From the Ground Up


Glossary of Practise Methods

These practise methods are used throughout the editions and walkthroughs in the From the Ground Up series, but can be applied in different ways to virtually any piece.

Count and Conduct

Counting aloud while playing is of course a time-honored practise technique. It requires a certain level of coordination and concentration, and is therefore sometimes unpopular with students, but its benefits are undeniable. It keeps the mind focused and helps us to impose rhythmic order and expression upon our playing, just as conductors impose their interpretation upon the orchestra with their gestures.

Obviously, we cannot literally conduct while we are playing. What’s meant here is counting aloud in a way that conducts our own playing. Our counting should mirror the character of the music, following its dynamic curves, tempo fluctuations, and articulations (legato/staccato). The beats within the measure should never be equal, as that leads only to monotony. Furthermore, the beats are rarely organized according to the conventional strong/weak alternations that are typically ascribed to them. A measure of four beats, for example, is usually described as having the main “strong” accent on 1, and a secondary accent on 3, with beats 2 and 4 dismissed as “weak.”

In reality, beats are not “strong” or “weak,” but part of a dynamic continuum that moves forward, across the bar line, from upbeat to downbeat.

In some of our editions, we use the differently-sized numbers, as above, to suggest ways of counting the music. But you need not limit yourself to these pieces, or to our suggestions. To find the best way of counting a phrase, let the music itself be your guide. Experiment with different ways of organizing the beats and listen to the effects they have on your playing.

Highlight and Hear

In piano music, melodies are usually in the top voice, making them easy to hear, and remember. But the bass and middle voices also have very important roles to play within the musical texture. Because our ears are so drawn to the upper voice, these lower voices often don’t register as clearly in our conscious minds. That is why when we have a memory slip, it is almost always in the left hand. More importantly, the bass and middle voices are a rich source of expression, which we may miss if our attention is overly absorbed by the melody.

To help guide our ears’ attention to these neglected parts of the texture, we can highlight individual voices, either by bringing them out a bit more than we normally would, or by singing them. Obviously, this is very useful in polyphonic music, where all the voices are equally important; but it is just as helpful in pieces of a homophonic nature. In Schubert’s A-flat Impromptu, for example, the melody in the top voice is of course the most important part in the texture, but the bass line has a strong supporting role that guides and shapes the inflection of the melody. We can hear this relationship better if we bring out the bass voice while we play.

Even the middle voice of the right hand and the upper voice of the left hand, both of which sustain an E-flat throughout the passage, merit our aural attention. If we sing, or just softly hum, this sustained E-flat as we play, it can help impart a floating, horizontal quality to our playing.

Highlighting is also a useful way of checking our memory. Anytime we play something differently from the way we are used to doing it, we challenge our habits and foster flexibility. A good way to practise this skill is by playing Bach Chorales, bringing out, or singing, each of the four voices in turn.

Linger and Listen

There is so much to listen for as we practise, that there is sometimes not enough time to hear everything, especially when we play up to tempo. Slow practise is one solution to this problem, but another is simply to pause at certain points and listen closely to the sound coming from the piano. With Linger and Listen, we insert short fermatas in strategic places to give ourselves a little extra time to hear things that might otherwise escape our attention. We may pause to check that we have voiced a chord as we intended, or to find out if an inner voice is still audible, as in this Schumann example (no. 30 from the Album for the Young).

It is very easy to forget that the D and F in the right hand are sustained into the third beat. By pausing on that beat, we can check to make sure we hear the full, beautiful chord, particularly the lovely dissonance the F makes against the G.

Tied notes are another good place to Linger and Listen. These are often hard to hear because their sound is decaying while other voices are sounding above or below them. Moreover, tied notes are often suspensions that become more dissonant, and therefore more expressive, at the point where they are tied. Bach is full of examples of this kind, as in the beginning of the D minor Sinfonia (3-part Invention).

Pausing on the tied note allows us to hear the dissonance it makes against the notes in the other voices, and to resolve it with a diminuendo into the following 16th note.

Pause and Plan

As with Linger and Listen, Pause and Plan involves a temporary suspension of the beat. The object here, however, is not so much to listen to what we have just played (though that is always a good idea), but to plan ahead for what we are about to play. Like slow practising, this technique is a good way to ensure that we are not playing more at a time than we can think through. But unlike slow practising, Pause and Plan allows us to play short, manageable segments up to tempo (or nearly), thereby helping us to foster a sense of flow and forward motion in our playing.

