sharps, a time signature of 3/4, and Andante teneramente):

1.  Brahms 1

2.  Brahms 2


We need to be crystal clear on the differences between these two places, and to decide what Brahms may have meant.

  • How might the long phrase marking in 1 v. the shorter phrase markings in 2 alter the way we play them? In 1, I would take no time over the downbeat of the last bar nor would I stress it – one seamless phrase. In 2, we give this downbeat an agogic accent.
  • In 2, I would give space to the chromatic descent (F#, F, E) in the alto part, and to the appoggiaturas in the middle parts on the 2nd beat of the middle bar. I would certainly make sure to pedal carefully here, so as not to leave the dissonance and the resolution swimming in the same pedal. The thickening of the texture in 2 surely needs a bit more time and space.
  • What do these changes in 2 mean? My feeling – and it is a personal one – is that 1 is more optimistic and in 2 the optimism is tinged with yearning. In his heart of hearts, Brahms remembers he didn’t get what he really wanted.
  • In both examples, I would take care that the second note of the slurred pairs is always softer and lighter than the first. This lends the piece its throbbing, sighing and sobbing nature.

This Intermezzo is filled with subtle beauties such as these, and they take some time to reveal themselves to us. Perhaps I should write a post on it – if I did, it would be a very long one.

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In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts, practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.

Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!

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