Today’s post is the third and final installment of a mini-series for Pianist Magazine’s Newsletter: how to approach and learn a new piece. I hope it is of interest.
Read Part 1, here, and Part 2, here.
In Part 1 and 2 we examined ‘how’ to start learning a new piece. In Part 3, we will now consider other factors such as style, articulation, phrasing and dynamics. Here are a few suggestions:
Once the speed of the new piece has been determined, it can help to practice it a little faster than intended, even when learning slower works. This is because the faster you play your piece, the more ingrained it becomes – both in terms of muscle memory and in the fingers. When returning to the expected tempo, it will feel easier to manage and will allow concentration on musical matters. In this regard, it can be beneficial to select four tempi: very slow, under tempo, correct tempo, and a faster tempo. The metronome could prove invaluable when selecting speeds.
What type of articulation is necessary in your chosen work? Does it contain lots of short, brusque staccato note patterns or does it require smooth long legato phrases, with a whisker of ‘breathing time’ in-between. If it’s a Chopin Nocturne, for example, you’ll need to implement a beautiful Cantabile (in a ‘singing’ style) line, where plenty of arm-weight, depth of key, and a slower key depression will all be prerequisites. With regard to articulation, it’s crucial to think about the speed of key depression; this aspect will impact ‘how’ you play your chosen piece. The slower the key depression, the softer the sound – but this must always be combined with how the key is left as well; a very quick lift off a key will determine a staccato outcome – whereas a slower one will be non-legato, whilst an ‘overlapping’ articulation, that is, moving rather languorously from one note to the next, would probably indicate finger legato.
In order to decide phrasing and how each phrase will be shaped, aim to ‘sing’ them. If you can do this, you will naturally feel the shape and contour of the phrases and will, therefore, know where the top of each phrase occurs; this will make you aware of which notes need the most sound and colour. This is an effective exercise and works in almost any style of piece. A phrase might require rubato, too, especially at the end, but how much is too much? These points are all for your careful consideration.
Now take a closer look at the structure, which might determine your dynamic emphasis. If your work is in Sonata Form, for example, you’ll be keen to choose dynamics based on the first and second subject and their importance in the Exposition. You may select a softer section for part or perhaps most of the Development, returning to a bolder colour for the Recapitulation.
Finally, pedalling is often left until the end of the whole process. There is nothing wrong with this as practising without it generally heralds a much cleaner, clearer sound. But, eventually it must be added tastefully; as a general rule, it’s better to have too little than too much and be sure to ‘clear’ the pedal effectively as well, being mindful of smudged musical lines and harmonies.
There are numerous facets to be considered when learning a new piece but, hopefully, these tips will get you started.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.