Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

This week’s guest blog post features an article on using mental practise techniques when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken uses an example from his From the Ground Up edition featuring Chopin’s Waltz in E minor (Op. Posth.) to illustrate how to use a rhythmic context to achieve evenness in passage work.

*** *** ***

Change Your Technique by Changing Your Mind

We pianists tend to think of technique as a purely physical matter, a sort of gymnastics for the hands and arms. We imagine that if we develop the right muscles and make the right movements, the music will somehow come out right. But the way we move at the keyboard is deeply influenced by the way we think the music inwardly. It is therefore possible to make technical changes and improvements simply by hearing and thinking the music differently. In this way, a clearly imagined musical goal calls forth the technical means of achieving that goal.

One of the technical challenges we work on most is evenness in passage work. We spend countless hours learning to play smooth, even scales, without unwanted accents at the changes of hand position. We work on the smooth passing of the thumb, the correct hand positions and arm angles, and so on, as indeed we must. But all this work will be in vain if we do not first hear inwardly what a smooth, flowing scale should sound like. This inward hearing is really a matter of rhythmic imagination. If we imagine a scale to be a series of equal, uniform notes, without nuance or direction, it will come out that way.

If instead we give the scale a rhythmic context (two notes per beat, for example), then suddenly we have two different kinds of notes: those that fall on the beat, and those that fall in between the beats. If we then imagine the notes that fall in between the beats as leading forward to the notes on the beat, we will achieve both a sense of forward motion and an avoidance of unwanted accents on the thumbs:

Practising with a beat in the other hand like this is much more beneficial, I find, than practising scales in both hands simultaneously, which is unnecessarily difficult, and quite rare in the repertoire. It’s a simple way of providing a rhythmic framework against which we can measure the accuracy of our timing and nuancing. You should also reverse the hands, of course, and then play three notes to the beat, then four, and in different keys, up and down.

We can use this method in our repertoire practice too. A couple of examples from Chopin’s E minor waltz, recently released in my series, From the Ground Up, will illustrate the point. At the very end of the piece, there is an E minor arpeggio that surges up and down the keyboard. Since the left hand provides no rhythmic context here, the temptation for the right hand to make accents in the wrong places, or to lose all rhythmic definition, is great:

The problem here, as in scales and arpeggios in general, is that the changes of hand position don’t coincide with the beats, but occur in the middle of them. We can see this misalignment more clearly if we re-beam the right hand according to its hand groups, and add a pulsing E in the left hand. As you can see, not once does a new hand position begin on a downbeat:

Once again, the solution lies in how we think the arpeggio rhythmically. If we think it in relationship to the underlying pulse, and are aware of exactly which note, and which finger, receives the accent in each hand group, the technical work of shifting hand positions without accents will largely be done.

The beginning of the piece contains a similar challenge, although here false accents may arise not because of changes of hand position, but because of the contour of the right hand’s waves, whose highest notes fall in the middle of the second beat, creating the potential for an accentuation in 6/8 rather than 3/4. The challenge, then, is to avoid accenting the pinky in each measure:

Adding a left hand pulse in quarter notes, as I do in the edition, will once again obviate much of the difficulty, but equally important is the way we group the notes in our minds. If we group the six notes of each measure starting from the first note of the bar and ending at the last note, as the musical notation seems to suggest, the music will sound vertical and stodgy. If instead we group them across the bar line, from the fourth 8th note (crotchet) to the 3rd in the next bar, we create a surging momentum that carries the music forward in waves. This grouping can be effectively practised by adding an extra beat in between the groups and by using careful dynamic gradations:

Afterwards, you play the rhythm as written, whereupon the false accents on the pinky will be gone, and the music will have a dynamic forward motion. In other words, instead of working to make your pinky play less loudly, you think the music in a new way, and the pinky obligingly conforms to your wishes, without struggle and wasted time.

These and other mental practise techniques are discussed at length in the From the Ground Up edition of this piece. They help us to learn pieces more efficiently, saving precious time while at the same time developing our mental, and technical, powers.

– Ken Johansen

***   ***   ***

If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series, or the latest edition which features Chopin’s Waltz in E minor. Click here to view the walk-through on the Online Academy or click here to purchase and download a printable PDF version of the edition.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions:

The complete From the Ground Up series is available via an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more or on one of the options below if you wish to subscribe:

  • Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
  • Annual subscription – Save on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription for £119.99 per year and get free eBooks and editions worth over £70! (click here to sign-up for this option)

The Body – Wiser than the Mind?

In this week’s guest post, William Westney explores the concept of “tacit knowing” – how our bodies can often be wiser than our minds and discusses what implications this has for pianists and teachers.


When we make music, we experience a fascinating integration of body and mind. The body knows wonderful things about piano performance, much of which cannot be explained using words or logic. Unfortunately, our analytical minds can often get in the way of tapping into this wisdom, making it easy to become bogged down when tackling a challenge.

