We should start a new piano piece as we do with everything that we want to take seriously in life; methodically and gracefully. A new piece needs to be treated as a newborn child – with care.
When starting a new piece, we may want to answer the following questions: What is the reason for learning that particular piece? Is this piece just for our enjoyment? Is it to advance our technique to the next level? Is it for an audition or an exam? Whatever the reason to start a new piece may be, we will have to follow a specific routine in order to learn it properly. This is a journey of our senses, so we mustn’t arrogantly rush in and try to complete a piece quickly; confidently? Yes.
A new piece is a new experience in our life’s “suitcase” of achievements. Learning it properly is important for many reasons. First, it can strengthen our technique and prepare us smoothly for the challenges of our future pieces. It will advance our perception of musical styles, so the next piece could be easier to apprehend.
Moreover, learning a piece properly from the start can have some practical rewards, such as making it easier to pick it up again in the future because it would have stayed in our memory for longer – When we say to learn it “properly” we mean with the right musical techniques.
Learning a new piece is not only a technical journey, but a spiritual too. In life, we learn much more when we don’t rush things. Similarly, if we rush into pressing the keys, we won’t learn a piece properly or quicker in that matter. This applies to everybody, no matter how talented they think they are. There is a set of rules that we need to follow, each with our own strengths, to complete a piece. I’m sure that a lot of you are thinking: “just open the score and practice, that’s what I’m going to do after I have finished this article!”. That’s true actually, but we must put things in order first. So here’s how to raise your newborn piece.
How to proceed
– We start by sight-reading the piece through with hands together. We don’t have to it if it’s a really long piece, but it is always a good practice for testing our sight-reading skills.
See how the piece feels in yours hands. Most likely it will feel uncomfortable, for the most part. However, here’s where your preservation instinct, per se, will kick in and you will have to play more methodically.
– Next, we should practice hands separately. I know it can be boring to some of us, but remember, many things that take us to the next level in life, are boring in their core. Start by practicing the right hand first. This is not a rule, other than we are lucky that in this hand most of our lovely and “tantalizing” composers have placed their pieces’ melodic lines – the tune if you like. The reason a melodic line is written towards the top registers is perhaps because composers generally think it provides a better harmonic balance between the hands. If I was pressed to somehow portray the melodic and harmonic difference in a piece, I would say that the melodic part is the “words” that a composer uses to make his or her musical statement, whereas the harmonic part is the mood that those words are “uttered”.
After we get to know the right hand (or the hand that has the tune), we are being introduced to its coworker — the left hand. Fortunately, we are lucky enough to have two hands, thus it can be handy when playing the piano! We perceive the left hand in the same fashion as with our right. Left hand is equally (if not more) important to the right, as it usually provides us with a foundation for a piece’s melodic structure to rest on. It is the hand that makes the right hand’s “storyline” more noticeable and enriched. Try to think of the right hand as the top layer we see on a cake; but it is the bottom layers that establish the fundamental taste of a cake. Thus, the value of “tasting” the left hand separately is of great significance.
– Next, accelerating towards learning the new piece, we apply the metronome effect. Read Article “The Metronome Effect“.
– A very important rule is that when we try to learn the new piece, we should try to play everything correctly in order to avoid developing bad “habits” in a piece. For instance, use the correct fingerings from the start, because it will take many more times later to change it than it took to learn it incorrectly. Plus, there is no reason to risk sabotaging the piece’s structure and phrasing by choosing to play it with an awkward technique. The same applies to both the dynamics and the articulations. Apply the proposed dynamics and articulations from the very beginning. Also, it’s needless to say, to play the correct notes from the beginning.
– Now, many pianists wonder if they should play using the same technique when practicing at a slower tempo. The answer is yes. Execution of articulations and dynamics should not change when we practice at a slower tempo but should remain regular. Except of course if we use a passage to improve a particular aspect of our technique. For instance, we might want to practice a fast legato arpeggio slowly and staccato, in order to secure our finger-control. Or we might choose to change the rhythmical pattern of a passage and treat it as an exercise material. For instance, we could practice Chopin’s study op. 10 no1 by changing its smooth rhythm; so, instead of playing the continuous semiquavers as written, we could play the first semiquaver of each count dotted in order to improve the agility of certain right hand fingers.
– Think! And then think some more. Here are some simple questions you could ask yourself: What is this piece trying to tell us? What is the composer trying to tell us? Is he just writing frantic passages in order to just show off his ability in composing (quite often the case)? Why is he writing so laconically? Is he trying to tell us a story? What is the essence of the piece you are about to start? Why this, why that?
Ask as many questions as possible. By answering some of these questions, you will get closer to solving many of your piece’s technical difficulties.
Copyright ©Nikos Kokkinis