Inventing an Exercise from a Piece

People often ask me what sort of studies they can do to improve a particular difficulty they are experiencing in a given piece. The underlying assumption is we can just practise some studies for a while, and transfer whatever skills we gain from these across to our piece. It would be nice if it were as simple as that; an alternative and often more expedient approach is to aim to solve problems from within the piece we are studying by formulating, more or less on the spot, simple contraptions that focus on the difficulty itself.

I’m especially keen on creating such exercises based on the difficulty we are trying to solve, making these as short and simple as possible so we can look down at our hands as we practise. Let me give you an example, from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prélude, op. 23 no. 5. The LH has to find a way of moving across to the F# on the fourth semiquaver (16th note) of the first bar. There is obviously no finger connection possible at this point; because of the speed of the passage the movement has to come from the arm, the hand staying as close as possible to the keyboard (there’s no time to come up too high). For me, the optimal motion is an arm shift combined with a rotation from the D, whereby the pinky side of the hand is lifted by the forearm as we play the thumb D. We feel the untwist in the arm as the pinky lands in the F#, the result of a rotation from right to left as we connect with the key.

This is difficult and cumbersome to put into words (I can hear some of you scratching your heads), but once we have the sense of how this feels we are on our way to automating the motion so we can allow it to happen naturally as we play in the context of the piece. If there is any difficulty with getting the hang of this at the keyboard, I would start by making an exercise based on the following patterns (wait as long as you need on the long notes). You may be wondering what is the point of the first bar, since it moves nowhere. I’ve included it so it will be rather easy to feel the rotary movement between thumb and pinky – from within the hand position (i.e. no shift yet). You might want to return to this as your control example – the motion is the same as the exercise progresses, when of course we need to add the arm shift across to the right.

I call this type of exercise target practice. The idea is to practise the movement landing on a variety of different notes, so we develop the skill itself rather than just drilling the spot from the piece. It works surprisingly well with any sort of shift or jump, and is enjoyable to practise. Don’t expect pinpoint accuracy with every landing but try and refine the movement so it’s as economical as possible and above all free, loose and enjoyable in the body.

Recently I had a really good chat with Josh Wright where we got into a discussion about this very thing. People seem to have found the whole video useful, but I’ve loaded it to start at the point where I demonstrate this exercise.

After the interview went live, I received a very helpful email from one of my subscribers (thanks, Matt!) who gave me a quotation from a book by David Epstein on developing skills, entitled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. The following paragraph seems to back up my target practice exercise with a little scientific research, always a good thing.

Interleaving is a desirable difficulty that frequently holds for both physical and mental skills. A simple motor-skill example is an experiment in which piano students were asked to learn to execute, in one-fifth of a second, a particular left-hand jump across fifteen keys. They were allowed 190 practice attempts. Some used all of those practicing the fifteen-key jump, while others switched between eight-, twelve-, fifteen-, and twenty-two-key jumps. When the piano students were invited back for a test, those who underwent the mixed practice were faster and more accurate at the fifteen-key jump than the students who had only practiced that exact jump. The “desirable difficulty” coiner himself, Robert Bjork, once commented on Shaquille O’Neal’s perpetual free-throw woes to say that instead of continuing to practice from the free-throw line, O’Neal should practice from a foot in front of and behind it to learn the motor modulation he needed.

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein

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If you enjoyed this article then please click here if you’d like to sign-up to our mailing list to receive future articles, content updates and special offers. You may also be interested in the following resources:

Practising the Piano eBook Series 

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Practising the Piano Online Academy

Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, it will transform the way you approach playing or teaching the piano!

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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)

Practising the Piano: Learning a New Piece

It’s the start of a new school  year! With it comes new challenges, new examination syllabi and many wonderful pieces to learn. Whether you do it for pleasure or an exam, here are seven tried and tested steps to help you lay a solid foundation when starting a new piece.

learning a new piece

1. Familiarise yourself

Get to know the piece better before you start:

  • Reading up on the piece beforehand will give you context
  • Tune your ear by listening to several recordings of the piece 
  • Analyse the piece by considering its form and character

2. Select your fingering

Organise and condition your fingers at the start:

  • Note down your chosen fingering for both hands in the score
  • Adjust as learning progresses until you find the perfect fingering
  • Once you’ve found your fingering sweet spot, stick to it!

3. Divide & conquer

Avoid overloading your working memory by:

  • Separating the piece into smaller, more manageable sections
  • Exercising mindful repetition using the bar by bar plus 1 method
  • Learning one section at a time before you move onto the next!

4. Take it slow!

Learning a piece correctly is more important than developing speed:

  • Start slowly to get your notes, rhythms and fingerings right
  • Give yourself enough time to think and plan in between notes
  • Patiently repeat small sections of music as often as you need it

5. Start in different places

Avoid developing weak spots and superficial learning of the work by:

  • Exercising tracking to test and strengthen your memory
  • Working backwards through sections of your piece
  • Starting with any Quarantine spots identified early on

6. Separate hands & strands

Simplify the process by deconstructing the piece:

  • Tackle separate-hand activities
  • Break your piece into simple strands
  • Isolate notes or patterns and learn them to perfection

7. Develop your own voice

Creating a personal interpretation comes from trusting your instinct:

  • Avoid copying other players’ ideas directly
  • Don’t listen to other recordings at this stage (only in the preparatory stage!)
  • Create your own ideas and play at your own speed


The Online Academy and our store have numerous resources to support you in learning a wide range of popular pieces, including:

  • Video walk-throughs of popular works such as Burgmuller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor (Op. 3 No. 2)
  • A growing collection of video walkthroughs for selected pieces in the new ABRSM 2021 & 2022 examination syllabus
  • From the Ground Up – a series that uses reduced scores and outlines to help you learn new pieces faster, featuring works by Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann and Beethoven
  • Annotated study editions and walk-throughs for works by Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Schubert and Ravel

Click here to find out more about the Online Academy or click here to subscribe from as little as £13.99 per month or £119.99 per year.


Starting a New Piece – Top Tips & Tools

Last week I launched a free email course on how to start learning a new piece and lay solid foundations from the outset (click here to find out more). The following is a summary of some of the tips and practice tools from my course which will help you get started on the right track:

  1. One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage.
  2. Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter.
  3. Practising separately doesn’t only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. It can be useful to deconstruct a score and play voices separately and then together in different combinations.
  4. Working on a piece in small sections at the Speed of No Mistakes ensures accuracy from the start and helps you avoid embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later.
  5. By identifying and marking tricky spots in a piece upfront, you can begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems.
  6. Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections helps us structure our practice and ensure that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure.
free email course with tips on starting a new piece

If you would like a more detailed explanation of these tips and tools, plus examples and other resources then please do sign up for my email course! The course is entirely free, featuring seven video lessons ranging from three to twelve minutes in length. The videos are accompanied by downloads, notes and exercises to help you follow and implement each stage of the process.


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!