Inventing Exercises from Pieces – Practising the Piano

There are pieces that contain passages of technical difficulty that require special attention, a type of practising over and above the routine use of the other practice tools. This could  also apply to whole pieces, of course – concert studies being a good example. We might need to find creative ways to solve these problems by getting into the habit of making our own exercises based on the material from the piece. These exercises might explore different facets of the difficulty by creating extended or slightly varied versions. This tends to make the passage harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when we go back to the original, we understand it better and it just feels easier.

Meeting the demands of a technical challenge is a bit like capturing a wild animal. If we approach it from one direction, it will run off in another. Therefore, we need a multi-pronged strategy involving very many different approaches to practising. Inventing exercises can be challenging at first, but once we get into the habit it is amazing how creative we can become at dreaming these up as we practise. My scores are littered with my own exercises, and I return to these when I go back to a particular piece, sometimes coming up with a different or better solution. If you explore any one of the study editions of Alfred Cortot, you will find many ideas for such practice exercises. For me, it was Cortot who primed the pump. Here is Chopin’s set of Etudes, op. 10 in the Cortot edition, made available by Walter Cosand.

In Debussy’s First Arabesque, there is an awkward passage that usually confuses the hand, the few bars just before the middle section:

1st Arabesque excerpt

Assuming we are technically advanced enough to tackle the piece in the first place, a certain amount of practice using our practice tools (slowly, separately, and miming in particular) may well suffice. If after doing this we still find we stumble here, practising some supplementary exercises may well turn a difficult passage into an easy one.

Here are some suggestions for exercises we can practise. This week, I only have access to my iPad so please excuse these hastily hand-scribbled examples.


Study and master each one of these, and invent more. These are just five of about ten I came up with, but I don’t want to overcrowd the page! When practising these exercises, aim to perfect each one of them. Think of them as a series of yoga exercises where form and ritual are everything. Summon your inner craftsman and do them beautifully with attention to quality of sound and gesture, and physical ease and looseness. Do not approach the keyboard as though you were slapping wet fish onto a slab (with apologies to any graceful fishmongers who might be reading).

Having done this work for a while, we can approach the passage in its context and replace the feeling of dread and trepidation with one of confidence, joy even. Instead of a sigh of relief as we reach the last chord of the passage, we relish the effect of the appoggiatura F sharp against the E major harmony, and the balletic middle section to come.

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