In the run-up to Christmas, I am reminded of the low-tech decorations we used to make at school back in the day – paper chains. We would lick the gummed end of the coloured paper strip, wince a bit because it tasted horrible, then stick it to the other end and make a link. This we did until we had formed a long chain, which we taped to the ceiling and then draped across the room, making a festive decoration. Trouble was, those links we hadn’t stuck down properly caused a breakage later on, and the chain would be on the floor when we got to school the next day. A quick repair and a trip back up the stepladder usually sorted the problem.
A break in a musical performance can be much more devastating, and the consequences more far-reaching – especially if the stakes are high such as an exam or a public performance.
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link
Let’s say you have learned a piece and yet find it difficult to get through without error. Suddenly you go blank, or your fingers stall and you break down. You have rarely managed to get through the piece from beginning to end, but it’s frustrating because the mistakes seem to happen in different places each time.
If this happens when you are alone in your practice room, then it probably means you have not done enough spadework. You are likely trying to run before you can walk and you’ll need to go back to some really solid slow practice, with each hand separately, working in small sections at a time. If it happens in a more stressful situation, this is a bit like your chain being pulled taut and it will just snap at the points of least resistance. The good news is that there is something you can do about this in your practice room. You can take steps to secure each link and make your chain strong so that you will be able to play your piece through from the beginning to the end fluently and with confidence.
Even though we don’t usually tend to hear music in this way, most pieces are divided up into bar units. For our practical purposes, let’s take each bar as one link. If we are concerned about our ability to string each of these bars together into one long chain without breaking down, there is a great way we can practise to test this as well as to reinforce and strengthen the links. Here is the process:
- Play from the beginning of the bar and stop just over the next bar line, on the first note or beat of the next bar.
You can do this up to speed, slowly or very slowly. You have the option of going through your piece in this way with each hand separately.
- Leave a silence before starting from the note you stopped on and then play the next whole bar, ending on the first note or beat of the following bar.
The silence can be of arbitrary length, or (if you prefer) leave one whole bar’s worth of silence.
- Continue until you reach the end of the piece, or your designated section for that day’s practice.
If you stumble over any bar, it is important to be able to play it flawlessly and fluently before moving on. If you want to be really secure, you could consider repeating each bar three times anyway. In that case, make a rule to play each bar three times correctly in a row.
*If there is a tied note over the bar line, depress that note silently before playing the next bar
* Be sure to start with the exact finger at each new starting point – the same fingering you will be using in the finished version (you might prefer to write in extra fingering for this)
*Be flexible about how you apply this – in pieces with short bars, or few notes in each bar, consider units of 2 or 4 bars
Here is the opening of Mozart’s C major Sonata, K 279:
And how the link-strengthening process might look:
NB. If you are planning to play your piece from memory, then do this process from memory!