How to Begin a New Piece: Guest Post

It is a great privilege to be one of the principal tutors on The Piano Teachers’ Course UK. One of our recent graduates, Julie Garnham, handed in an excellent essay as part of her course work and I felt it belonged in this short series How to Begin a New Piece.

I encourage pianists not to run to the piano with a new piece, but to sit quietly with the score for a while first. I have often cited Gina Bachauer, who spent 15 – 20 days in this process. I am not suggesting this as a realistic workaday approach for most, given our busy schedules. Concert pianists of the stature of Bachauer would have been able to devote all their time to their playing; most of us do not live in such an ideal world. What I do suggest is that we incorporate some of these analytical procedures into our practising from the start, and encourage young learners to use their brains too. Julie spent a full 20 days engrossed in this preliminary work, and her results were excellent.

Marcus: I am interested to know how you view a piece of music when you first learn it. What do you actually do?

Bachauer: I have never actually started to work on a new piece of music at the piano. Perhaps this is very peculiar, but I never begin that way. I try to read it for fifteen or twenty days in bed in the evening before I ever touch a note.
Marcus: That’s very interesting. I am sure that you are one of those people who can hear through their eyes alone and totally relate to the score.

Bachauer: I like to study everything about the piece and then approach the technical problems. When I study a piece of music quietly, in bed, only my head works. I try to analyze the whole piece to see where the different themes are, and to find out what the composer’s message is. After having studied this way for almost twenty days, I then go to the piano and feel that I am prepared to practise at the instrument. I understand every phrase, every tempo, where every phrase ends and the next one begins. Then, technical details, fingerings, et cetera, come later. Marcus: You undoubtedly establish the character, mood, and structure of all the thematic material in advance.

Bachauer: Yes. It’s very strange, but this approach helps me enormously to learn a work by heart. Therefore, when I go to the piano, it is almost memorized. [A. Marcus, Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (Neptune: Paganiniana, 1979), 11-12.]

I asked Julie if she might reframe her essay into a blog format, so she could share with you all her journey as she began to work on a  new piece away from the piano. I will now hand you over to Julie, and hope that this story inspires you as much as it did me and my colleagues.

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Mapping and Modelling Music for our Minds

By Julie Garnham

No  Hands!

As part of a study of  ‘practice processes’,  completed for The Piano Teachers’ Course (UK), I set out to explore Graham’s Fitch’s recommendation of studying a score for up to 20 days before actually playing any of it of the piano. This is something Graham has written about, and I decided to give it a try. The course’s final concert performance would take place in 70 days time. It seemed a huge risk to leave only 50 of those days to practise Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor and then perform it, having not touched a note for the first 20 days. Would I be successful? How would I purposefully spend all that time?

Twenty Days


I followed three main tracks. Firstly, I listened to various recordings and sang (creating a story and lyrics) and danced around, embodying the music. Secondly, I researched the background to the Nocturne. Thirdly, I became very interested in how we might use our minds to internalise mental representations and how these  processes might lead to memorisation and enhanced performance. I needed to do something with these processes rather than think about them. Heli Ignatius-Fleet, an EPTA course tutor, introduced ideas about creating multiple mind maps. These might be created through an intellectual analysis of the score for structures and forms, for expressive aspects, for kinaesthetic patterns and for keyboard patterns to facilitate the building of an overall aural and artistic image. These are essential first stages for meaningful interpretation, learning and memorisation. I wondered what these mind maps could be and set about trying to find out for myself. Having the idea of a score being like a map of a country, but full of symbols for sounds, I looked keenly at Chopin’s notation like a navigator planning to undertake a journey across new lands.