In this technique, we pause on the so-called strong beat: the first beat of the measure in meters of two and three beats, and the first and third beats of the measure in meters of four beats. During the pause, we first think through the next segment (thinking not only of the notes and rhythms, but especially of how we want them to sound), then play until the next strong beat, where we pause again. Ideally, the pause should be the same length as the segment we are about to play, with a regular beat maintained throughout, but the essential thing is to take the time needed to think and plan before we play. We’ll demonstrate using the second subject from the first movement of Mozart’s A minor piano sonata.

Using Pause and Plan, we would play this passage as follows. The dynamic markings are editorial and suggest one way of thinking about the passage.

As we become more secure with a passage, we can make the pauses shorter (a quarter note, for example), or further apart (a whole measure, or more). We can also use this technique to test our memory. Pause and Plan works particularly well in passages with continuous, equal notes, as in the Mozart example, and much of Bach’s music. In passages such as this, pianists often strive for rhythmic regularity and tonal equality. But this approach can create a flat, mechanical sound. What we really need is rhythmic direction and tonal variety. Because it comes at the beginning of the measure, the strong beat looks like a beginning, but it is actually the end point of the rhythmic motion, which moves from the weak beat, over the bar line, to the strong beat. By beginning our rhythmic segment on the note after the strong beat and playing through the weak beat and on to the next strong beat, we follow, and reinforce, the natural rhythmic flow of the music. To experience the truth of this, we need only try the opposite: start on the strong beat and pause on the last note before the next strong beat. The awkward, unnatural effect of thinking the rhythm in this way becomes immediately apparent.

When instead we practise in segments that go across beats and across bar lines, we build forward motion and rhythmic direction into our practising.

Repeat and React

Repeat and React is a practise method that helps us to hear dissonances better. Dissonances are essentially notes that don’t fit the harmony (non-chord tones in music theory). As their name implies, they create tension, and tension requires resolution. They are therefore a very important element of musical expression. In complex piano textures with multiple parts moving in different rhythms, they can be difficult to hear.

In this practise method, we repeat all the notes in the slower-moving parts in the rhythm of the fastest-moving part. In this way, we hear very clearly all the notes that sound simultaneously. In the following excerpt from Schumann, for example, there are four parts, or lines, moving in different rhythms. It is difficult in such passages to hear the dissonances that the faster-moving parts make against the longer, held notes in the other parts.

Repeating the longer notes so that we hear all the vertical sonorities simultaneously reveals some particularly jarring dissonances.

Hearing these sharp dissonances more clearly makes us react to them with stronger emotion. When we then return to playing the passage normally, we imbue it with a new, and deeper, understanding.

Replace and Restore

As has often been said, music is a language. While its semantics (meaning) may be difficult to pin down, its syntax (construction) cannot be doubted. Like language, music has idioms (patterns), conventions, norms, and rules. And just as a poet may bend and stretch the conventions of grammar to imbue it with new meaning, so too a great composer subverts and extends the norms of musical usage to create new forms of expression.

The difficulty for us as performers and listeners is that it is sometimes hard to recognize when a composer is departing from convention. We have so much music available to us now that our ears can easily become dulled to what makes a piece exceptional or unusual. Repeated hearings, or repeated practise of a piece, can also inure us to its innovative qualities. The extraordinary may begin to sound ordinary.

To re-attune our ears to the exceptional nature of certain musical events, it helps to replace them with the more normal, expected event. We can, in other words, rewrite the music as a lesser, more conventional composer might have done. This can be as simple as changing a deceptive (interrupted) cadence to a perfect cadence. The example on the left is the original (from the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonatina in G); the one on the right is the replacement.

When we restore the original version after having played the replacement, we hear the harmonic exception with fresh ears, and respond to it with more appreciation.

In Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, we need only replace the D-natural in measure 3 with a C-sharp to appreciate anew the expressive value of this chromatic alteration.

Sometimes, our rewriting can be quite extensive, as in the following flattened-out, conventionalized version of another famous Beethoven slow movement (from the Op. 13 sonata). With what relief and newfound appreciation, we return to the original, with its upward-striving melody and wide-ranging intervals.

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.