Preparation is key when it comes to learning your piano pieces. Some exam boards (such as ABRSM) have made the selection process easier by providing recordings of all works for every grade (including alternative pieces), enabling pupils to choose their favourites effortlessly. Once a programme has been decided, the hard graft commences and the earlier stages of practice and preparation are vital; how pieces are scrutinised, sectionalised and savoured can make all the difference, in terms of both mental and physical command. Here are a few ideas to mollify the transition from unknown quantity to a much-loved party piece.
1. On selecting a piece, start delving into its historical background; information on the period, composer and context within which the piece is placed is not only helpful and interesting, but can also provide interpretation clues too. If you’ve selected a Baroque piece, for example, it might be an idea to listen to the work on the instrument it would have originally been performed (organ, harpsichord, clavichord etc.). It helps to know why a composer wrote a piece as well.
2. Take a pencil and mark up your score. Know the structure. Your piece’s musical form will generally depend on its complexity (or grade). Small pieces could feature Ternary form or A-B-A (where the first section (A) is repeated at the end after a second section (B)), or Binary form, A-B (which features two differing but related musical ideas). Advanced works might take the form of a prelude, fugue, suite, sonata etc. Whatever the form, be aware of its significance and more importantly, how it affects the piece and ultimately, the interpretation. You might want to think about some of the following: how many times does the thematic material (or melody) appear or repeat? Is it in a different key? Is it exactly the same or does it evolve, change or is it inverted? There are a multitude of possibilities. By marking the changes, and mentally drawing attention to them, the next step will be to interpret them with a variety of different dynamics and phrasing.
3. Now you know how it’s constructed, examine the texture of your piece (how melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material are combined). Textures favoured by composers include counterpoint or polyphony (several different lines of music sounding altogether) as is often the case in Baroque music; homophonic style (chordal); or a melody with accompaniment (which could be featured in either hand). Again, take a pencil and mark signposts; if you’re playing a fugue, be sure to highlight the subject (theme) in all its guises. If it’s a Classical piece, chord progressions may be key, or perhaps melodic variation will be important.
4. If your piece is tonal (in a key), working out chord progressions can significantly help in the learning process, as demonstrated by the image above (which is an example of Schenkerian Analysis). Other prominent aspects can include key changes, cadences or chromaticism. Perhaps a passage which migrates to another part of the keyboard entirely from previous sections, or passages where textures completely metamorphose. Note rhythmic patterns too. How do they change, develop or synthesize? Accents, tempo changes and stylistic markings provide cues and clues. Get busy with your pencil.
5. Finally, add in all necessary fingerings (the more the better) and pedal markings. Use fingers astutely, taking into account phrasing, legato, staccato, and other musical terms and touches. Fingerings are best learnt from the outset as changing them can become problematic, and akin to re-learning or correcting habits. Aim to use the sustaining pedal sparingly, and learn how it feels and sounds without any pedal first.
Now you are ready to start practising! My next post will yield a few tips on the next stage of preparation – learning the notes.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.