By Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield & Phyllis Alpert Lehrer
In our many years of teaching we’ve discovered that the success of a polished performance often depends on how a piece is introduced to a student, and then how it is practiced. There are several important perspectives and approaches to a new piece that need to be a part of the learning process.
Background and Stylistic Features
It is important to discuss the background and stylistic features that will impact a student’s interpretation, even before the student starts to read the notes. For example, in Bach’s “Musette in D,” it is helpful for students to know that the octave D’s imitate a drone bass played by a small bagpipe–like instrument. It is also important that students are aware that the musette was a lively dance during the 18th century.
When a student is first introduced to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” it helps if they know that the piece is in rondo form. It’s fun for them to know that it was written for Therese, the daughter of Beethoven’s physician—providing context may help the student connect better with the piece! The rondo form features the well-known “A” theme that is made up of broken chord figures in sixteenth notes, while the “B” theme consists of melodic lines that must stand out above a much softer alberti bass accompaniment. In the “C” section we have the opportunity to show students how diminished seventh chords in the right hand and repeated portato notes in the left hand create a dark, brooding mood.
Accurate reading and technical proficiency are naturally crucial to polished performances. Before students even begin to practice the piece, teachers need to help students anticipate technical, reading, and rhythmic issues, such as fingering, clef and meter changes, tied notes, fingering problems, and appropriate wrist and arm movements.
General Practice Strategies
In addition, it is important to guide them in finding a variety of practice strategies. For example, in J.S. Bach’s “Musette in D Major,” with its many leaps and position changes, students need to analyze and mark the frequently-appearing five-finger positions. Theory knowledge can also help students learn a piece correctly. Practicing these identified positions will help secure technical accuracy and later will assist in memorization.
In “Fur Elise,” the numerous clef changes can present reading challenges. However, many will agree that the #1 problem, occurs with the many changes in note values and rhythmic subdivisions that often cause numerous tempo changes! How many of us have dreaded hearing the “B” theme of “Fur Elise” knowing it will be at half tempo? We also know there will be more tempo issues at the end of the “C” theme when the triplet chromatic scale occurs and leads to the return of the sixteenth notes of the “A” theme. Therefore we suggest that students first subdivide the beat, then feel the big beat of the eighth note and later feel the eighth note pulse for the triplets. It is also important to choose a pulse that remains constant as they practice going from the triplets at the end of the “C” theme into the return of the “A” Theme. The use of the metronome is strongly encouraged!
Specific Practice Strategies
Students need guidance to find both general ideas for practicing as well as ways to break down specific technical problems. In the “Musette,” all unison passages need to be practiced hands-separate and hands-together with exaggerated articulations. In addition, the numerous position changes should be practiced starting at the end, middle, or beginning of these changes depending upon where a problem occurs.
In “Fur Elise,” it is useful if students first block the broken octaves in the “A” section theme and the 32nd notes in the B section theme. Once again, using the metronome solidifies the tempo while blocking.
Now that students have prepared and practiced well, they are ready for what we like to call the “finishing touches.” These might include decisions regarding a final performance tempo, appropriate gestures to start and finish a piece, and those that reflect the music’s character, as well as suggesting lyrics that support the changing moods of the piece.
We hope it is clear from these suggestions that proper preparation of a piece in the beginning stages is essential in bringing it to an artistic polished performance!
Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield is Professor of Piano and Coordinator of the Piano Department at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. In 2012, she was named Teacher of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association and in 2015 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.
Phyllis Alpert Lehrer is Professor of Piano and Director of Graduate Piano Pedagogy at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. She enjoys an active concert and recording career as a soloist and collaborative artist.
I am not an advocate of practicing hands separately, at least not at first. It is important that the first reading be hands together so that all the senses–visual, tactile, and aural–be programmed into the brain collectively. Then I usually recommend practicing hands separately, which is usually a must for students in their first exposure to imitative writing.
Jenny S. Collins, EdD
Are these practice strategies compiled in a specific book that is currently for sale?
I was wondering the same thing. I would love to have a resource like this!
I totally agree with you! There are certain pieces students should read HT, but Baroque musiv should be learned HS.
Other pieces, with tricky passage work or reading issues should also be learned HS in my opinion.
You are in luck! Alfred has just released the first 3 Study Guides that go with our series: Classics for the Developing Pianist. I hope you enjoy using them!
You can find the piano books and study guides for Classics for the Developing Pianist here: https://www.alfred.com/search/products/?query=classics+for+the+developing+pianist.
So glad you like our new series:-) I hope you will check out my other books too!I
Excellent I like to keep on your mailing list to get more of these notifications wonderful thank you
Hi, thank you for sharing this. Do you also have some tips for adult piano learning? What strategies do you recommend and what methodology? Also, what are your thoughts about learning piano online with the help of piano lessons like these ones https://musicgny.com/piano-for-all-review/ will be waiting for your feedback. Thanks!