Making Haste Slowly – Practising the Piano

I’m sure many pianists are familiar with this scenario – you have a new piece and are eager to start learning it. A few play throughs lead directly into attempts to learn the notes starting at the beginning of the piece and working your way through. It feels like you are making consistent progress from the outset as you can play some of the piece, albeit stopping to correct yourself in trickier spots.

However, when it comes to playing the piece through at a lesson, you find it falls apart in numerous places and is far shakier than it was when you were practising at home (more on this here!). It then takes an inordinate amount of time to get it up to speed and refine it for performance and despite this, you still don’t feel confident when performing.

In our haste to be able to play a piece, it’s incredibly easy to cut corners and develop bad habits. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the best results are achieved by “making haste slowly”. Starting by investing time in laying good foundations and following a more thorough, gradual process in learning is far more efficient and will ultimately deliver more satisfying results faster.

A Partita project

I was recently working on producing a study edition for the Toccata from Bach’s Partita in E Minor, BWV830. This piece has been on my wishlist to learn for a long time as I love the genius with which the theme is developed to create magical variations in texture and colour.  

Although the project presented a great opportunity to learn the piece, I did not have much time available for this endeavour. Therefore I decided put the “making haste slowly” maxim to the test and see whether it offered a viable means of learning it with limited time. In this article I describe the approach and tools I used to prepare the piece to play in a lesson within an ambitious timescale!

Laying the foundations

The first step was to resist the temptation to get stuck in by hacking at the notes and to rather do some analysis. This meant taking a step back to plan and build a foundation which would enable faster progress down the line. Without necessarily doing a formal text book analysis, I was able to identify many things that would make the piece less daunting to learn.

For example, starting with the macro structure I noticed it was in ternary form (ABA) and that the opening theme returns later in the dominant key:

JS Bach Toccata from Partita No. 6 in E Minor

Finding instances of repetition (or similar passages) and identifying and describing patterns was also incredibly useful for building a mental model of the piece and ultimately made the note learning go faster (Graham Fitch calls this ‘Personalised Pattern Recognition’)

The description of these patterns does not need to conform to an academic analysis but should just be meaningful to you. For example, the passage in the third bar (which repeats in the dominant on return of the A section) is made up of a series of ascending 4ths each falling by a second:

A basic harmonic analysis can also be valuable, especially when combined with pattern recognition. In this tricky passage in the left hand, spotting that the first note of each of the groups of semiquavers makes a diminishing chord descending serves as a very useful anchor for memorisation (and is potentially musically meaningful too!):

First steps on the ladder

With some good foundations in place and a basic working mental model of the piece, I was ready to start physically learning the notes. Like most of us, I would start slowly using the “Speed of no mistakes” but instead of separate hands, I learnt separate voices following “Stepladder approach”.

This process for learning contrapuntal music involves learning each voice individually (in this instance, S, A & B) with the fingering you will ultimately use when playing them together. The voices are then played together in different combinations e.g. S & A, A & B and then S & B before playing all of them together. Our edition makes this easy as it has an open score version for this purpose:

This is very cognitively challenging and feels slower than just learning each hand separately. However, I discovered that this was very worthwhile on experiencing how easy the latter stages of putting the notes together was and how robust they felt even after a short amount of time. There were also other benefits in being aware of the individual voices which gave ideas for musical shaping from the outset.

Deep learning & other tools

There were several other tools and aspects of the approach I used which also helped speed up the learning process. Rather than learn the piece from start to finish, I identified challenging spots throughout and tackled these first (I almost learnt the piece backwards!).

For greater confidence in performance, I created many “pick up spots” where I could start playing from or jump back to if anything went wrong. I would also practise and play from these spots, starting on different ones and in a different order each practice session. Other tools like miming different voices and controlled stops were also useful in creating security.

Lastly, a very useful tool I used to avoid falling into the trap of being too reliant on muscle memory was one finger practice. Alongside building muscle memory, I would play tricky spots by memory with one finger. This forces you to use other memory systems to ensure you know a passage on a deeper level.

Practising for performance

Only towards the end of the learning stage did I actually play the piece from start to finish. In preparing to perform it in a lesson, I adopted a different approach in that I would play from start to finish without stopping. I would then assess the performance and apply selected tools from the learning process to pave over any trouble spots.

This process flushes out problem areas and weak spots that one isn’t necessarily aware of. These can then be targeted in subsequent practising which is far more efficient and effective than just playing from start to finish repeatedly when practising.

The results

My undertaking was to learn the piece in a similar amount of time to that I would normally allocate to a much simpler quick study. Admittedly I was a bit anxious at first as it felt like things were taking too long at the beginning. This soon turned to delight as everything started to come together much quicker than expected.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how well everything held together in the lesson. As could be expected, it wasn’t perfect, but it was much more stable and secure than many other pieces I’d spent far longer learning. Although this painstaking approach certainly takes discipline (something I wish I had more of!), the results are very much worth the effort!

P.S. If you’d like to see a video demonstration of the tools mentioned in this post then please click here!

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