I was brought up with a very craftsmanlike attitude to practising, and was shown concrete practice tools that I was supposed to implement between lessons. When I pass these on to my own students, I can always hear to what extent they have taken them on board.
I understand the reluctance to fully embrace some of the work necessary to construct solid and permanent foundations for mastering a piece because it can take quite a bit of time and effort, and a leap of faith that the practice methods will actually yield tangible results later. And sometimes during this process we have to wait patiently before we get to enjoy the emotional and visceral impact of the music we are studying – at this stage, the satisfaction comes from the construction process itself. I find this seriously enjoyable, but I realise not everyone does. People study the piano for different reasons, and not everyone will want to follow a practice path that involves a fair bit of dedication, discipline and effort. But if you want to experience a level of skill and reliability in performance that goes way beyond the hit-and-miss results that come from repeatedly reading through a piece in the hope that it will improve, then read on.
I was browsing through Book 1 of Alberto Jonas’ Master School of Piano Playing and Virtuosity and came across some preparatory exercises for the notorious finale of Chopin’s Bb minor Sonata. The idea is very simple, actually. You practise with shifting accents, moving the accent from its metrical place in the bar (where we would naturally feel the beats) one note across. Once you have heard and felt it this way, with complete technical control, you move it one note across again – and so on, until you have exhausted the possibilities. Thus in the Chopin finale you work until you are able to play these three practice versions:
If you want to take this a step further, then accent in groups of 4 (1234; 1234; 1234; 1234) and then in groups of 5, etc. You would probably also want to practise passages like this using different rhythms, also with a finger staccato and other different articulations, and if you were really game make use of symmetrical inversions. I think it is worth pointing out that this is not just advice some teachers tell their students to do, but actually how some great virtuosos work.
You can shift the accents for any problematic passage that requires superfine coordination at a fast tempo. Use it when you find yourself tripping over LH patterns like this from Beethoven’s op. 22 Sonata (allegro con brio) – do it LH separately, of course:
How does it work? Practising like this forces us to concentrate fully on achieving a very specific result, meaning these are not merely finger exercises but also brain exercises. By coordinating the movements involved in making each note in turn the leader of the pack, when we revert to the original we can expect to notice significant improvements. Do this regularly until the passage yields.
This idea is not just useful for the advanced levels. Here it is applied to the LH from Burgmüller’s Ballade (to be practised with the LH by itself, also hands together in the unison passage in the coda). Remember to practise each variant until you can do it beautifully!