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Q-Spots Series: Beethoven’s Für Elise

This is the third in my series on Q-Spots, and I’m going to feature one short excerpt from Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, WoO 59 – otherwise known as Für Elise.

Q-Spots (short for Quarantine Spots) is a practice tool whereby we identify and mark in the score those sections in a given piece where we stumble, fumble or approximate the notes. As we play we know things are not quite right, but a little voice in the back of our mind says “it’ll be OK tomorrow” or “once I run through the piece a few more times I’ll eventually get it”. A much more effective and economical approach is to identify and then quarantine such sections (they might be as short as a bar or two) and apply a step-by-step approach to our practice before reintegrating the Q-Spot backs into the piece. This means not starting at the beginning each time we practise, and going back to the step-by-step process each day for several days until our inner Quality Control Inspector is happy to sign off the work. 

In my Online Academy article on Für Elise I have come up with two Q-Spots that cause players to baulk. The Q-Spot I want to look at today is the C major episode (bars 29 – 35), the site of many a derailment. I have included the bar before the problem begins because it is important to be able to lead into the difficult spot from slightly before (besides which the LH fingering in bar 29, if you go with it, could use a little reinforcement from the extra practice this bar is going to get). 

Start with the left hand!

Whenever there is a difficulty present in one hand, I have found a tendency for the student to obsess about that hand and not to bother practising the other hand much. In the case of this example, unless the left hand is rock steady and well characterised, it’s not going to be much of a support for the right hand. Don’t go near the RH until you can play the LH fluently, rhythmically and characterfully.

Right hand alone

If we remember the principle “nothing with fingers without arm; nothing with arm without finger” (Leonid Nikolaev), we will realise we need to choreograph the right hand to make it technically secure. Bars 30 and 32 rely on forearm rotations to assist the fingers; bars 31 and 33 to the end of this example work well with small wrist circles. However you play the fast RH notes, it will be important to keep loose in the wrist and mobile in the hand.

Hands together – at the speed of no mistakes

Some years ago I wrote a blog post entitled The Speed of No Mistakes, which players and teachers have found useful. To apply the idea here, we take our Q-Spot and play it slowly enough that we don’t have any hesitations or stops and starts. This might be incredibly slow! Do this several times in a row, resisting the temptation to push up the tempo. Ensure complete accuracy of notes, rhythm and fingering – and keep some attention on remaining physically loose and free.

Gaining speed – chaining

When we’ve done a certain amount of slow practice, we can increase the speed by chaining – note-to-note or beat to beat at the tempo. The process requires good listening skills, concentration and awareness. I give manuscript examples of the controlled stops I would recommend in my Online Academy article, as well as in this short excerpt from the video (the full video is included in the article).

According to research, deep sleep reinforces the learning of new motor skills. Having spent a productive practice session working like this, a sensible decision would be to resist playing it though at speed, but to return to these practice stages tomorrow and do them over again – maybe even for a few days in a row. I would recommend gradually leaving the ultra-slow work behind, and focus on the fast chaining practice – to develop the reflexes for speed and accuracy.

Many further practice stages for daily work on these Q-spots are available on the Online Academy as part of our Q-spot series. Click here to view this article on the Online Academy or click here for a blog post with more information on quarantining and the Q-spots series.