I couldn’t get far into this blog without talking about one of my mantras, “The Three S’s”. That (for me) stands for “SLOWLY, SEPARATELY, SECTIONS”, despite the array of alternative possibilities on google. This is a neat way of referring to nitty-gritty practising – the sort of thing we do to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits, to revive old pieces, and to memorise. In a nutshell, the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work.

The tripartite title lends itself to three separate blogposts, and as a follow-up to the last post on practising the Goldberg Variations, I would like to start with “SEPARATELY”. (“SLOWLY” to follow next week.)

I am a great believer in practising hands separately, especially the left hand (the hand one does not always actively listen to). There is no better test of memory than playing the left hand (from memory, of course) from beginning to end. The same goes for the right hand. One thing I do with students, and this is not a comfortable process, is to get them to start with one hand. As soon as I clap my hands, they have to remove the hand they are playing and go directly to the other hand, without stopping. They won’t know when the changeover is going to happen, and as you can imagine, one clap might follow on very quickly from the last. Or not! This is a fantastic workout for the brain hemispheres and I guarantee regular doses of this will help to secure the memory in performance.

Try playing one hand normally on the keyboard, but play the other hand on your knee or just above the fallboard of the piano. This will reveal much more than merely playing the one hand alone would do, as you are (muscularly speaking) playing the whole lot but hearing with crystal clarity exactly how one hand sounds. The first time you do this, you will hear lumps and bumps that will really surprise and shock you. These unevennesses (of time and tone) are present in your playing, it’s just that you don’t notice them because you are listening to a homogenised product. Another way to achieve this result is to practise one voice forte and the other(s) piano. I recommend doing both, for variety.

In the previous post, I described extracting each line of the counterpoint, studying it alone then putting it together with the other strands of counterpoint one by one, in all possible combinations.

Thus, rather than “hands separately”, think “STRANDS SEPARATELY”. Here is an example (rather a well-known one) –  the opening of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, op. 13 (“Pathétique”), where the music is clearly conceived in three distinct parts:

I tend to think of this texture as a string trio, and it lends itself to the following practice format:

  • violin
  • viola
  • cello
  • violin and viola
  • violin and cello
  • viola and cello
  • violin, viola and cello

Again, following on from the last post, it will prove extremely beneficial to practise dummying the viola part while playing the outer parts. (“Dummying” is touching the keys but aiming not to allow them to sound.) Feel free to do this with any of the other parts too! The process of dummying involves inhibiting selected muscles involved in playing and once mastered, this increases control incredibly. The other advantage is you hear much more clearly what you are actually doing in the voices that do sound, as opposed to what you think, or hope, you are doing. Of course not all music presents itself in such distinct lines. This example, from Chopin’s Etude op. 10 no. 2 in A minor (click on it to enlarge) reveals a meandering chromatic scale as the top line (foreground), together with an oom-pah style accompaniment (background) not only in the left hand but also the lower right hand. This is the technical challenge – how to divide the right hand into two (melody and accompaniment):

Using the principle of “STRANDS SEPARATELY”, we play the upper voice quite alone (using the fingerings we will actually end up using in performance, of course). We will need to be able to do this at full speed with all its shapings and nuances, without any muscular reference to the chords underneath. Also, play not just the left hand by itself, but the left hand plus lower right hand (in other words the accompaniment), thinking of this as one unit. Both of these processes from memory, of course.