Applying the Stepladder Approach – Practising the Piano

At the core of my practice tools are what I call The Three S’s – or Slowly, Separately, Sections. They refer to nitty-gritty practising, the sort of thing we do not only to learn notes, develop reflexes and form habits but also to revive old pieces, and to aid in the process of memorisation – no matter what age or level we are. In a nutshell, The Three S’s help form the basis of craftsmanlike, disciplined work at the piano.

For more on the practice tools, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series

When I published my study edition recently of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor from Book 1 of the WTC, I included my Practice Stepladder in the appendix. This divides the fugue into its main sections, and then gives each voice alone and then in all possible permutations of two voices (together with suggested fingerings and articulations) for the purposes of deliberate practice. If you follow the stepladder approach, you will learn the fugue much more quickly and much more thoroughly than with any other method. You can discover how to use the edition here and a link to purchase it is provided at the end of this post.

Rather than practise a fugue hands separately (not very satisfactory), we might think of our work as firstly strands separately, and then together in combinations of voices. Now, a fugue is an example of strict counterpoint but there are many places in piano music written in independent lines – such as the opening of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, op. 13 (“Pathétique”).


The texture starts out as though it were the lower three parts in a string quartet (the first violin joining in bar 9). It lends itself to the stepladder approach. As you learn it like this, listen carefully to the balance between the lines. The viola needs to be lighter, and there should be a good blend between the top and bottom parts:

  • violin
  • viola
  • cello
  • violin and viola (carefully voice the RH so the top line is stronger, and well shaped)
  • violin and cello (listen to the intervals and the melodic direction in both lines, balancing tone carefully)
  • viola and cello (cello stronger)
  • violin, viola and cello (a harmonious blend)

You will find you can apply this stepladder approach in music that is less obviously conceived in voices but may have a tripartite texture, such as Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, op. 9, no. 2.

Chopin Op. 9 No. 2

The LH part is made up of a bass line (on the main beats) and harmony (the chords between the beats). Practise the melodic line together with the bass line and the pedal, omitting the chords. It is great practice to work on the chords alone, minus the bass and the top. As you do this, find legato connections wherever possible within the hand. For example, in the very first pair of LH chords I need to lift my 2nd finger to repeat the E flat (first chord) but I can feel a join between my 5th finger on the G to the 4th finger on the B flat (second chord). When working on the harmonic element, we find the relationships between one harmony and the next, uninterrupted by the jumps to the bass notes. Perfect your sound, aiming for a beautiful slurred effect (the end of each slur lighter).

As you explore composers’ notation carefully you will find you can apply the stepladder approach to much music – and this process will certainly aid you in your practice.

Further reading & resources

  • JS Bach Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor (Book 1) – An annotated study edition featuring the “stepladder” approach can be purchased as an individual download here or as part of a collection of study editions here.
  • Beethoven Sonata Pathétique – A collection of 11 videos providing a detailed walkthrough to all three movements of this work is available here.
  • Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9 No. 2) – Click here to view our From the Ground Up edition for this work.

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