And so to the last installment of “The Three S’s” – “Sections”. I realise I am in danger of repeating myself here – much of what is contained in this post has been mentioned in previous ones – but for the sake of completeness, a little recapitulation isn’t a bad thing.

We practise in sections as a way of processing and digesting information easily, much as we eat a meal in bite-size chunks. While the association of meal times and repeating is (in most cultures) considered ill-mannered, at the piano we will need to repeat our small sections in order to correct, refine, polish and – not least – to form a habit that can be automatic and which bypasses the need for conscious control. Nobody formed a habit by doing something just once, no matter how well. All it takes to form a habit is repetition, but as I have already pointed out, we need to make sure that what we are repeating is as good as it possibly can be, since every part of what we are repeating will be ingrained. There was one time I was practising a passage and (quite contrary to my own instructions about total concentration) I suddenly remembered there was someone I had forgotten to call. For the next half hour that person shared the stage with Beethoven, after which I got up from the piano and dealt with it. Lo and behold, the next day the instant I came to that place in the piece, that person popped into my head again. I am sure this must be related to NLP in some way. Since we are likely to bring with us onto the stage whatever thoughts we have had when practising, we can aim to make them positive , confident and self-affirming.

How many times we repeat a section can never be enshrined in theory. One repetition that duplicates the success of the original might be chance, but if we can do the thing three times in a row it is likely to be based on acquired skill rather than luck. Thus, for me, we repeat a minimum of three times in one go. However, I absolutely insist that the repetitions never be mindless, and mere accuracy is not enough. Too many repetitions increases the risk of boredom and a wandering attention span. Try never to let the repetitions be mechanical.

The length of the section will vary from person to person, with factors such as age, level and experience coming into it. If you are learning a piece from scratch, the sections will probably be smaller than if you are refining a piece you have already learned, or reviving a piece you have played many times. The point here is how much information one can hold in the working memory (often referred to as the short-term memory) and then rehearsing it so that it can be stored permanently in the long-term memory. The general guideline is to play a section of the music where, at the end of it, you can still remember vividly what happened at the start – something you can hold in your consciousness as a complete entity. This short-term memory test, even though it has nothing to do with piano playing, will give you the idea.

A vital part of this process happens between the repetitions. This is when we stop and reflect on how we did. The sorts of questions we might ask ourselves in our evaluation include:

  • Did I play the right notes?
  • Did I play rhythmically?
  • Did I follow the composer’s directions?
  • Did I succeed in using the correct fingering? (i.e. the fingering I had decided upon –  this has nothing to do with the printed fingering suggested in the score by the editor)
  • Did it sound good? (Did I play evenly, beautifully and expressively, with the sound that I had imagined before I started?)
  • Did it feel good? (Did I manage to achieve the intended result without physical tension, yet with a sense of mastery and enjoyment?)

The type of question can get more and more refined, to embrace interpretive aspects such as pedal, tone, touch, and so on. The rule is ALWAYS listen, ALWAYS evaluate.

Another thing – once we have formed the habit and can make our way through the piece, we will still need to practise using sections plus repetition. I am always trying to get across that we use certain techniques (such as The Three S’s) to:

  • Build the piece in the first place
  • Strengthen, reinforce and to make performance-worthy
  • Maintain the piece during the time you are working on it
  • Revive old pieces

For the maintenance aspect, I use the analogy of a brand new car from the showroom. It is shiny, the tanks full of oil and petrol and the engine finely tuned. After a few miles (or is that kilometers?) there will be bugs on the windscreen, the petrol tank will need refilling, the engine calibrating, etc. So it is with the maintenance of our playing of a piece. We need to go back and tinker, tweak and toil (yikes – The Three T’s!) to keep our playing of the piece in showroom condition. Playing is like spending, practising like investing. (Except for that process I call “Practising a Performance” which I have already described in “To Stop Or Not To Stop?”. This is a deliberate and specific act of practising in its own right.)

CAVEAT: Forming a habit involves repeating something over a number of days. DO NOT expect any tangible results from doing this once or twice.

PS. If you have learned something badly in the past, or if you are trying to change the way you play for whatever reason (you have changed teacher, you are learning a new technique, etc.) you won’t be able to undo bad habits. They are permanent! But do not despair – we learn new habits which, once ingrained, become permanent in themselves, and will supersede the old ones.