Top Ten Tips for Trouble Spots

It is possible to hack away at a trouble spot for several minutes, constantly repeating it and beating it into submission, and then be able to manage it, more or less. I am sure a statistician would be able to come up with the odds for this being so. Apart from being incredibly unskillful, it is a waste of time because the following day you will most likely be back to square one. Practising like this is like building your house on sand – some days all will be well, but on others, the whole thing just collapses.

In performance we can’t take multiple stabs at something, it has to be right first time and this fact needs to be reflected in our practice. Think about it – if we never practised errors, we’d probably never play any!

I would have to go further – it has not only to be right but also to feel easy.

There is no such thing as a Difficult Piece.  A piece is either impossible – or it is easy. The process whereby it migrates from one category to the other is known as practicing.  (Louis Kentner)

Trouble spots are like bad apples or unruly kids in a class. Left unattended, they ruin the good ones. Identify the trouble spots in the piece, those places that trip you up and cause you to stumble and fall (and affect subsequent parts of the piece you know perfectly well) and isolate them. They will usually consist of small parts, perhaps a bar, or even a couple of notes that derail you (but may of course be longer).
Put them in the equivalent of pianistic detention for a few days and give them special attention. For my younger students, I mark these in the score with square brackets and next lesson I will hear these extracts first. If they are still not right, I will work on them with the student but will make a point of not hearing the piece as a whole until these passages have been mastered (thereby training them how to practise).


10. Practise the spot ultra-slowly, also with separate hands.

9. Starting from the beginning of the spot, add a note (or a beat) and repeat this. Go back to the beginning of the spot and add another note (or beat) and repeat this. Etc!

8. Start from the end of the spot by playing the last note (or beat). Now add the note (or beat) before this, and repeat. Follow this process until you reach the beginning of the spot.

7. Start anywhere in the spot. If it is a longer section, begin from any bar. If it is a small section, begin on any beat, or any note.

6. To reincorporate a former trouble spot back into its surroundings, you can add the bar before (or whatever smallish section makes sense), and now begin from there.

5. Next, do this with the bar or section that comes after.

4. Finally, play the bar before, the bar itself and the bar after. Don’t forget to STOP at the end of your predetermined section, to evaluate (see 3.) and then repeat it. The tendency is to carry straight on – resist this though.

3. Use a feedback loop between each repetition so that you can identify precisely where the problem lies and mentally rehearse it before repeating it. You’ll be repeating with a definite purpose, and the feeling of starting each repetition from a clean slate.

2. Transpose (very slowly). Perhaps not for youngsters, but don’t put any limitations on them either!

1. Return to the trouble spot frequently throughout the practice session. Go back to it between pieces, so that you approach it from fresh each time. Also, make a special trip to the piano outside of your regular practice routine, just to play this one extract. This might take just a minute or two!





New Series on the Quarantine Spots

We’ve probably all come up against difficulties in a piece where our fingers seem to baulk – we hesitate, stumble, or approximate the notes with a mañana attitude to fixing them. Our unconscious thoughts go something like: “All I need is a few days, it’ll sort itself out eventually”, or “I’ll wait for my teacher to correct it in the lesson”, and so on. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and unless we address these problem passages thoroughly they are likely to let us down in performance.

The Problem

We all know that in a performance we commit to playing from the beginning of a piece to the end, with no stops or corrections. However, unless we are practising a non-stop run-through of a finished piece, we will likely need to stop regularly in our practice. And not only to make corrections, but to go through certain practice procedures that make our end result technically strong and secure.

The Solution: Quarantining

The concept of quarantining is firstly to identify as precisely as possible where the problem spots in our piece are, and why they might be occurring. We mark these quarantine spots (or Q-spots for short) in on our score, perhaps using a square bracket, and begin our practice session by doing some proper work on these spots using the practice tools, as opposed to just playing them through a few times. We could even devote a separate practice session to the Q-spots from all of our pieces.

Rather than rummaging through our scores, it is a good plan to take photos of the bars in question and insert them into a slideshow. That way, we can practise from a tablet and swipe through until we have covered them all. If the slideshow is also on your phone, you might use idle moments during the day to do some mental practice away from the piano to supplement your time at the piano.

The idea is that by isolating and focussing on areas of weakness (the Q-spots) within a given piece and applying appropriate practice tools for several days in a row, we can bring these spots up to the level of the rest of the piece so that the whole is more fluent and secure. 

The Q-Spots Series

Building on the concept introduced in my eBook series and Practice Tools video lectures, I will now be exploring it in more detail in subsequent blog posts and an Online Academy series. In this series, I have selected two or three spots from ten familiar pieces of varying levels in order to demonstrate the use of quarantining along with other practice tools in a practical manner.

Each Q-spot will be covered with a series of detailed and exhaustive practice stages based on the practice tools. These stages will be presented in score form with instructions for practice with the exercises and practice stages written out in full. There will also be a video walkthrough of each piece, where I go through the practice stages, demonstrating exactly how to do them. Once you have gone through a few pieces like this, you will be able to apply the principles to other pieces and soon it will become second nature to practise in this way. 

In this introductory video, I identify a single Q-spot from Kabalevsky’s Etude in A minor from the op. 27 set of pieces. This is a great piece for the lower intermediate student, excellent for technical development and extremely effective in performance. While most of the study is very much pattern-based and not overly complex to learn, there are two bars that will need to be extracted and practised very carefully. You will find here a demonstration of the practice stages I recommend.

Featured Works

The following works will ultimately be featured within the Q-spot series:

Click here to view an introduction to quarantining from The Practice Tools Lecture series or click here to sign-up to our mailing list for further updates.