I. The Procedure

There is a basic pattern to the procedure of learning a piece of music: you confront a whole; you fragment it and get to know its parts; then you reconstruct the whole.

The middle phase of this process is the focus of this chapter, because the key to effective practicing is to get to know the parts in as many ways as possible. To do this, you change what is given into something else, either by doing the opposite, by adding to or subtracting from it, by exploring the limits of what is too much or too little, or by using some other method. You will find that each of the methods described here is consistent with this basic procedure, as well as having its own specific purpose.

When you practice, by whatever method, primarily you are practicing concentration. You approach a fragment of the music, putting it through the paces of an assigned task, examining it and getting to know it from that particular angle. Taken from the familiar context of its normal place in the whole, and if possible made more difficult by the practice method, it commands an extra amount of your attention. Then when you return it to its original form, the awareness you have infused into that fragment has become stronger, expanded, and more flexible.

In theory, you could learn a piece by just endlessly repeating it from beginning to end. This is very time-consuming and doesn’t result in a thorough acquaintance with the inner workings of the piece. Practice methods provide shortcuts to the learning process which reveal the sonic relationships at every level. Without them, you may not get beyond the first step of the learning process. Don’t avoid controlled practicing. To do the one thing that you want to do, you must do many other things first.

II. Preliminary Remarks

Most of the time, you won’t work on an entire piece at once, but will isolate a fragment of it for special attention. In the following descriptions of practice methods, I use the word “passage” to refer to these fragments.

Each time that you practice a passage, decide on one particular task to be accomplished and keep it in mind as you work. This can be one of the practice methods, or else a task such as checking to be sure that the dynamics are played exactly as written, that you center your fingers on the keys, that the notes in chords all sound simultaneously, that the pedaling is controlled and correct, etc.

It is often productive to play the passage in its original form immediately after altering it with a practice method. This cements the perspective you have gained from the method. It is best not to wait or to talk before playing the original again.

There are two kinds of practice methods, although each includes qualities of the other. One ensures technical security and accurate playing of the notes. The other consists of a search for the musical reality of the piece. This search will show you the relative importance of the elements of the composition and the ways in which they interconnect, and the resulting inevitability of their arrangement in the composition. This category includes methods which generate the sense of the spirit of the music.

The following methods are only a suggested few, because the possibilities are unlimited. Your imagination will set the limit to the number of ways in which you practice.

III. The Methods

There is a bottom line where no shortcut will work to help you learn a passage. In this case, you will have to use plain repetition as the practice method.

Choose a measure or phrase and repeat it a certain number of times. Then go to the next fragment and do the same thing, then to the next and the next, and so on. Always use the same number of repetitions for each fragment. Play slowly enough to make absolutely no mistakes, and loudly enough to make a strong impression on your nervous system.

Sometimes it can be productive to play through two or more consecutive fragments after using the method on both separately. For example, choose a three-measure phrase. Repeat the first measure four times, then the second measure four times, then play both consecutively. Continue by repeating the third measure four times, then play the second and third consecutively, then all three consecutively. You can build entire passages this way.

One basic and indispensable procedure is practicing in rhythms.

To practice in rhythms, take a passage of equal note values and play it in groups of two, three, or four notes with one long note value and the remainder in short values. Shift the placement of the longvalue to create a variety of patterns, as follows:

two notes, one long and one short: 

three notes, one long and two short: 

four notes, one long and three short: 

These are the basic patterns, although you may create others.

To use this method effectively, practice the passage in each rhythmic pattern in the order given here. Do each one until you have mastered it. Then go to the next. After the last pattern, play the passage as written originally. Do the entire procedure without interruptions of any sort, because you are building a line of concentration and coordination from the first to the last. If you stop in the middle, you may as well begin again.

While holding the note with the long value, take time to prepare for the next notes: think of, look at, and (when possible) touch them. Take all the time you need to be one hundred percent certain that you will play the next group of notes correctly. This is the advantage and benefit of the long notes. In the early stages, you may need more time in some spots than in others to do this. After you are well acquainted with the notes, it will be best to make all the long values equal and all the short values equal among the groups.

