Inventing Exercises – Practising the Piano

One thing I can say for certain is that we are all different. When it comes down to rituals in practising, there is nothing more personal than what we do to warm up. I have some colleagues who feel driven to go through their lengthy warm-up regime before they will touch a note of music, others who (provided they are in shape from regular playing), are comfortable going straight into their practising just by starting with something slow and gentle to get back to where they were, muscularly, the day before.

I want to distinguish between exercises that might warm up muscles and those which build technique in the first place – I find there is confusion about this because they can overlap. And just because a pianist has a fully developed technique, this does not mean they will not face technical problems, or have to figure out specific technical challenges in certain pieces. Not at all.

In my teaching, I use specific exercises for specific skills. I assign these sparingly and only when needed, expecting top concentration in the practising thereof. The last thing I want is for a student to squander valuable practice time on reams of exercises for the sake of it.

One thing I do very much believe in is inventing exercises from a specific piece. You make up exercises based on passages to make them harder or even more challenging than the original, so that when you to back to playing the original, it feels easier.

Here are some examples.

The second subject of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, op. 13 begins with a passage where the RH has to hop from treble to bass registers while the LH provides a rhythmic accompaniment. Having carefully measured the distances involved, it is great practice to play the RH an octave lower than written (when playing in the bass register) and/or an octave higher (when playing in the treble register). The original then feels almost easy! I would emphasise the need for the body to be behind the RH here, the torso needs to be mobile, not rigid:

In Schumann’s Carnaval, op. 9, there is a particularly uncomfortable piece, Reconnaissance, which calls for very rapid repeated notes in the RH thumb. There are 16 bars of this at the beginning and at the end of the piece:

The first step is to practise the RH thumb line by itself before adding the top line, and to do this extremely regularly even after the difficulty has been mastered. Then go the extra mile and play triplet semiquavers, thus three notes in the thumb for the price of two (it is also good practice to echo this in the LH).

A similar ploy can be used in the RH of Traumes Wirren from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12:

Instead of playing 4 semiquavers in each group, expand this into a 6-note pattern. So instead of F-G-F-F, we might play F-G-F-G-F-F. When playing hands together like this, the LH rhythm will clearly need to accommodate the change.

There are loads more examples. If you have any of your own invention, please feel free to share in the comments section.

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