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
A series of detailed video demonstrations on solving the various challenges posed by Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu, with a special focus on the three-against-four polyrhythm.... Read >>
Bach's Inventions (in two parts) and the Sinfonias (in three parts) were written for the Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann and are played throughout the world by intermediate players and concert artists alike. This video walkthrough and article shows how to use quarantining and other practice tools to approach two... Read >>
Bach's Prelude in D minor, BWV 935, is a perfect introduction to the two-part Inventions, and a little gem in its own right. In this From the Ground Up edition, we work on developing an overall dynamic scheme for the piece, and on achieving rhythmic vitality through note grouping.... Read >>
A rigaudon is a lively French baroque dance. Telemann’s energetic example, set for Trinity Grade 2, contains plenty of springy rhythms and colour. In this video, I look at how to use simple five-finger patterns to develop the skills involved in playing the piece - forearm staccato and combined touches... Read >>
Jean-Philippe Rameau was an important composer and theorist of the High Baroque. He wrote three books of very fine pieces for harpsichord - Fanfarinette and La Triomphante come from the Suite in A minor (third book), and are examples of character pieces with descriptive or fanciful titles typical of the... Read >>
Mendelssohn wrote his set of six Children’s Pieces, op. 72 for his young relatives during his summer holiday to England in 1842. No. 2, an andante sostenuto in the key of E flat, close in spirit to the composer’s many Songs without Words, features a lyrical melody in the right... Read >>
This is the last movement of the so-called “English” Sonata in C, inspired by the powerful and resonant Broadwood pianos Haydn encountered on a visit to London in the 1790s. The music is full of humour and lightness of spirit, requiring a sense of comic timing, clarity of texture and... Read >>
Here we find the first movement of a two-movement sonatina that Elgar wrote for his niece. It is song-like and gently expressive, calling for sensitivity in shaping phrases and timing larger melodic intervals. The Andantino demands careful listening in the balancing of the hands, the accompanying left hand, while quieter,... Read >>
Max Bruch’s delightful Moderato from Sechs Klavierstücke (Op. 12, No. 4 ) is set for ABRSM Grade 6, list B. In this video I demonstrate in detail the techniques of quick cover, springboarding and selective landing to assist you in mastering the LH jumps so that you can focus on... Read >>
Chopin’s dark, somber Prélude in B minor is much more difficult to play than it looks. This video demonstrates how to approach this piece technically and musically with particular attention to the pedalling which requires a lot of thought... Read >>
This set of resources provides walkthroughs for movements from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major (BWV 825) featured in the ABRSM examination syllabus. Menuets I and II (ABRSM Grade 6) make a beautiful contrasting pair of dances whereas the Gigue (ABRSM Grade 7) is unusual among Bach’s Gigues -... Read >>
CPE Bach’s Sonata in A is full of invention and makes a great alternative to the standard Haydn or Mozart repertoire. Full of contrasts in dynamics and texture, it demands a lot of technical control and precision. In this walkthrough, I look at how CPE Bach embellishes some of the... Read >>
Mozart’s Minuet in D, K. 355 features chromaticism that is surprising even to our ears (imagine what it must have sounded like to the listener of the day!). The piece is conceived as an ensemble piece for string trio, and we need to have this sound in our ear as... Read >>
Georg Philipp Telemann's Fantasia in D major, on Trinity’s Grade 6 alternative syllabus, is a worthy piece and a lot of fun to play. This video shows some of the principles involved in making decisions regarding dynamics, articulation, touch and expression and looks at several options for interpretation based on... Read >>
Matthew Camidge's Scherzando in G is a worthy example of Classical period music, a light-natured piece full of melodic embellishments, opportunities for variety in phrase shaping, articulation and dynamic colouring. In this video I demonstrate solutions for the fast repeated notes we find in the B section, and show how... Read >>
Grieg’s Waltz in A minor is full of character and contrasts, and not without its challenges - especially concerning how to use the pedal. In this video I show how to organise the pedalling in order to make some of the joins possible without covering over Grieg’s slurs and staccato... Read >>
The first movement (Moderato) of Diabelli’s appealing Sonatina in F is a model of sonata form in miniature, an ideal way to teach form and structure to the intermediate pianist. In this video I demonstrate the art of finger pedalling in the left hand alberti patterns and show how to... Read >>
In 1893, Brahms wrote his last work for the piano, a set of four piano pieces, op. 119. The Intermezzo in B minor is the first piece of the set. As a composition it is full of riches, arousing keen interest in composers and scholars (including Arnold Schoenberg) as they... Read >>
Max Reger’s Versöhnung (Reconciliation) demands from the player a vivid imagination, the ability to tell a story in sound. This delightful late Romantic piece describes a character asking someone to be their friend again after a disagreement – pleading, commiserating and even dancing to win back their affection. In the... Read >>
Here is an opportunity for the developing player to explore various possibilities for touch and articulation. In this short sonata there are also several technical challenges to overcome, including jumps, rotary freedom, delicate grace notes.... Read >>
A series of three videos exploring Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor (Op. 3 No. 2) at the piano, with extensive practice tips to solve the technical issues, pedalling suggestions and thoughts on performance – including how to achieve a big sound effortlessly without banging or harshness.... Read >>
Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, Op. 100 have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations - and deservedly so. I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with, or benefit from learning them. This series of videos will provide walkthroughs... Read >>
Chopin’s brilliant Waltz in E minor is justly popular with pianists entering the advanced level. This From the Ground Up edition helps students to lay a solid musical and technical foundation for learning the piece efficiently and quickly, with particular attention given to using rhythmic practice to solve technical challenges.... Read >>
