A Supplement to Slow Practice

A few weeks ago, I gave some suggestions for practising Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and I would like to apply this principle to another piece, which really couldn’t be more contrasting in style and effect.

I have just been working with a student who this week made a start on Tchaikovsky’s fabulous Dumka. He was struggling with this spot:

The reason for the struggle was because he had not realised there would need to be an additional process after practising hands together slowly note for note, that no amount of slow practice alone is going to enable a reliable, let alone virtuosic performance of this extract. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a diehard fan of slow practising I am, but there are supplementary ways of working that do the job better at a certain stage in our learning of a piece. Why plod through something in this way for weeks on end when we might need a more energy-efficient and artistically satisfying way of doing it?

I asked him to play the left hand melodic line (the tune at the top of the bass stave), or the theme in all its heroic, brassy glory. I wasn’t interested in a spelling-out of the notes, but a vivid, up-to-speed characterisation of the theme. We worked on this until the shapings and timings were just right, and the character could stand proud on the stage (albeit deprived of fellow cast members and scenery) and deliver his lines from memory (the register dictates that this is a “he”).

Then we connected the theme to its lower bass notes, and found a way of making this physically comfortable by pivoting on the E flats in the first two bars, first using the 3rd finger and then the 2nd. The extra couple of left hand notes were easy to tack on.

The next step was to fit in tiny pre-selected snippets of the right hand onto the product, the only rule being that no matter what might go awry in the right hand, the left hand was to continue unaffected – oblivious and impervious to what was going on around it. The first phrase posed no especial difficulty, except to build in a super-fast reflex to bring the right hand down from the very top chord to its next position. This took five minutes, at most.

After that, we decided to play only the first burst of each right hand figure, thinking of this as a ripped chord (one motion of the hand as though tearing a page out of a book), certainly not as individually articulated fingers. Here is what actually sounded:

Then we simply added a couple more notes to our skeleton RH:

When deciding on the next layer, the process is amenable to simply adding a new preselected element each time until the whole is eventually reached, or to go off on a different tack, thus:

I am sure some of you remember the days of the overhead projector, and transparencies. Imagine that our LH melodic line is the first transparency to be laid down, and remains there throughout. Thereafter, we add a new transparency with our small RH snippet before removing it and exchanging it for another, before putting the previous one back. Now, we have our original plus our two on top. Remove the top two and add a fresh one, and so on. Soon enough you will have the original plus five or six overlays that give the complete picture.

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