From the Ground Up

Series Introduction

Learning a piece of music – building an interpretation of it – is in many ways like building a house. We have a blueprint – the score, which may be more or less detailed – but it takes skill, understanding, and imagination to transform this written document into a house, or a performance. We also have photographs – recordings – of other people’s execution of the blueprint, or score, but these show us mainly the exterior trimmings, not the essential foundation upon which everything is built.

Clearly, a solid house must be built upon a strong foundation. So too, a secure musical performance must be built upon a firm grasp of the underlying structure – the essential outline of the melody, the basic harmonic progression, the phrase structure and overall form. But these things can be hard to see in the score. Our eyes are naturally attracted first to the complexities of the surface detail. So we often begin our study of a new piece by fretting over details – the execution of an ornament, a thorny technical passage, a complex rhythm, and so on. To negotiate all these difficulties, we play slowly, or out of time, or hands separately, thereby delaying our comprehension of the basic underlying structure. It’s a bit like choosing light fixtures and paint colors before pouring the concrete foundation.

In this series, we start by laying the foundation, using a reduced score that strips away the surface detail to reveal the essential structure of the music. This structure is reassuringly simple, allowing us to see and hear the fundamental lines and divisions of the music with ease. In successive scores, we gradually add more detail, so that we work on different layers of the music independently, rather than attempting to negotiate them all at once. Practising in this way, we always retain a sense of the long line, and of how details fit into the larger picture. We learn the piece from the ground up, rather than from the top down.

Practising from the ground up helps us not only to learn a particular piece with efficiency and understanding, but also to practise more creatively in general. Soon we start to see the underlying structure of the music on our own, without the help of reduced scores. This perception helps us to memorize our music more consciously and securely. We begin to derive our interpretive ideas directly from our understanding of the music, without the aid of recordings. This makes us more free and confident as performers, which is the ultimate aim of all musical study.

- Ken Johansen

Resources and further reading

  • Click here for an index of available works in this series.
  • Click here to view Skeleton Practice series which serves as background reading with further information on concepts and the approach featured in From the Ground Up.