Bypassing the Mind

You may have experienced moments where it feels like everything is just falling into place beautifully without significant thought. In these moments it’s likely that you’ve been able to “get out of your own way” by bypassing the mind and relied in an inherent “felt sense”.

Here is an example of how the body can bypass the mind to solve a technical problem. Chopin’s Prelude in F-sharp major (Op. 28 No. 13) presents a cross-rhythm which will be new to most students – and can seem most perplexing and intimidating: five against six:

Polyrhythm in chopin's prelude in f-sharp major

How does one approach this challenge? Mathematical charts? Super-slow practice? Fortunately there is a far easier and better way that dispenses with thinking and controlling:

Implications for Interpretation

Interpretively, our bodies can also inspire us with creativity. Here is an example of how that can work with Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca”:

Right and left brain, body and mind, personal feeling – we use it all at the piano and integrating it can lead to a highly satisfying experience of piano playing.

In my new video series on the Online Academy, I explore these ideas and the exciting possibilities they unlock for students of the piano further in seven videos. Using several repertoire examples, I examine the implications for technique, interpretation and teaching. Click here to find out more and to view the series index.

Practising the Piano Online Academy

The Practising the Piano Online Academy is the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. It features a constantly growing library of thousands of articles, videos and musical excerpts on topics including practising, piano technique and performing from leading experts. Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or on one of the options below to subscribe:

  • Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
  • Annual subscription – Save almost 30% on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription for £119.99 per year and get free eBooks and editions worth over £70! (click here to sign-up for this option)

Engaging Your Mind Learning a New Piece

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 in front of others – one of the claims I hear most often in a lesson is: “I can pay 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?

One common cause of this problem is that many players rely on simply repeating a piece over and over until the physical movements become habitual. This creates the illusion that the piece has been successfully mastered. Unless we are exceptionally confident in front of an audience, 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. 

Learning by design?

The more painstaking we are about the way we encode the score (processes of learning, practising and preparation, the better able we are to decode it (the act of performance) while handling any nerves or jitters. In this blog post, I will look at a practice tool that works beautifully for memorisation, but that is also useful for deep learning – even if you decide to play from the score.

I call this practice tool PPR – Personalised Pattern Recognition. “Personalised” means that you don’t have to be intimidated by formal analysis if you haven’t had such training, you have a tool to help you find your own ways of seeing the design features in a piece of music from the macro to the micro levels.

By discovering patterns in the music that are meaningful to us personally as we practise, we can absorb the music into the cognitive parts of the brain and into the long-term memory far quicker, more deeply and more permanently than merely moving the fingers in response to the printed notation.

PPR in practice

In the opening four bars of the Allemande from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, you might first notice the harmonic progression and perhaps block it out in solid chords – I-IV-vii°-I on a tonic pedal:

JS Bach Partita in B-Flat

Don’t worry if you are not versed in harmonic labels, there are other ways to see this passage. Here are two of the main design features that should help you absorb the material:

  • The first RH note in each bar ascends stepwise from the dominant, F, to the tonic, B flat, while the bass stays on the key note.
  • The semiquaver (16th note) figuration is made up of two main features: a descending broken chord in an alternating (jagged) design (under the square brackets) interrupted by a written-out mordent figure (circled), and afterwards a rising broken chord, arpeggio style (slurred).

To use this information practically at the keyboard, first visualise and then play from memory the notes in the blue boxes, ignoring everything else. Do this relatively fast, without any regard for the eventual tempo – we are just establishing the design at this stage:

Pattern recognition in a new piece

Thereafter, you might play the notes in the blue boxes together with the notes in the red circles, followed by the descending notes of each bar, omitting the rising ones (and vice versa) before bringing all the ingredients together:

Engaging the mind learning a new piano piece

To test and reinforce your aural and analytic understanding of the passage, play the semiquavers with the 2nd or 3rd finger of your RH (necessarily slowly and detached) from memory. If you come unstuck, it means you didn’t fully grasp the design. Once you are successful, you can work out a fingering and start to work on the muscular memory as you explore articulation and shaping possibilities, returning to the one-finger practice periodically to check that you are not relying solely on muscle memory.

A shorter, more thorough process

While it might seem laborious and time-consuming to engage the analytic mind in the process of learning, it ultimately saves time by shortening the learning process while simultaneously deepening it.

Players who have had little formal training in music theory often baulk at the thought of analysis, but as you have seen it does not have to be daunting. By devoting energy to identifying the formal structure of a piece as you see it in early practice sessions, you can have this organisation front of mind in later practice sessions to help retrieve memory cues that control your playing.

As we get used to seeking patterns, we will constantly discover new ones during our practice, since our PPR radar will always be pinging somewhere in the background, helping us to really know the piece!


If you’re interested in a practical demonstration of this and several other deep learning tools, please have a look at my upcoming interactive workshop in which I’ll be showing you how to use these tools with exercises I’ve created specifically for this event. If you can’t join us live, you can also watch the recordings and try out the exercises in your own time afterwards. Please click here for more information or to book your place!