The Three Little Pigs – Practising the Piano

First published in May, 2016, The Three Little Pigs reminds us of the importance of solid preparation as we learn our pieces, and is the second in this short summer series of reposts from past years.

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We all know the story of The Three Little Pigs, in which each pig builds a home. One takes hardly any time building his out of straw, so he can spend more time playing and relaxing. The second pig builds his home out of sticks, which takes slightly longer, but he too values his down time. The third pig chooses to build his home out of bricks, which requires a great deal more time and effort, but he values taking the time to build a home properly. When the Big Bad Wolf pays a visit, needless to say only the third pig’s house of bricks stands up to the wolf’s huffing and puffing.

Three little pigs 1904 straw house

Comply with Building Regulations

The first two piggies used substandard and unsuitable materials, while the third piggy had checked wind load and used approved and recognised methods of construction.

In the UK, Building Regulations are minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building. They are developed by the Government and approved by Parliament. In my piano studio, I take pride in teaching tried and tested performance skills to those taking exams and diplomas, or those who want to perform for their own pleasure and satisfaction. My building regulations apply from the very beginning of learning new pieces and ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that the end result (the performance itself) will be strong enough to withstand the pressures of the Big Bad Wolf.

The House of Straw

The player who builds his house of out straw mistakenly believes that running through a piece over and over again in an occasional practice session will suffice. He assumes that getting a note, chord or a passage wrong nine times and correct on the tenth attempt means he will get it right in his exam on the first attempt. He’ll be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat on an unfamiliar piano with an examiner sitting in front of him – no worries. And he can put off learning his scales to the last minute. He doesn’t think it is necessary to bother with fingering – he’s only doing it for fun so it’s not really that important in the end.

The House of Sticks

This player is doing a little bit of good work and knows he’s supposed to practise regularly. He also knows about slow practice, but the problem is he doesn’t do it slowly enough or for long enough, and certainly isn’t really concentrating or listening as he does it. He finds it hard to resist the temptation to doodle when he’s sitting at the piano, and while he does occasionally practise the weak spots in his pieces most of the time he just plays through things he already knows.

The House of Bricks

The player who builds his house out of bricks takes pleasure, satisfaction and pride in the process of learning and enjoys doing this thoroughly and deeply. For him, the journey is just as important as the destination. Here are some of the principles he works by:

Page 69 illustration in English Fairy Tales

The Big Bad Wolf

I have described the sort of approach above that is optimal for security in performance as well as fantastic pianistic progress in general. But who is this Big Bad Wolf anyway, and should we be afraid him?

It is one thing to play in the comfort and security of our own home, and another when we play in front of others. The Big Bad Wolf might be a real person (someone who constantly criticises us and puts us down) but usually it is a state of fear coming from our own mind. It is that part of ourself susceptible to the imagined judgement of others when we perform – we imagine our audience is criticising every little thing we do. The Big Bad Wolf might even be the excess adrenaline our body pumps into our bloodstream that turns our fingers to jelly. Solid preparation won’t stop the wolf showing up as we sit down to perform, but we’ll be in a stronger position to ward him off. May all your performances sizzle!