On a grass verge near my house, hundreds of wild daisies have come into flower. Walking past just now I remembered a school trip from my single-digit years when our class teacher showed us how to make a daisy chain by pinching a small thumbnail slit in the stem and threading another daisy through. Our class managed to decimate an entire meadow full of the things.
“Daisy chain” by User Ecrips on en.wikipedia – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I am sure you must be wondering what all this has to do with piano practice – don’t worry, I’m slowly coming to it…
A very keen adult amateur pianist came to me for a consultation lesson the other day, and among other things she brought along Shostakovich’s Prelude in D flat (no. 15 from the op. 34 set of 24 Preludes) -.an eccentric, skittish sort of waltz currently on the ABRSM syllabus for Grade 7.
Here is Shostakovich himself playing it:
Despite having been playing this piece for quite some time, she told me she was frustrated that she was still too involved in the process of reading it. Her eyes were glued to the score as she negotiated the chromatic meanderings of Shostakovich’s zigzagging lines, and she couldn’t seem to trust herself to let go and enjoy the piece or appreciate its humour.
As a busy professional, she admitted she had precious little time and energy for her piano practice yet despite having put some time in on this piece she was frustrated that it didn’t seem to be getting better.
The Repeated Read-Through Method
I could see she had been approaching her practice using the repeated read-through method.
The logic behind this way of doing things is that by reading a piece through time after time, eventually you’ll know it well enough to play it fluently. Because you believe there’s not enough time to work slowly and carefully, you just play the darned thing through two or three times in each practice session hoping that slips and stumbles will disappear all by themselves the next time.
The repeated read-through method may work for some players who have enough musical comprehension and experience to fully grasp the structure of a piece in two or three readings, but unfortunately it is fatally flawed for most.
While you probably will end up playing better at the end of a practice session using the repeated read-through method, this is because you have sat with it long enough to get into a flow state. How frustrating to discover the next time you sit and practise that this easy, effortless feeling has disappeared and it feels like you have to start over from scratch. This is a bit like the information held on the clipboard function on you computer – when you reboot, the contents of your clipboard are wiped.
Let’s investigate a better way of doing things – where a bit of hard (yet fun) work will yield more permanent and more secure results.
If you are beginning a new piece using the daisy chain method, you’ll need to have a sense of how the music should sound before you begin. You can study the score away from the piano or listen to a few recordings while following the score.
After this, you’ll probably want to hack through the piece. I recommend doing this only once, because bad habits take hold alarmingly fast. Realistically, I know players will probably do it more than once – try and keep this to an absolute minimum.
If it’s an old piece you’ve decided you finally want to get a firm grip on, I also highly recommend going through all these preliminary steps.
Here is a checklist of what is necessary before we get to the daisy thing:
- Mark the main sections in your score (or use a photocopy)
For more information on tracking, follow this link to my blog post (click here)
- Working a section at a time, go through hands separately organising a fingering that works for you. This may be the printed fingering, or it may not. If not, cross out the printed fingering and (after some experimentation) write your own in!
- Make sure you have written in a fingering for the first note of each bar in both hands – you’ll see why in a minute.
- Familiarise yourself with each hand separately – slowly is great!
The Daisy Chain Method
We can use the daisy chain method to practise hands separately, but I am now going to assume we are ready to put the piece together.
Firstly, choose the size of your daisy. I suggest starting with single bars, and progress to two-bar then four-bar units. It makes more sense to stop on a downbeat rather than at the end of a bar not only because this feels better rhythmically, but also because the notes you stop on will be the same notes you are going to start on when you move to the next unit.
- Focus on what you are about to do, and set a pulse. You can work slowly or up to speed.
- Play the unit you have decided on and not a single note more (the temptation to go on can be overwhelming but do resist this!)
- Evaluate your result as right/wrong, good/bad, comfortable/tight, etc. Be as specific as possible here. If you played a wrong note, which one exactly? Where precisely did you go off the rails? If what you played was correct but felt awkward or tense, log this too.
- Mentally rehearse the unit, imagining playing it perfectly and hearing it inwardly. If notes and rhythm were correct in Step 3 but it felt stiff, imagine yourself playing it freely and loosely – with infectious rhythm. It is tempting to skip this step but the rewards of doing it are significant.
- Now replay your unit, focussing your attention on reproducing exactly what you imagined in the previous step.
- Repeat Steps 4 and 5 at least three times. Three times is a good number, just enough to start forming a habit while maintaining concentration and focus.
- Move on to your next unit – the notes you stopped on are the notes you now start on. Because you may be starting in the middle of a phrase, you’ll need to have written in the fingering for the first notes of each bar even if it is obvious in context.
When we practise using the daisy chain method, we are using our working memory. The working memory is where we hold information in our mind and do something with that information. This is why it is important when we do repetitions not to do them mechanically, but always with some intention.
Here are some other points to keep in mind as you practise the daisy chain method:
- Feel the music in your body. This does not mean theatrical swaying and swooping, it does mean allowing your hands, arms and upper body necessary mobility for the music to be felt physically – so it does not stay stuck in your head.
- If you wish to repeat what was good to strengthen a habit, find a new detail to focus on with each new repetition. For example – really grade that crescendo; keep in mind “LH 3rd finger on the D flat”; loosen the wrist on the repeated notes, etc.
- If you are muddled with the notes and stumble over them, don’t repeat a unit without latching onto a design feature you can hold in your mind as you replay.
For example (please imagine a key signature of 5 flats):
In my experience, using the daisy chain method several days in a row guarantees a noticeable improvement in playing quality as well as a greater sense of security and enjoyment in playing. It takes some discipline to do this, but it is well worth the investment.
For the first two or three days, I recommend starting off each practice session as though from scratch with single-bar units until this feels easy. Thereafter, you might choose to begin with longer units of two or four bars.
Remember to keep your mind and your imagination involved, and always have the energy of the music in your body. Enjoy!
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