Preparing the Canvas – Practising the Piano

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver?

Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork.

Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add).

If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and come to my own conclusions about the shape of the piece and what it might mean on an emotional or expressive level, before being conditioned or influenced by the utterances of others.

I know there is a tradition amongst certain usually controlling, egotistical (and expensive) piano teachers that we should never listen to a recording of a piece we are about to study. While I do get this, frankly we learn best from those who have been there before. If I were planning a journey up Everest, I would want to learn as much as I could from those who have successfully scaled this peak, rather than from would-be sherpas, and rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Let’s not be precious about this! (My practical advice is to binge on as many recordings as possible before starting to learn the notes and then leave them all until well after some mastery has been achieved, until your own ideas and individual artistic image of the music have been formed. If we listen during the learning process, we are likely to stunt our growth by copying.)

The words of a great pianist of yesteryear, Gina Bachauer, resound here:

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. 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. [A. Marcus, Great Pianists Speak with Adele Marcus (Neptune: Paganiniana, 1979), 11-12.]

Some students think that time spent on analysis (in whatever form) takes them away from time that could be better spent on digital pianistic practising, and I am here to tell them they are wrong. I feel I can state this categorically. As Heinrich Neuhaus described in his seminal tome “The Art of Piano Playing” (and I paraphrase from memory), the sharpness of our artistic image of the piece in question is directly related to the behaviour of our playing apparatus, and is the be-all-and-end-all of what the fingers have to aspire to. In other words, the fingers are the actors to the director which is our mind (our understanding of the structure, meaning and living message of the music). Another analogy I like is that of circus monkeys to the ringmaster. I would add that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all, and that the greatness of a work of art is directly proportional to its capacity to be ambiguous, to allow an array of possible right interpretations.

So what exactly should we do when we study the score? I would hate to proscribe a definitive form of analysis for all. Actually, I believe there is no such thing. When I teach youngsters, I try to involve the right brain (imagery, feelings, senses) as much as possible and avoid conceptual thinking. For students capable of understanding a work such as Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K570, last movement, a method of analysis such as this, although as dry as dust (and exhibiting zero pianistic skill), will certainly engage the critical faculties.

The great modern pianists Murray Perahia and Richard Goode have let it be known that they find value in Schenkerian analysis. This highly organised system probably represents the pinnacle of left-brained, intellectual investigation of music. Somewhere between this and “It’s four pages long, in three sections and seems to change key quite a bit in the middle” will suffice. The individual will find their place somewhere along this spectrum, no one place being superior to another. I call this meaningful analysis.

If I were a painter of, say, nautical scenes, I would need to make sure my ships were believable and realistic – this might involve research and preliminary sketches of vessels from the historical period I was depicting. Do your research too!  For us, it will certainly (and minimally) involve knowing how the piece we are studying fits in with the composer’s oeuvre, what was going on in his life at the time, and any other pearls of wisdom so easily and quickly gleaned from the internet.

Think like a painter and sketch in the overview first. Painters call this roughing in. Go from the broad overview to the fine detail. Look at the first four pictures in this example of  how to draw a hand, realising if you don’t follow this step-by-step approach, you might end up with something unrealistic.

It’s a bit like planning a journey – don’t look down at each footstep and hope you will eventually reach your goal. Use your brain first and consult a map. Each footstep (made with no reference to the foot, of course) is meaningful only in relation to the bigger picture, of reaching the destination.

I would like to leave you with some practical steps to learning a new piece, presented in no particular order:

  • Begin not necessarily at the beginning, or rather not only from the beginning. Know how the last movement (or section) sounds before starting work on the first
  • Learn the coda in addition to the opening simultaneously (I think it was Rosina Lhevinne who heard last movements first – and codas to last movements at that – before she would hear the beginnings of works)
  • Play the themes (melody lines, or melody lines plus basses) for the whole thing before adding accompaniments
  • If you are learning a prelude and fugue, learn the first section of the prelude plus the fugual exposition simultaneously
  • Learn the second subject from the exposition and the recapitulation, relishing the variations between the two (especially if this is Beethoven)
  • Learn parts of each movement from the outset (this is a bit like opening three separate files on your “mindtop” computer each day and adding to each bit by bit)
  • Using “Strands” (from “The Three S’s”), be content with giving the broadest overview of the whole before adding the detail (I know this is a convenient example, but be able to play Chopin’s op. 25 no. 1 study in sketch or outline form first, by playing only the “big” notes – those notes which form the melody line together with their basses, and do this quickly)


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