Freeing Up Space – Practising the Piano

I have had quite a lot of feedback from last week’s post on the benefits of speaking aloud to ourself as we practise – it seems that many of us do it!

Just after I hit the “publish” button I remembered two other uses for the voice in our practice. I could have simply added these to what I had already written but decided to make a separate post, since there was quite a bit more to say – here it is!

I think we would all agree that playing the piano is a complex mental and motor activity, one that takes a lot of application, dedication and perseverance to master. I work with some students who are incredibly coordinated at the piano and experience very little technical difficulty. After careful guidance and detailed instruction, these fortunate players get it relatively quickly and easily. For others acquiring these skills is time-consuming and more of a process – much depends on how the individual is wired.

If you find you still struggle with a passage even after careful practice, or if you just want to dig a bit deeper for greater understanding and security, there is a process you can use that I learned from Leon Fleisher – counting aloud.

Counting Aloud

Main Beats and Subdivisions

I have mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere that one of the highlights of my musical education was Leon Fleisher’s weekly class for piano majors at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He mentioned on more than one occasion that we should practise counting out aloud.

The effort and concentration needed to accomplish this extra task takes more brain power than we require for the playing alone, so that when we stop the counting we find we have freed up this extra space. It just makes the playing feel easier and a whole lot more organised!

One additional benefit is we will know the metrical structure of the music on a much deeper level, feeling how each syncopation pulls against the beat and (if we count wisely) the length of each phrase as determined by strong and weak bars.

So, there are several ways we can count.

Let’s start with a section from the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata op. 109 – one that challenged me rhythmically when I learned the work as a student and one that seems to challenge others too (judging by the number of times I’ve needed to correct it over the years).

This second theme, marked adagio espressivo, sounds free but is completely organised rhythmically. The metrics of the first two bars of this section are fairly straightforward to feel, and the three main beats clear to the eye:

Op 109 1st movt

Things are a little less obvious from the third bar onwards, and we need to get a grip or risk losing the pulse.

Taking great care about doing this very precisely:

  • As we play, start counting aloud the semiquaver (16th note) subdivisions  – 1-e-and-a; 2-e-and-a; 3-e-and-a, etc.
  • Repeat, now in quaver (8th note) subdivisions – 1-and; 2-and; 3-and
  • Finally, count out only the main beats – 1-2-3

Rather than merely marking time with our voice, we might reflect the hierarchy not only within the bar but also within each beat by stressing strong beats and lightening up on weak beats.

But as we practise counting aloud like this, we discover that the music doesn’t conform neatly to the textbook idea of strong and weak beats. Syncopations, rising and falling lines, long notes (agogic accents) and dynamic accents constantly oppose the underlying metrical scheme and discovering these elements energises our playing.

When we count, forward and backward directions (rubato) can also occur – so there is no need for this process to be at all mechanical or metronomic.

Strong Bars and Weak Bars

Composers up until the end of the Romantic Period generally use a metrical structure to organise the music – a time signature with regularly occurring barlines (cross rhythms and hemiolas are implied and up to us to highlight).

But not all downbeats are created equal! When we play a piece in triple time we might notice that one bar isn’t so much a self-contained unit but more like a single beat of a larger unit.

Let me explain with a very simple example – the little F major Minuet, K2 by Mozart:


If we counted this phrase 1-2-3; 1-2-3; 1-2-3; 1-2-3, etc., we would get a much squarer result than if we felt it as 1-2-3; 2-2-3; 3-2-3; 4-2-3. So as we practise, we can gradually eliminate the extraneous 2nd and 3rd beats and simply count the downbeats, as 1-2-3-4 (if we want to put a medium stress on “3”, that’s fine).

It doesn’t just apply to simple pieces – I got someone to do this with a Chopin Scherzo the other day, to great effect.

Counting according to these principles can really enhance our perception of phrase structure. Here it is applied to the Trio of Chopin’s B minor Waltz, op. 69, no. 2. I make the phrase structure 2+2+4, and counting one in a bar would therefore give us 1-2; 2-2; 1-2-3-4:

b minor waltz

And Now For Something Completely Different…

Don’t you notice that if you prepare a fast passage deliberately faster than it will need to go, when you revert to tempo you get the feeling you have quite a bit in reserve? The passage just feels much more manageable, especially if you have practised it not only fast but also much lighter!

I am going to suggest something a bit unusual now, and certainly rather unorthodox. This is not for everyday use, but for special occasions when you really want to strengthen either motor control or memory – or both.

Take a piece or a passage you know well (it needs to be memorised already). In place of the score, open an ordinary book or something with printed words that you aren’t familiar with and read aloud from it as you play.

This forces you to use your conscious attention to read the words from the page and tests whether the automatic pilot in your playing is strong enough to manage despite the whirlwind of activity that has to be going on in your brain as you play and read. It overloads the system so once mastered and you stop doing the reading, you have freed up quite a bit of extra space – space you can use to zone out and let the playing just happen by itself.

This activity brings new meaning to the term multitasking – but not for beginners!

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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).

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