When learning a new piece from scratch, there are a number of tools we can use to get the maximum benefit from our practice time and to lay the foundations for a secure and successful performance.
I shall be presenting a workshop on this topic next week using examples of different levels from the new ABRSM syllabus. The following are some of the tips and tools that I will be covering:
Limit Yourself to One Read-Through
Many people attempt to learn a new piece by repeatedly reading it through at the piano. Unless the piece is well below your current level this approach tends to be superficial and unsatisfactory; how frustrating to end a practice session sensing the beginnings of fluency only to discover the next day that nothing has stuck and you’re back at square one.
Be like the third of the Three Little Pigs, who takes the time and effort to lay solid foundations for his house so that no amount of huffing and puffing from the Big Bad Wolf can topple it! Deep learning is a truly satisfying and absorbing process that leads to intimate knowledge of your piece and a level of security in performance that will enable you to play confidently and expressively.
One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage.
The Three S’s (Slowly, Separately, Sections)
The Three S’s are the most rudimentary practice tools for thorough learning, but they are easily overlooked or skimmed over in an attempt to play through the piece. Working on a fast piece in small sections at the “Speed of No Mistakes” ensures note, rhythm and fingering accuracy from the outset, thereby avoiding embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later on.
Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter. Handel’s Gavotte in G (Grade 3, A:3) is a duet between the hands, the left hand equally important and active as the right. Unless the teacher hears the left hand by itself, working on fingering, phrasing and articulation, there is little incentive for the student to practise like this. As teachers, we model in the lesson how we want our student to practise between lessons.
Picking out one element for the whole piece offers a broader overview than chipping away at phrase by phrase with all the notes. For David Blackwell’s atmospheric arrangement of Down by the salley gardens (Grade 1, B:3) it would be a good plan to work on the melodic line (the right hand by itself) from beginning to end before even looking at the left hand. Singing the melody with the given words helps to understand the meaning of the poem, as well as where to breathe and how to shape each phrase.
The “separately” practice tool does not only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. The left hand in the opening section of Tchaikovsky’s Douce rêverie (Grade 5, B:3) consists of two elements, a countermelody and an off-beat chordal accompaniment above it. Deconstructing the score is a helpful first stage. We might play the right hand’s main melody together with the left hand’s lower line, omitting the chords until we have heard and felt how these two lines work together.
Most pieces contain spots that are trickier than others. By identifying and marking these spots into the score we are able to begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems, for several days in a row. Only after working on the Q-spots may we play the piece from the start.
The concept of Q-Spots is a very helpful teaching tool and a powerful aid to effective practice at any level. A good example is to the found in Kabalevsky’s Etude in A minor (Grade 4, A:2) from the second half of bar 10 to the end of bar 11. By quarantining this small fragment, we can apply chaining techniques – playing just the first group of notes until we feel the beginnings of automation and then adding the next group, and so on.
There is an especially awkward moment from bar 65-69 in Bartók’s Rondo (Grade 8, C:1) that will respond well to similar treatment. In this example, metronome practice would help fluency and control. Begin at around 60 bpm (or even slower) and increase the metronome speed in increments of your choice until you can exceed the intended speed.
Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections (like tracks on a CD) not only helps us structure our practice by ensuring that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure, but also gives us anchor points in performance.
For example, I have divided up Fauré’s Andante moderato (Grade 7, B:1) into five sections, making it easy for the teacher to specify the week’s assignment. When we have learned the piece thoroughly, we might track backwards for added security in performance. We play track 5 and then tracks 4 and 5 together, working backwards track by track until we reach the beginning.
For a more detailed, practical demonstration of how to apply these tools when starting work on learning a new piece, please join me for an online workshop on Wednesday 24th Feb @ 13:30 GMT (click here for more information and booking details).
Further Information & Resources
The Online Academy’s repertoire library also has an extensive collection of video walk-throughs, annotated study editions and resources for learning new pieces, including:
- Video walk-throughs of popular works such as Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Rachmaninoffs Prelude in C# Minor (Op. 3 No. 2)
- From the Ground Up – A series which uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
- Annotated study editions and walk-throughs for works by Debussy, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven and Ravel