Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Have you had the experience of learning a new piece one day and coming back to it the next day to find it hasn’t stuck at all?

Photo by Ludwig Kwan from Pexels

If you approach a new piece using the repeated read-through method, you’ll probably find at the end of a practice session you have managed to get it sounding better than it did at the start of the session. But how frustrating when you come back to it the next day it feels like it hasn’t stuck at all!

Fortunately, there are much better ways to go about learning a new piece such as using my Three S’s: Slowly, Separately and Sections to build solid foundations for consistent progress.

In the following video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action using Petzhold’s Minuet in G minor (BWV Anh. 115) from the Anna Magdalene Notebook. Working in units of one bar (plus one note) and with each hand alone, we find as many patterns as we can as we practise. By patiently repeating a small unit of music – enough to hold in our working memory – at the speed of no mistakes and with our mind fully engaged, we are digging firm foundations for security later on.

Practice like this takes a fair deal of discipline, but the rewards are significant. Remember:

“Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect!”

For more detailed information on the process, follow this link to my blog post, A Daisy Chain

Further Information & Resources

  • The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index)
  • Q-Spots Series (click here to view a blog post on this series)
  • Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click here for more information)

Firm Foundations from the Start

Isn’t it frustrating when a piece you’ve been practising for a while and feel like you know well falls apart in performance? It’s one thing to be able to play for yourself in the comfort of your own space, and quite another to perform it in front of others (how often I have heard students say “I can play it perfectly at home”!). Even if only playing for yourself, do you also sometimes feel that your results fall short of what you would like to achieve?

memorisation for firm foundations

Memorising vs remembering

One common cause of this is that many pianists rely on simply playing a piece over and over, repeating until the physical movements become automatic. When playing for oneself, this creates the illusion that we have successfully memorised the piece when in fact we have just happened to remember it.

Unless we are exceptionally confident when playing for others, over-reliance on pure muscle memory can prove unreliable when under pressure. Much of the problem stems from insufficient preparation – not having built strong enough foundations from the outset when learning a piece and from playing it through too often with scant regard for any ongoing maintenance procedures.

Memorisation for firm foundations

The more painstaking we are about the way we encode (the process of learning, practising, and preparation) the better able we are to decode (the act of performance). Memorisation is an active process as opposed to passively remembering.

To build security, other forms of memory have to be developed alongside muscle memory. These include aural and analytical memory. Here are a few of memory tools that are useful to avoid an over-reliance on muscle memory:

  • Pattern recognition away from the keyboard, and at the keyboard – Avoid simply playing the notes we read, instead discover the underlying structure of the music in ways that are meaningful to you.
  • Transposition by ear – The ultimate test of how well you know a piece is to play sections of it (slowly is fine) in two or three different keys. Hard at first, but it gets easier!
  • One finger – Use just one finger to play a line from memory. You’ll soon discover if you only know the line by muscle memory.
  • Two-handed arrangement – Make an impromptu two-handed arrangement of the music one hand has to play (do this from memory, of course!).
  • Wrong hand – Play the notes the left hand has to play but with the right hand (and vice versa). You can use this tool for those problem spots.

In this video excerpt from my online workshop on memorisation I demonstrate how a two-handed arrangement can be used to learn the left-hand of a movement from Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

Memory work helps us learn deeper, more thoroughly and more permanently. Even if you end up playing with the score, or only for yourself, knowing a piece on a deeper level means you’re more likely to deliver a performance that reflects your true potential, giving you (and your audience, if there is one!) a more satisfying outcome.

Free Online Event!

For more tools on deep learning and memorisation, join us on Saturday 11th June @ 17:00 – 18:00 BST (GMT + 1) for a free online workshop. In this revised version of one of our most popular online workshops, Graham Fitch explores the different memory systems and introduces various tools that will help you go beyond simply relying on muscle memory. Whether you choose to perform with the score or not, this workshop will help you ensure that you know a work on a much deeper level! Click here to find out more and to book your place.