Tackling a Programme – Practising the Piano

I had an interesting question from a reader in Australia, so this week I thought I would address the issue of how to learn a programme consisting of multiple pieces. Do keep your questions coming in, I will do my best to answer them.

Q. I want to learn to play, say, two sonatas, or six difficult pieces, or (if have just started to play) three small “easy” pieces. How should I learn them? Say the sonatas have three movements each. Should I learn one movement at a time until I have it under my belt, and then go to the next, do the same, and afterwards go and learn the third? Once completed, do I then start the next sonata and learn it in the same way, or would it be more (or less) productive to start learning all six movements at the same time?

A. The question is an excellent one as it shows how necessary it is to bring planning, organisation and time management skills into the practice room. Assuming I want to have all these pieces peak together, let’s work backwards from the end point. For example, if my recital or exam date is March 1st, I will need to aim to be fully prepared two weeks before that. Prior to that, I’ll need to arrange three run-throughs in front of different people (teacher, trusted friends, piano meet-up group, festival, etc.). The stages of our work will look approximately like this:

  • Day of exam or recital.
  • The week or so before: under-tempo run-throughs combined with spot practice and general maintenance (including some slow practice and using the memory tools). Marking (going over lightly) the programme, some visualisation, relaxation techniques if needed. Have a sense of calm anticipation, look after yourself and don’t over practise. I suggest avoiding too many full-on emotionally charged run-throughs, although this depends so much on the individual.
  • About a month before: A series of three run-throughs of the programme in a safe situation, each separated by a few days. Each run-through will throw up issues such as memory insecurities, areas of the programme that buckle under the pressure of the occasion, and so on. Piano meet-up groups and festivals are ideal ways to run your programme, or be proactive and arrange something. It is important to take yourself out of your comfort zone and to play on a piano you don’t know.
  • A couple of months before: A stretch of about a week where you play through the entire programme for yourself daily. Later in the day (or after some time spent reflecting on what happened), go through those areas that didn’t hold up or where you noticed something untoward. I call this spot practice. If your practice time is at a premium, alternate a run-through one day with spot practice the day after but I suggest making some notes about what needs to be done. When you are playing through, stop for absolutely nothing (except, perhaps, for a fire alarm). Do the spot practice with  focus, but try not to get neurotic.
  • Before that: A series of test flights where you run individual pieces from start to finish. This might be a playthrough for your teacher (if you have one) or for a trusted friend/colleague/small audience (these will often not go as planned and further tweaking will likely be necessary).
  • First test flight – a complete play-through for yourself. This will usually be a disaster, leaving you feeling forlorn and incompetent. Don’t worry, this is quite normal! You will now embark on further practice using the maintenance and refinement tools.
  • Playing through of sections (from small to large, possibly under tempo for a while) and refining the playing (correcting errors, creating the exact sounds you’re after).
  • Digging the foundations – note learning (using tools such as The Three S’s), including memorisation (if the programme is to be played from memory).
  • Initial research and mapping out of the territory. Listening to some recordings, background reading, comparative listening. Infecting yourself with knowledge and enthusiasm.
  • Using Parkinson’s Law to frame the whole process…

Parkinson’s Law

If practising were an exact science and we were machines, perhaps we could guarantee the perfect performance. I wonder how often any of us can walk onto the concert platform or into the examination room feeling totally confident that we have done enough practice, that we have covered all our bases. There is always that nagging feeling we could have done more – all we need is a few more days and we’d be fine. However, more practice time does not necessarily mean an increase in our skill level or our degree of preparation. We need to trust that, if we have done the right sort of work according to a manageable schedule, we have done all that is humanly possible to produce the goods on any given day.

The following adage was coined by public administrator Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1955 essay for The Economist:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

If you allow six months to complete a project, it will take six months to complete. If you decide you’re going to do it in three months, it will take three months! Setting a deadline focusses the mind and changes the way we learn and practise. If we have set a time frame to achieve a goal, whether that applies to a component of an individual practice session, or learning and performing a piece from scratch, our mind will tend to focus our energies so as to achieve this. In making the decision we are stating an intention and then focussing our mind on what it’s going to take to get it done. This means that we are more likely to be successful at completing the task within the given time frame than if we had an open-ended attitude.

Embarking on the Journey

So, finally, here is a more direct answer to the original question, from a previous post Exam and Recital Preparation: Zen In The Art Of Plate Spinning. I suggest opening up a file for each piece and for each movement of a multi-movement piece on your imaginary desktop. Aim to make a start on many files at once rather than waiting until you have completed one before starting on the next. Another post I think would clarify this further is Once Upon a Time.

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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Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

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