By playing the short notes very fast, you practice short bursts of speed in preparation for playing the entire passage fast. You also train yourself to think of groups of notes in one quick thought, which is obviously more efficient than thinking of each and every note.

When using this method, many students play the long notes louder than the short ones. When correctly performed, however, all the notes should be the same dynamic level, preferably loud and strong.

If you watch the page of music while using this method, you must learn to see groups of two, three, or four notes, regardless of the way they are barred together in the notation.

The following example shows a very strong four-note pattern: 

To practice a three-note rhythmic pattern, you must be able to see three-note groups within that: 

If you watch the keyboard while using this method, look at the next long note just before playing the fast group of notes.

In the following example, you would look at C, F, B, E, etc.: 

This trains you to find visual landmarks in a passage and to see groups of notes.

The specific purpose of this method is to ensure rhythmic evenness in passages of equal note values, such as a steady stream of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, or whatever. It should be used in the early stages of studying a piece to establish a foundation for rhythmic evenness, and at any later time when you detect unevenness in your playing.

This method also ensures the perfect synchrony between the two hands in passages where both play equal note values, such as in playing scales.

In piano playing, the hands must shift from left to right and vice versa in order to negotiate different groups of notes. Because of this, there is a tendency to think of each hand position as separate from the others. This may not be the case from a musical standpoint, because, more often than not, the musical idea is continuous over the shift of hand position. Also, the separation between the groups allows a split-second gap during the shift to go unnoticed by the player, when in fact it disrupts the rhythmic flow. Practicing in rhythms eliminates these errors by forcing you to think and to play quickly over the position shifts. This is especially helpful in the case of large leaps.

To gain the greatest benefit from this method, you must greatly exaggerate the long and short note values. The greatest benefit also seems to come from doing the most difficult patterns for the passage in question.

Another basic and indispensable procedure is practicing in accents.

To practice in accents, take a passage with an even dynamic level and play it in groups of two, three, or four notes with one loud note and the remainder soft. Shift the placement of the loud note to create a variety of patterns, as follows:

two notes, one loud and one soft: 

three notes, one loud and two soft: 

four notes, one loud and three soft: 

These are the basic patterns, although you may create others.

The procedure for using this method effectively is the same as for practicing in rhythms.

When using this method, many students play the notes in an uneven rhythm. When correctly performed, however, all the notes should have the same time value.

If you watch the page of music or the keyboard while using this method, you should follow the instructions for practicing in rhythms on page 3.

The specific purpose of this method is to ensure evenness of dynamics, so that no notes are undesirably louder than their neighbors. It should be used in the early stages of studying a piece to establish a foundation for dynamic evenness, and at any later time when you detect unevenness in your playing.

To gain the greatest benefit from this method, you must greatly exaggerate the loudness and softness of the notes.

Another basic and indispensable procedure is practicing with the metronome.

One way to do this is to play a piece or passage with the metronome marking the main beats. This ensures steadiness of tempo.

The other method is to use the metronome to increase the speed of your playing. To do this, set the metronome at a comfortably slow speed where you can play the passage without any errors whatsoever. You might even start at a tempo somewhat slower than is necessary. Then repeat the passage, advancing the rate of the metronome by one notch upon each repetition. Do not increase the speed unless you play the passage perfectly. Eventually, you will reach a tempo where you cannot play the passage without some mistakes. This is your top speed, and you have taken the method as far as you can for the time being.

However, you can try to push even a little farther at this point by going back two or three notches and building to that top speed again. You may find that you can go beyond it this time.

Another trick is to advance the metronome without looking at the numbers. What often happens is that you develop the idea that a certain number is your limit for a passage. As you see that number approaching, you prepare to give up at that number. If you avoid looking at the numbers, you will surprise yourself by going beyond your declared limit.

As with practicing in rhythms and accents, it is important not to interrupt the procedure at any point.

As you hear the metronome marking the first note in a group of two, four, or any number of notes, you will hear that number of notes without having to count each one. Instead, you will sense the notes dividing the duration of time into certain proportions. These can be identified later as groups of two, four, or whatever, but only if you have to talk about them. This is one way to refine the ability to count without numbers, an essential ability for any musician.

