Seeing the Forest – Practising the Piano

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way!

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A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which is what most piano students and their teachers seem to favour), their journey into the forest is likely to be an arduous trek.

In an arduous trek through a new score, it is as if we are hiking without a map, unsure of the route or where it is leading. The path is encumbered and we frequently have to backtrack or make a detour, stumbling on rocks and roots hidden in the underbrush.  We see only individual trees and boulders, not the shape of the hillside or the path of the stream. We feel frustration and weariness rather than joy and curiosity. We may return to make the trek again the next day, and the next, and or progress will gradually get easier, but we will retain a memory of the difficulty we experienced on that first encounter.

There is, however, a path through the forest that is not so arduous, a way of practising that can make our study of a new piece both more efficient and more enjoyable. It involves learning to see the various strands of a score, then practising those strands separately and in various combinations before assembling them all. One could liken it to a recording session in which each musical line is laid down separately before the producer mixes everything to create the final cut. Practising only one or two strands at a time allows us to play at a flowing tempo from the beginning, with easier technical movements and a greater attention to musical expression. Playing only the melody and bass, we hear how these two parts work together. Reducing the harmony to its essential chords, we feel the ebb and flow of harmonic tension and release. Practising the accompaniment alone, we uncover hidden beauties within the texture. While working on all these details, we always retain a sense of the whole because we are playing with greater technical ease and rhythmic flow. Thus, step by step, we get to know all the trees, without ever losing sight of the forest that contains them.

As with any journey through unknown terrain, this kind of practising requires a guide, at least in the beginning. The musical score is a complex code, and it can be difficult for the eyes to disentangle its various strands. Moreover, even when we can see the strands easily, it is human nature to want to play them all at once. To help the eyes see the various parts of the score more easily, and to restrain ourselves from playing more of it than we can comfortably manage, it helps to rewrite the score in various ways, showing only certain parts of it, condensing it, or making an outline of it. This helps to focus our attention, and to better see and hear the structure of the music. It is akin to clearing away the underbrush so that we can better see the terrain we are walking on.

Illustration of From the Ground Up approach using excerpts from Bach’s Little Prelude in F

Of course, rewriting scores in several different ways is a time-consuming process. It is with this in mind that From the Ground Up was conceived. Each edition in this series explores one piece of piano music in depth, presenting the score in three to six different versions—reductions, outlines, extracts—that lead systematically to a greater understanding and mastery of the full score. These reduced scores are like a series of guides to the forest. Each one explores a different aspect of the scenery—the plant life, the wildlife, the geology—pointing out curious facts and beautiful vistas along the way. The order of these scores, with each one building on the previous one, leading in the end to the complete score, is like a map of the forest showing the surest route to our destination—a beautiful performance.

It is my hope that these editions will help pianists to learn specific pieces with greater ease, understanding, and enjoyment. But more importantly, I hope that they will open the door to a new way of studying music, allowing piano students eventually to explore new forests on their own with confidence, creativity, and insight.

– Ken Johansen

How to access From the Ground Up?

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