Mozart was 8 years old on a trip to London when he wrote this charming little Allegretto in F major in minuet-style, with a trio section in the minor. The video demonstrates how to use quarantine practice for difficult spots, and how to apply bar-by-bar chaining for secure learning. Various... Read >>
Brahms’s sets of miniatures are among the best-loved shorter works for the piano. The Intermezzo in A minor, op. 76 no. 7, is currently on the ABRSM Grade VIII syllabus, and will pose several challenges for those who wish to master it. This walkthrough and Annotated Study Edition has a... Read >>
Grieg wrote his famous Nocturne (Night Piece) in the summer of 1891 during his annual country retreat to the Norwegian mountains and fjords. Along with five other pieces, he included the Nocturne in Book V of his Lyric Pieces, Op. 54.... Read >>
The 30th piece in Schumann’s Album for the Young is one of the composer’s most intimate and tender short pieces, full of harmonic and contrapuntal refinement. Although it is technically accessible to intermediate pianists, it is musically rewarding for more advanced players as well. This From the Ground Up edition... Read >>
This walkthrough of the second movement of Beethoven’s popular Sonatina in G will help students to assimilate essential elements of the Classical style: articulation, balance, ornamentation, and clear phrasing. The series of reduced scores provides students with a step-by-step approach to learning the piece, and makes it easier for teachers... Read >>
Edvard Grieg’s Arietta, the first of his many Lyric Pieces, is a miniature gem of great refinement and poetry. This From the Ground Up edition helps intermediate to advanced students to understand and communicate its expression, while learning some practice methods that can be applied to many other pieces as... Read >>
La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) is among Debussy’s best-loved works for the piano. Despite its apparent simplicity, it is deceptively difficult to bring off. This walkthrough with accompanying annotated study edition gives practical solutions to the numerous problems the pedalling in the work... Read >>
This walkthrough of the first movement of Beethoven’s popular Sonatina in G will help students to assimilate essential elements of the Classical style: articulation, balance, ornamentation, and clear phrasing. The series of reduced scores provides students with a step-by-step approach to learning the piece, and makes it easier for teachers... Read >>
Bach’s lovely Little Prelude in F is a harmonic prelude, essentially an elaborated chord progression. In this article, the basic harmonic skeleton of the piece is gradually fleshed out, allowing students to understand its simple underlying structure, and to work systematically on its various layers.... Read >>
Schumann’s Von fremden Länder und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and People), the first piece of his Kinderszenen (Scenes of Childhood), is a poetic evocation of the dream-like world of children. In this article, the three strands of the music — melody, bass, and accompaniment — are studied individually before being... Read >>
Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9 No. 2, has long been a favourite of both pianists and audiences with it's richly-ornamented melody, supported by exquisite harmonies in the left hand. This From the Ground Up walk-through provides a detailed guide to learning this piece efficiently and with understanding and... Read >>
Chopin's Sostenuto in E flat or Waltz in E flat was discovered as recently as 1941, by the Director of the Paris Conservatoire, Dr. Jacques Chailley. There are precious few works of Chopin that are suitable for the intermediate level pianist, so Grade V candidates will be extremely happy to... Read >>
Chopin wrote the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, op. posth. in 1830, but it was only published in 1870. He dedicated the work to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto". This series of articles provides a comprehensive walkthrough and detailed practice worksheets for... Read >>
The term “solfeggietto” means an exercise, or little study. This much-loved little piece is a study in evenness of tempo and touch, but it is also a study in composition (how a piece of music may be constructed from the simplest of ideas). This series of videos provides an introduction... Read >>
This video provides a section by section waltkthrough of Mozart's Fantasy in D Minor K397 (sometimes referred to as Fantasia).... Read >>
This series features two popular short pieces by William Alwyn, The Sun is Setting and The Sea is Angry which are both ideal for the intermediate level.... Read >>
Schumann’s piano music is a joy to play – it is full of inspiration, fantastic contrasts in mood and character as well as beautiful melodies and breathtakingly beautiful harmonies. This series of articles provides notes outlining how to approach learning The Merry Farmer, Returning from Work from the Album for... Read >>
Handel's Sonatina in G is part of a new series on the ABRSM syllabus designed for youngsters, or elementary players. This series of articles provides a step-by-step (or phrase-by-phrase) approach to learning the piece thoroughly and securely, building a solid foundation for performance in an exam, or if you are... Read >>
JC Bach's Aria in F is part of a new series on the ABRSM syllabus designed for youngsters, or elementary players. This series of articles provides a step-by-step (or phrase-by-phrase) approach to learning the piece thoroughly and securely, building a solid foundation for performance in an exam, or if you... Read >>
This series provides a “crash course” in practical theory for pianists. It covers traditional topics such as harmony and counter point through examples and exercises which will improve your understanding of music and your performance practice.... Read >>
This section contains walk-throughs and lessons on Chopin's Mazurkas, starting with the Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4.... Read >>
This section contains walk-throughs and lessons on Schubert’s Impromptus Op 90, starting with No. 2 in E-Flat Major.... Read >>
This section contains walk-throughs and lessons on Preludes and Fugues from Book I of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.... Read >>
Ravel wrote the first movement of the Sonatine in 1903 for a magazine competition run by a magazine but wasn't awarded the prize as he was the only entrant and had exceeded the length restriction! Fortunately for posterity, Ravel soon added a second and a third movement in 1905 and... Read >>