Another benefit of this method is that you will develop a very fine sense of slight differences in tempo.

To practice scales with the metronome, set it at 80 and play two notes per beat, four octaves. Continue up to 160, then go back to 80 and play four notes per beat. Advance again to 160, return to 80, and play eight notes per beat. When you get to 100 and beyond, you can call yourself a virtuoso.

When practicing scales with the metronome, cultivate the ability to think of and to look at the notes that fall on the beats. This note will then stand for that group of notes. This is one more way to develop the ability to think in groups of notes. At four notes per beat, the circle of fifths will be the pattern. At eight notes per beat, the pitches are the first, second, third, and fourth notes of the scale.

Locate each group of notes that falls under the hand naturally and play it as a solid chord. This helps you to think in groups of notes. It also trains you to have your fingers over the keys before you put them down, which ensures accuracy.

Practice with your eyes closed. This increases your tactile sensitivity and your accuracy.

Practice without the damper pedal. This will help you to play with accuracy and clarity and to develop legato playing.

To familiarize yourself with all the parts of a piece, play some parts while leaving out others. One way to do this is to practice the parts for each hand separately. If the piece is contrapuntal, play each voice separately and then in all possible combinations with the other voices. Play different parts of any texture separately, such as the melody, accompaniment, and bass line.

Practice the music without the piano. While reading the score, listen to the music in your thoughts. Your attention won’t be distracted by the physical problems of playing the piece. Then you can focus on your ideal conception of the interpretation. You will find musical shapes and relationships that you weren’t aware of previously. Decide where the major and minor divisions of the form are. Trace the appearances of the various themes. Look for the loudest, softest, highest, and lowest notes and decide whether they are particularly significant. Find all the dynamic markings. Compare the sections with the same dynamic marking: are they all really going to be the same exact loudness? If there are tempo changes, locate and identify them. Are you being sure to play the same tempo in the places where it’s marked the same?

Extract the sections that have something in common–a theme, tempo, or dynamic marking–and play them one after the other. This will ensure the uniformity of the tempo and dynamics between corresponding passages, and it will make you sensitive to the slight variations the composer makes upon repetition of the material.

If the piece is in a fast tempo, you should practice it slowly. When doing slow practice, play slowly enough to be able to do everything correctly. Practice all the correct notes, fingerings, dynamics, etc. Practice the musical expression that you want the piece to have. By taking more time to do this at a slow tempo, you will feel as if you have more time to do it when you play fast.

On the other hand, you should practice very slow pieces once or twice at a tempo faster than what is indicated. At a very slow tempo, because of the broad spaces and long time durations, it can be difficult to get a sense of the overall movement and structure of a piece. This method will reveal them easily.

This method is especially useful when there are long and short note values at the same time, as in the case of a sustained melody against a moving accompaniment. For practice, play the melody alone at a moderate tempo as if it were a simple tune, and find the shapes of the phrasing and dynamics. Returned to the original form, the melody should retain those shapes even though played much more slowly. The same thing can be done with any slow-moving part.

You should practice ritardandos, accelerandos, fermatas, and rubatos in strict tempo. This is important because you and your listeners should know from what tempo or note values the changes are derived. Such changes should be gradual and proportioned to the literal reading of the music.

You should experiment with the tempo of a piece to find the slowest and fastest rate at which it can be played meaningfully. This will place your finished tempo in a context.

You should also be technically able to play fast pieces at least two or three metronome marks faster than the finished tempo. This will increase your security when you return to the proper speed.

Practicing in rhythms has been discussed. The partner to this method is to practice uneven rhythms in even note values.

When a long passage is written in a repetitious rhythmic pattern, such as dotted eighths and sixteenths, the player’s attention can be distracted from the melodic and expressive properties of the notes. The melodic importance of the short notes especially tends to be neglected. This method eliminates the problem.

To use this method, play the passage as a steady stream of equal note values, exploring the shape and direction of the notes. When you return it to its original form, it should retain those features.

Practice soft passages loudly once or twice. The result will be greater security and command. The reason for this is that many students think of playing softly as trying not to play loudly. Consequently, there is a feeling of fear and hesitation in their soft playing, and usually a lack of control as well. Playing softly should be as much an act of positive assertion as playing loudly. If you practice a soft part loudly, you will learn to play it softly with the same feeling of confidence.

