(for Ted Hill)

Sometimes things get better with patience, practice, and time. Sometimes, though, they don’t, and more extreme action is required. While medical metaphors are probably the last thing anyone wants to contemplate as we all emerge blinking into the blinding post-Covid light without even so much as a mask and a litre of hand sanitiser standing between us and seemingly inevitable doom, the relevance is undeniable. Aegrescit medendo, said Virgil, in an adage which is translated approximately as ‘the treatment makes it worse’, or even more approximately as ‘the remedy is worse than the disease’.

If you Google ‘ibuprofen side effects’, top of the list is ‘headache’. The universe is indeed an ironic place, my comrades. I have said elsewhere that sometimes, practice can do more harm than good, particularly if it is actually contributing to a problem or engraining a fault, rather than leading to improvement. One solution to such a situation is, as it were, radical intervention, the deliberate creation of an acute problem in order to alleviate a chronic one. Surgeons do this all the time. Under most circumstances, having an eight-inch gash in your abdomen with various internal bits and bobs hanging out through it is not a good situation to find yourself in. It’s possibly even an emergency. But if a bit of you breaks or malfunctions, these awesome knife-wielding maniacs who take an oath to do no harm will cut you open, take out the faulty part, slice it up, chop it off, replace it with a plastic bit, or even a bit from another person, or whatever, then pop it all back in and sew you back together, all under the watchful gaze of an anaesthetist who ensures you’re unconscious enough that you don’t notice any of it, but not so unconscious that you’re dead.

Despite what overly-excitable radio presenters sometimes imply, pianism is rarely a life-or-death situation. While it’s nice to get it all pretty much right, no-one, at least as far as I know, has ever died as a direct result of a split note or some blurred pedalling. Daunting as the Hammerklavier might feel as you sit there contemplating what Beethoven will be putting you through for the next three quarters of an hour, you are not, please remember, cutting open a living human being and cradling their still-beating heart in your hopefully-not-trembling hands. Given the blissfully safe environments in which we prepare and practise our craft, I am often amazed at how reluctant many students are to take out their metaphorical scalpels and dissect.

I encountered this situation recently working with a student on Les Cyclopes from the D-major suite from the second book of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin (1724). Despite him flying through most of the piece with a facility that an uncharitable person would describe as obnoxious, but which I will merely call brilliant, the semiquaver flourishes in bars 7 and 12 were disruptive, despite the student having practised the offending passages fairly diligently for someone at his level.

Rameau, Les cyclopes, bars 5-14

After various experiments and suggestions, we arrived at the following distribution and fingering, the second phrase exactly repeating that of the first. (My personal preference would be for the first two semiquavers taken by the left hand to be 2-4 rather than 1-3, but each to his own.)

What was coming out, despite numerous hours of work, however, more closely resembled:

The left-hand thumb-passing was all just too fiddly, and as a result not only was what should be a mercurial flourish coming out turgid and sluggish, it was also negatively impacting the tidiness of the answering phrase. The solution to both of these problems was firstly a change of fingering, and secondly the introduction of a ‘problem-solving problem’, an acute fault to cure a chronic one, namely a deliberate break between bars 7 and 8, like this:

As soon as the emphasis was changed, that is, ensuring lightness and speed in the semiquavers, and making a clean start to bar 8, rather than getting all the way through the left-hand arpeggio down to the low D in one fell swoop, everything worked more effortlessly. Noticeable improvement was immediate, and with subsequent practice the issues seemed never to have existed at all.

Obviously, this did leave a great gaping hole in between the two phrases, but eliminating that is actually a relatively straightforward matter of acquiring security and speed in jumping from the A to the D below with the fifth finger, then taking the five left-hand notes in one sweep, adding the right hand at bar 8, and then working backwards, prepending first the downward arpeggio in both hands, then the little ‘pickup’ before it. It might also be useful to insert a similar deliberate pause after the rising phrase of bars 5 and 6 to allow for good organisation and a little bit of mental preparation before beginning the semiquavers. Again, that is preferable to taking the semiquavers via a slight crash-landing into position, which will only result in a flustered effect. Likewise, as everything is organised both physically and mentally in practice, over time the passage will become more comfortable, and the pause can be reduced and eventually removed without consequence. (You won’t even see a scar.)

So, what can we take from this little discussion? Some specifics, of course, but also a couple of general points that I find myself repeating to students time and again.

The first of these is that practice is the process of making sure things go right; rehearsal is the process of making sure they never go wrong. These processes require different approaches. Repeating something over and over is not practice, it is rehearsal; and therefore if you are repeating something that needs fixing over and over without actually fixing it, you are rehearsing faulty playing. The second point is that fingering is ultimately more fundamental to success than anything else. A fingering choice that in one context might be ideal can in another context turn out to be wholly inappropriate. No matter what you try to do, there is no greater barrier to progress than poor fingering.

And a couple of more specific observations that underlie my thinking for the advice above. The first is: everything is a preparation for everything after it. The other is: there is no harm in dissecting your piece into chunks, isolating areas that need specific work. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not every part of each piece is either equally challenging, or challenging for the same reason. The approach that works most effectively for one phrase might not be equally effective for the next. It might be about finding a new position on the keyboard, changing the way you use your hands, arms, or fingers, or adjusting co-ordination. These technical transitions often coincide with musical transitions and sometimes they don’t. A passage like the one above exemplifies all of this. Moving from single-finger alternating-hand repetitions ascending to spread-hand arpeggios descending requires a different technical approach, and in this case a repositioning on the keyboard. These arpeggios are themselves a preparation for the scale with which the answering phrase begins without interruption. So, if the arpeggios are dodgy, so too is the preparation for the answering phrase, making the answering phrase itself more difficult to execute elegantly.

Introducing moments of extra time during practice allows you to process these changes, and prepare to execute each separate element effectively. If each element is executed successfully, they can be recombined into the required rhythmic relationship far more easily than if each is individually slightly insecure. Once your technical approach to each element has been fixed, so that it is habitual, transitioning from one to another can actually happen more quickly and fluently, so the reduction and removal of these ‘staging posts’ is rarely problematic.

Of course—as always!—this relies on you understanding which approaches are required for which element, and how best to switch from one to another, and when. This diagnostic ability is fundamental to efficient pianism. It is not easy to acquire, but any effort expended in this area is richly rewarded.