Reformatting the Score

Children say notation looks like tadpoles on a fence when as beginners, they perhaps read from note to note. Could I enhance the reading process and hear, at a glance, where I was going with this ‘map’? I wasn’t sure and wondered if changing the layout might make an improvement. I wanted to create a bigger picture and make more sense out of the possible chaos of Chopin’s communication. Having made lots of photocopies, I began cutting and pasting (the original meanings of these words!) and laying out the bars into sections and phrases. I  had to pay careful attention but afterwards I could much more readily see the content and patterns and hold them in my mind. The end result was as different as a chapter of prose writing is to a poem on a page. We see beginners’ 16-bar pieces sitting nicely on one page. A clear architecture is present and so comparisons and spotting the differences are quite obvious. The Chopin is not very long  but I was surprised by what this format and new analysis started to reveal.

chopin score 1

Zooming In

I now had an eagle’s eye overview. Next, just like using Google Earth, I took a closer look at the terrain. I remember maps of Britain from school atlas days which showed coloured geographical features on one map, areas of industry and farming on another, rainfall on another etc. It was easy to deduce where more crops might grow in areas where there were lots of rivers and where more rain fell.

In Two Dimensions

Using further photocopied scores, I took one musical structure after another and followed it through, using colour as I went along, pattern searching for my organising mind, making connections with familiar musical and compositional structures such as tonality and suspensions, repetition and sequences. I carried out this process for rhythms, harmony, cadences and modulations. I took dissonance and resolution together in one map and dynamics, accents and climaxes together in another. I was seeing sharply! I made separate diagrams altogether to find the contours of  melodic voicings. Looking back at the colouring, I easily garnered and retained information and could make comparisons and deductions about those particular musical elements.

chopin score 2

chopin score 4chopin score 3

A very much improved, interesting and animated idea of my inartistic sketching for melodic contouring of the voicings can be found in the work of Malinowski.

These processes, breaking things down and re-grouping into graspable useable units, is these days referred to as chunking. For more information on chunking, click here.

In Three Dimensions

This possibly appears very simplistic to the advanced musician but the process really helped to keep my attention focused.  Deductions arrived at prompted artistic and interpretative inquiry and lead toward a deeper appreciation of the musical experience of the composer.  This work, essentially visual re-coding, became aural to the extent I decoded the symbols into sound. In my imagination, I stacked the maps and modelled musical shapes. Having 20 days of work and sleep, these grew together in my mind like sprouting seedlings. The elements piled on top of each other and my memory merged and moved them into a majestic music-scape in my mind. I have since found the work of Jan Henrick Hansen to be very much like my imaginings.

A Flight Path towards Freedom!

Such an exploratory adventure will inevitably lead to different discoveries for musicians at different stages of their lives. My pupils are thriving through carrying out analyses of their scores by visually chunking them with colour and then animatedly moving around my music room. What has become most obvious is that I discovered a pathway to a process resulting in progress that really worked for me once the next 50 days of practising at the piano began. I journeyed outward, putting back together the big picture, recreating Chopin’s now known and living inner musical forms, fully informed.

My former habit of a lifetime had simply been to launch into the business of programming the piece into the fingers, albeit using slow, separate hands and in sections, and discover which notes to play as I went along. A lot of hit-and-miss followed, resulting in aborted journeys and failed missions. Instead, after these 20 days preparation time, I had almost memorised the piece and I was able to effectively and affectively direct my practice. I had a clear knowledge of the score and interpretative ideas of the sounds I wished to create and I felt technically freer in finding comfortable ways to achieve  those sounds. Consequently, there were fewer errors and a better tone during varied repetitions and motor and procedural learning became secure.

I am happy to conclude that I performed  within the time frame and I successfully passed the course*. I performed again a few weeks later, in front of my pupils and their families and, for the first time in my life (and I am no longer that young!) I performed without a score! My fear of forgetting had been forgotten! The 20 days had been a risk but during this time I  had discovered new flight paths for fingers and left behind a life time of dodgy piano practising habits for the better!

*Julie passed the course with Distinction and gave a beautiful performance of the Nocturne! (Ed)

“It is entirely possible that behind the perceptions of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we unaware…” Albert Einstein

Julie Garnham, B.Ed(Hons), ALCM, Cert PTC EPTA (UK), lives in the wilds of West Wales, having left the level landscapes of Lincolnshire just before the millennium. She has been a primary school teacher and a Steiner school teacher. Julie is now working as a professional amateur pianist, passionate about teaching the piano to pupils in her music studio in the Preselis of Pembrokeshire. Julie may be contacted at [email protected].

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