Practice staccato passages legato. The result will be greater security and command. The reason for this is that when you play staccato you remain on the note for a very short time. Consequently, you may not remember it as well or as accurately as a note held solidly for its full time value. Another reason is that the fingerings for most staccato passages should be the same as if they were legato passages. Many students use the opportunity of being above the keyboard between staccato notes to produce incorrect fingerings.

Conversely, if you practice legato passages staccato once or twice, you will increase the independence of the fingers and the clarity of the articulation in the original version.

Alter the rhythmic outline of the passage.

When there is a combination of long and short note values, repeat the long notes in short note values. For example, if you have a dotted half note, A, followed by a quarter note, B, play four quarter notes, A A A B. When you play the original with this practiced version in mind, you will be reminded that the long note continues after having been played. This counteracts the tendency of many students to end their musical involvement with the sound when the physical action of putting down the key has ended. This method also ensures that the note values will be rhythmically correct.

The partner to this method is to subtract notes from the rhythmic outline. To do this, play only the notes that fall on the strong beats or that hold some other important position. This will give you an overview of the proportions of the passage and increase your sense of the long pulses in the music.

Alter the melodic material of the passage.

You can add to the notes of a melody to gain an appreciation of its structure and direction. When there is a leap between two notes, you can fill in the gap by improvising a scale line between them. When you play the original with this practice version in mind, you will retain the sense of connection between the notes, and of traveling the distance from one to the other.

The partner to this method is to subtract notes from the melodic material. Very often, a single line will contain principal notes surrounded by less important notes that complete the rhythm. Here is an example: 

The notes of principal interest are marked by the x. The practice method consists of playing those notes and omitting the others. This reveals the various levels of organization in the passage.

Practice holding notes through rests so that there is sound where silence is indicated. Many students take the rest to be a break in continuity and a break from concentration. Often, however, the musical idea is continuous over the rest. By holding notes through the rest, you train yourself to feel that something is happening during that time. When you restore the rest, you will keep that feeling.

You can rewrite the music by changing a note of the melody, substituting a harmony, omitting or adding a phrase repetition, etc. Your altered version will almost never sound as good as the original. This method will refresh your insight into why the composer chose the notes he/she did.

Practice the passage once or twice without any fluctuations in dynamics or tempo. As you do this, you will find spots where you are uncomfortable without them. This method will make you more aware of your own musicality, the natural flow of the music, and the inevitable rightness of the composer’s indications.

The partner to this method is to grossly exaggerate fluctuations in dynamics and tempo. If you plan to linger on a note, to make a slight pause between two phrases, to accent a note, etc., you should overdo these things. By allowing your expressive inclinations to stretch to their limits, you will strengthen them. At the same time, you will discover how much is too much for a certain passage. This will give conviction to your finished interpretation, which will be near some middle ground between extremes.

IV. Modus Ultimus

There is one method you should use in the final phases of studying a piece of music. At this point, you are in control of the notes, and you are integrating all of the perspectives gained from the various practice methods. Now is the time just to play the music and to invite inspiration to come to you. This time the task to be accomplished is to have no task in mind, but rather to wait and see what happens when you play the music. As you do this, you will find that some aspect or aspects of the music will emerge and occupy your attention. This is happening because on that day, at that particular time, depending on your mood, your physiology, the weather, the experiences of the day, and the state of your evolution, your mind puts together all of the musical information in a particular way. You should pick up on the clues it sends you and follow them. Let yourself be caught up by that inspiration, no matter how feeble or strong it may be, because it shows you the direction in which you can grow at that time.

This inspiration will cause you to play in a particular way. You must then be able to remember the actions it caused and to repeat them later. They may not have the original inspired feeling about them later, but they will be true for you nonetheless.

By doing this again and again, you will accumulate a repertoire of specific actions that have come from specific inspirations. When this is true for every note in the piece, your interpretation is complete.

Jeffrey Chappell © 1982

Listen to Jeffrey Chappell being interviewed about a life in music in this half-hour “Muse Mentors” podcast from October 2020.