Q-Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes):

  • Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23
  • Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35

The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy.

Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie.

Before we can expect the hands to fit together comfortably, I suggest knowing the left hand so well by itself that it happens automatically when we play hands together. We might begin by practising the left hand very slowly in two ways:

  1. Firmly with active finger tips, each note exactly equal in tone. Make sure the wrist remains loose and supple.
  2. In a more cantabile style, with hairpin crescendo and diminuendo shapings.

Being able to control the left hand in a variety of different rhythmic patterns can really help here. Here is just one of many rhythmical variants you will find in the detailed Online Academy article – alternating one bar at full speed with a bar at exactly half the speed, with added dynamic contrasts (for practice – we’re not going to play like this). Do this extremely precisely, making the contrasts sudden:

Now that we are fluent with our left hand, it is time to add the right hand trill. We might proceed by playing the two notes of the trill together, loosely holding onto the thumb and gently tapping the Ds with the 3rd finger. The first stage will look like this:

The following video provides a demonstration of some of the practice procedures I recommend for this Q-spot:

Ten further practice stages for daily work on this Q-spot are available on the Online Academy as part of our Q-spot series. Click here to view this article on the Online Academy or click here for a blog post with more information on quarantining and the Q-spots series.


Q-Spots Series: Ibert’s The Little White Donkey

The ten pieces that make up Jacques Ibert’s collection of impressionistic piano pieces, entitled Histoires, sound as fresh to us now as the day they were written. Actually, they were composed over the course of a decade, between 1912 and 1922 when Ibert was based in Rome. Many of the pieces drew their inspiration from the sights of Spain, Italy and Tunisia as Ibert travelled around. 

We are going to look at a small section from the second piece, Le petit âne blanc (The Little White Donkey). This delightful work is suitable for the intermediate player; it needs plenty of imagination to play it with the colour and vibrancy it requires. It is not hard to hear the trotting of the donkey in the left hand, or the gentle braying in the right hand that comes later. In the key of F sharp major, the piece might pose some challenges initially, but once the notes have been learned you will find that the music lies very well under the hand. 

As part of my Q-spot series, I have selected two places from The Little White Donkey that will need your careful attention for the piece to flow well as a whole:

  1. Bars 20 – downbeat 25
  2. Bars 25-29

In my full article on the Online Academy, I give detailed step-by-step practice guides for both these quarantine spots together with a video tutorial. Let’s have a look at an especially challenging moment from the second Q-spot, from bars 27 – 29. How many players have stumbled here, uncertain as to how to improve the passage?

This short extract makes an excellent exercise in double note playing, where the intermediate player can learn the same practice techniques used at the advanced level. We begin by taking each hand separately. Thinking in two independent voices (perhaps two flutes), we play the top line (with the fingering we’re going to use when we play both lines together), and then the lower line until we can manage each beautifully. Thereafter, we can put the two voices together by double tapping the upper voice while holding the lower notes, then reversing the process.

The next stage involves playing broken thirds both ways up (from upper note to lower, then from lower note to upper). This helps muscle memory greatly.

When you do it the other way around, you’ll notice there are a couple of places where we have to break the legato:

Having worked on the left hand in the same ways, we are ready to put the passage hands together. Some initial ultra-slow practice is always a good idea, but no amount of slow practice will enable you to play fast. I suggest assembling the passage by chaining, making sure to get each stage absolutely right before adding the next link.

In this short extract from the long video I demonstrate the forward and backward chaining practice techniques. If you go over these processes every day for a few days, patiently and mindfully, you are bound to notice tangible results.

Many further practice stages for daily work on these Q-spots are available on the Online Academy as part of our Q-spot series. Click here to view this article on the Online Academy or click here for a blog post with more information on quarantining and the Q-spots series.


Q-Spots Series: Beethoven’s Für Elise

This is the third in my series on Q-Spots, and I’m going to feature one short excerpt from Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, WoO 59 – otherwise known as Für Elise.

Q-Spots (short for Quarantine Spots) is a practice tool whereby we identify and mark in the score those sections in a given piece where we stumble, fumble or approximate the notes. As we play we know things are not quite right, but a little voice in the back of our mind says “it’ll be OK tomorrow” or “once I run through the piece a few more times I’ll eventually get it”. A much more effective and economical approach is to identify and then quarantine such sections (they might be as short as a bar or two) and apply a step-by-step approach to our practice before reintegrating the Q-Spot backs into the piece. This means not starting at the beginning each time we practise, and going back to the step-by-step process each day for several days until our inner Quality Control Inspector is happy to sign off the work. 

In my Online Academy article on Für Elise I have come up with two Q-Spots that cause players to baulk. The Q-Spot I want to look at today is the C major episode (bars 29 – 35), the site of many a derailment. I have included the bar before the problem begins because it is important to be able to lead into the difficult spot from slightly before (besides which the LH fingering in bar 29, if you go with it, could use a little reinforcement from the extra practice this bar is going to get). 

Start with the left hand!

Whenever there is a difficulty present in one hand, I have found a tendency for the student to obsess about that hand and not to bother practising the other hand much. In the case of this example, unless the left hand is rock steady and well characterised, it’s not going to be much of a support for the right hand. Don’t go near the RH until you can play the LH fluently, rhythmically and characterfully.

Right hand alone

If we remember the principle “nothing with fingers without arm; nothing with arm without finger” (Leonid Nikolaev), we will realise we need to choreograph the right hand to make it technically secure. Bars 30 and 32 rely on forearm rotations to assist the fingers; bars 31 and 33 to the end of this example work well with small wrist circles. However you play the fast RH notes, it will be important to keep loose in the wrist and mobile in the hand.

Hands together – at the speed of no mistakes

Some years ago I wrote a blog post entitled The Speed of No Mistakes, which players and teachers have found useful. To apply the idea here, we take our Q-Spot and play it slowly enough that we don’t have any hesitations or stops and starts. This might be incredibly slow! Do this several times in a row, resisting the temptation to push up the tempo. Ensure complete accuracy of notes, rhythm and fingering – and keep some attention on remaining physically loose and free.

Gaining speed – chaining

When we’ve done a certain amount of slow practice, we can increase the speed by chaining – note-to-note or beat to beat at the tempo. The process requires good listening skills, concentration and awareness. I give manuscript examples of the controlled stops I would recommend in my Online Academy article, as well as in this short excerpt from the video (the full video is included in the article).

According to research, deep sleep reinforces the learning of new motor skills. Having spent a productive practice session working like this, a sensible decision would be to resist playing it though at speed, but to return to these practice stages tomorrow and do them over again – maybe even for a few days in a row. I would recommend gradually leaving the ultra-slow work behind, and focus on the fast chaining practice – to develop the reflexes for speed and accuracy.

Many further practice stages for daily work on these Q-spots are available on the Online Academy as part of our Q-spot series. Click here to view this article on the Online Academy or click here for a blog post with more information on quarantining and the Q-spots series.