The Pitfalls of Mechanical Practice

I get quite a lot of inspiration for topics to write about on my blog from my students. During a lesson something might crop up that seems important, or certainly worth writing about.

On two separate occasions this week people had been attempting to solve what they perceived as technical difficulties by practising passagework in a variety of different rhythms.

Rhythm practice seems to be yet another of those divisive topics in the piano world. Some pianists swear by it and others dismiss it. My own teachers fell into both camps – two of them insisted on it, and two others told me it was not going to help and that I shouldn’t do it.

As my readers will have figured out by now, I tend to prefer a middle path. When done mindfully, in the right doses and for the right reasons, my own experience shows me that rhythm practice can certainly be beneficial as a part of the practice routine. However, it is not a cure-all and can have negative consequences if overdone (tension being a significant potential downside).

Someone brought the Schubert E flat Impromptu, and had been using the rhythmical variants I suggest in my own study edition. He said he was still struggling with the first bar, despite practising the rhythms daily. When I looked at what was going on the solution was extremely simple. The problem had to do with the pivot over the thumb F to the 3rd finger Eb, and the elbow was in the wrong position to negotiate this. To find the best position, we first played the thumb and the 3rd finger together and started the piece from this position (the elbow slightly raised and further away from the torso). Having solved this problem, occasional rhythm practice proved useful in developing and maintaining precision in control of the right hand.

For my video walkthroughs on the Schubert E flat Impromptu, click here

Another situation where rhythm practice had certainly helped, but was far from providing a complete solution of the problem the student was experiencing, was in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, in particular the left hand from bar 33 to bar 36.

To me, it was interesting that in other places the left hand was fluent and all was working well. What was it about this spot that eluded her? When we slowed the passage down, it was clear that she had been thinking of the left hand mechanically, as a series of equal finger strokes. She had been working for rhythmic evenness and precision, no bad thing in itself, but what had been missed out in her practice was the idea of shaping a line, playing it with a feeling for intonation, timing, colour and inflection. As she played the line at a very slow tempo, we aimed to make it sound as though played as a cantilena by a cellist. As we sang along this with, we stopped when a particular interval had not been internalised in the voice (in particular the augmented second to diminished third at the end of the third beats in bars 1 and 2 of the above example). Once she was able to sing it, she was able to play it with more meaning and, while the technical difficulties did not exactly disappear, she was well on her way to creating an expressive line that the rhythm practice had obliterated.

There is a shadow side to everything. Too much slow practice and we don’t develop the right reflexes for up-to-speed playing; too much practice at speed and we lose motor control and finesse. Rhythm practice is no different – use it, but use it as a part of a balanced practice regime.

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The annotated study edition mentioned in this article is available at our store as part of our study editions bundle, our eBooks & study editions bundle or separately. An online version of the walkthrough content is also available as part of an Online Academy subscription (please click here to view if you are already a subscriber or click here to find out more about subscription options).

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