Follow the Yellow Brick Road

It’s years since I last saw The Wizard of Oz. Remember the story?

The Good Witch of the North tells the heroine, Dorothy, the only way she can get back home after the tornado is to go to the Emerald City and ask the Wizard for help. She has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to get there. Trouble is, there’s a place where the Yellow Brick Road divides into two, and Dorothy gets awfully confused which fork to take. Fortunately, there is a scarecrow on site who offers some counsel.

There are musical equivalents of this confusing divide, where disaster may strike if we take the wrong turning.

I once heard a young pianist do just this during her encore – Chopin’s E minor Waltz. After the introduction, this opening phrase recurs 7 times – if you play the repeat (please imagine a key signature of 1 sharp).

Chopin 1

It was terribly unfortunate that after the brief introduction the young lady went instead to the second version of this theme, which ends in a dramatic interrupted cadence that compels the player forwards into the coda. After you’ve gone here, there really is no turning back.

Chopin 2

Poor soul – instead of the piece lasting 2 or 3 minutes, it lasted just a few seconds!

Our pieces are full of such forks in the road, and it really helps avert disaster if we can identify them and take certain steps in our practice to prepare ourselves.

Let’s look at a passage from the Grieg Nocturne, when the A section returns. The phrase begins identically to the when it first appeared, but this time Grieg adds an extra bar to make a sequence – so he can extend the phrase and meander back home to C major (which he takes his time doing). In performance, we certainly don’t want to confuse these two.

Here it is the first time (from bar 9).

grieg 1

And here it is the second time (from bar 42).

grieg 2

Having identified the two spots and put them into quarantine, we interleave one version with the other in our practice.

For more on interleaving and quarantine in practice, follow this link to my blog post There’s a Hole in my Bucket.

Either before we play or as we are playing, we say out aloud the instructions to ourself. I doubt that many players who are tackling this piece will be overly familiar with the terminology of secondary dominants or Neapolitan chords but if you are, by all means use harmonic labels and call these out as you practise.

Otherwise, let’s simplify this and for Version 1 just say something like: “Two-bar phrase going up to E flat“. For Version 2, how about: “Three-bar phrase heading way up to top A flat, with the extra bar in the middle“.

Alternate one version with the other until you can play both with a crystal-clear sense of the differences between them.

Second Subjects

It always make me smile when a young player learning their first sonata gets to the second subject area in the recapitulation. I know exactly what is likely to happen.

When they begin learning the same material they already played in the exposition – only this time in the home key – not only can they not quite yet play the new version in the new key, but they forget how to play the version they already learned in the original key!

While the music might be the same (or similar) in the new key, fingering, hand positions and keyboard layout are all different. You would have thought it would be easier to learn it the second time around (since the theme is already familiar) but in reality is actually harder. This is because our fingers are being directed to where they needed to go originally, creating a conflict that scrambles the brain. The same but totally different (if you’re a piano teacher, you’ll be nodding in agreement).

So what’s the fix?

As you learn the new patterns, you’re going to lose your grip on the original ones but fortunately this is only temporary. You can be reassured that all the hard work you put into learning those notes will come back.

1. Leave the original alone for a few days

Deliberately mothball the original for a couple of days as you learn the theme in the new key. Study it extremely carefully as though from scratch – remembering on many levels it is indeed new.

2.  Interleave

When you have some fluency with the new section, you’re going to practise interleaving the two versions one after the other. Identify start and an end points and practise the two passages side by side. I suggest actually saying out aloud before you play “first time” and “second time” so you know exactly what you’re about to do. Call out any other information that may help identify the two passages – such as “first time in G” and “second time in C”.

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Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

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