Practical Practise Practices

There's one phrase that my teachers Philip and Alisdair are always repeating: "practise in every way possible". It's a phrase that Alisdair learned from Philip (who was also his teacher) and Philip learned from his teacher Gordon Green, who learned it from his teacher Egon Petri, who was a student of Busoni.... The legacy can be traced back to Chopin, Liszt and Schumann (something I feel very honoured but also intimidated to be a part of).

Many teachers simply preach "separate hand practise, then put it together slowly and increase the tempo". But the problem is, the technique and fingering I use for a slow lyrical passage will be completely different to the technique and fingering I use to play a sparkling virtuosic passage. However, I can't practise the faster passage at tempo because I haven't wired it into my fingers yet - so how can I practise this passage effectively and efficiently in such a way that I will not be surprised by new problems when playing at tempo?

This is where the phrase "practise in every way possible" comes in. To give an idea of the various ways there are to practise a single bar, I will take one scalic passage from Glinka-Balakirev's The Lark and demonstrate a few ways of practising it. These are the methods I would suggest if one of my students brought this piece to their lesson and asked for help with this section.

Fig. 1: The Lark, b. 36
Of course, this is only a singular bar and is part of a longer phrase but there are already so many ways of practising it that it is the only example we need for this blog post today.

Thumb passes are one of the things that often hinder speed in fast scalic passages, so here are a few ways of getting secure in this aspect of technique:

Hand positions and chord clusters
Fig. 2: Preliminary hand positions
The diagram above demonstrates the chord clusters that naturally occur when using the fingering I have chosen in figure 1. When practising in hand positions in this situation, the movement should be kept as small and tidy as possible, the fingers leaving the keys as little as possible. This will teach not only the fingers where they belong, but also the hands and arms. 

After the hand positions can be played in succession effortlessly, the chords can be broken up into thumb + other fingers, like so:

Fig. 3: Chords from fig. 2 broken  up
Again, the fingers should leave the keys as little as possible. The thumb passes under the hand with as little commotion as possible and should not be accented. The other fingers should also remain close to the keys, i.e. they shouldn't flap around in panic.

Note how the pattern changes coming down and the hand moves over the thumb rather than the thumb moving under the hand. Fingers 2, 3 and 4 should still remain close to the keys when passing over the thumb on the way down.

Another way to target thumb passing practise is to use the "skipping rope" technique as described by Penelope Roskell: the arm hangs loosely and freely and while holding down the 2nd, 3rd or 4th finger, the thumb "skips" under from one position to another. For the sake of a clear example I will use the 3rd chord cluster from figure 2, although the method could be applied to any of the others:

Fig. 4: The "skipping rope" practise method
Here, the Ab is held by the 3rd finger for the duration of the bar while the thumb "skips" between the F and the C. The movement should come from forearm rotation with a relaxed but not floppy wrist. The wrist can be drawing a small arc over the keyboard. Experiment with the size of wrist circles, bearing in mind that a larger wrist movement will allow the thumb more space to pass under but take up more time at tempo.

When the thumb can comfortable move from one position to the next, we can add the notes in between: 

Fig. 5: Expansion of the "skipping rope"
The purpose of the skipping rope method is to teach the thumb where it needs to be. When the thumb knows where it belongs, the other fingers will fall into place more easily alongside it. 

When practising figure 5 it is not necessary to hold the Ab through the passage unless the fingers are lifting unnecessarily high. The passage could then be treated like a Dohynani exercise in finger independence and extension. Care should be taken if you choose to practise with a finger held down as this can lead to fatigue and in exceptional circumstances, injury. No more than 2 minutes at a time.

Now that we have covered a few ways of practising thumb crossings in this bar, let's move on to agility and speed. One of the most common ways of practising to increase tempo is to practise in short but fast bursts: 

Fig. 6: Practising in short and fast bursts to gain tempo
Notice how the groups always end on the 2nd finger. This way, we can practise not only the thumb passing under the hand but also the 2nd passing over the thumb.

After the above can be played fluently and without unnecessary lifting of the fingers from the keys, we can join the groups together into longer and longer chains until the entire passage can be performed in one swift movement. 

Another method is to keep a steady beat but add one note at a time. For example: 

Fig. 7: Adding one note at a time while keeping the tempo steady
It is imperative that the tempo remain completely constant, with the last note of the group always ending on the second beat.

We have now covered 6 ways of practising this one bar and only in the right hand. There are of course dozens of other ways of practising this section and they each depend on the obstacles faced by each pianist. Some may struggle with evenness, in which case dotted and swung rhythms may be prescribed. Others may struggle with voicing of the melody (highlighted in green in figure 1), in which case they may need to be coerced into partaking in some reluctant singing. 

Whatever problems arise, there are very few issues that can be solved solely by the overused and meaningless cliché of "practise hands separately and then put it together slowly".

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