Practice Strategies for Piano Students: Preparing for a Polished Performance
By Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield | September 29, 2017
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!
Creative 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 blockthe 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, Professor and Head of the Piano Division at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, is a nationally recognized performer, clinician, and author. She has presented workshops, lecture-recitals, and master classes in over 150 cities in 40 states across North America, including many presentations at State and National MTNA Conferences and other prestigious conferences and festivals.View Author Page
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