Practice Tools for New Pieces

Do you often find that no matter how much you practise, you don’t feel confident or secure playing your pieces from start to finish? It might be specific spots that consistently trip you up or different places at different times, but with so many things, it’s not a case of how much you practise but rather how you do it. In many cases, unstructured practise can actually be detrimental, causing you to learn bad habits and practise in mistakes!

Practice Tools & Tips

In this blog post I share some tips and practice tools that can be used to build firm foundations when learning a new piece or for tackling problematic passages in pieces you can already play. These tools allow for greater accuracy in the early stages and therefore more efficient learning by avoiding overloading the working memory. For the purposes of demonstration, I’ll be using the opening bars of CPE Bach’s Solfeggietto in C Minor as an example:

practice tools for CPE Bach's Solfeggietto in C Minor

1. Fingering

The first step is to organise a suitable fingering for your hand (use IMSLP or similar as a reference source for different editions if necessary). The sooner you do this, the better because it can be very difficult to change fingerings once you have already learnt them!

2. The Speed of No Mistakes

Start working on a piece (or a section thereof) very slowly and firmly (a quarter or half the performance speed, or even slower) beat by beat, or in half- or whole-bar units, stopping on the first note of the next unit. This facilitates greater accuracy from the outset by reducing the chances of learning incorrect notes or fingerings.

Make sure to articulate cleanly and accurately, using the same fingering each time. Use a metronome if this helps, and/or try counting aloud as you play. Repeat each section three times correctly in a row before moving on, resisting the temptation to increase the speed.

You can start by playing hands separately, then when you’re ready you can repeat this process hands together. For further variation, you can also alternate hands separately and hands together.

The following is a demonstration of this concept applied to the Solfegietto from a recording of one of my interactive practising workshops:

3. Little Bits Fast

Chaining or “little bits fast” is a very useful way to build speed once you’ve learnt the piece using the “Speed of No Mistakes”. There are three steps to using this tool:

  • Note-by-note chaining – Start with an impulse of one or two notes. Add a note, repeating until automatic before going back to the start of the chain and adding another note, etc. The chain will get longer and longer, so you might want to make a series of shorter chains before joining them together.
  • Beat-by-beat chaining – Instead of chaining by notes, chain by beats. One beat plus one note and repeat three times correctly in a row – the note you stop on is the note you start on when you practise the next beat.
  • Bar-by-bar chaining – One bar plus one note, repeat until automatic. The note you stop on is the note you start on when you practise the next bar.

Basically, you’re building up larger passages from smaller segments and developing the reflexes for speed without overloading the working memory.

4. Controlled stops

In the early stages of learning a piece, it can still be difficult to process everything fluently. The tool I call the “Floating Fermata” is a very useful way to build fluency whilst maintaining accuracy. How it works is you deliberately add a pause at difference appropriate places within a piece. Therefore it’s a controlled stop rather than an accidental one and by varying it’s placement, you do not end up learning the stops in.

When you’re pausing, you take as much time as you need to focus and prepare yourself for the next segment. In the Solfegietto example, you might consider adding a fermata after groups of 2, 4, 8, etc as necessary, or wherever feels appropriate.

More Practice Tools & Tips!

If you’d like a more detailed demonstration of these practice tools and several others, please do join me for my interactive workshop on Saturday 10th June. In this workshop, I’ll be introducing a selection of practice tools and will then give you an opportunity to try them out using examples selected from the repertoire or your own pieces. We’re also recording the workshop therefore if you’re unable to join us live then you can sign-up to watch the recording and work with the various exercises at your convenience thereafter. Click here to find out more or to book your place!

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