Learning any new piece of music is a journey. When you embark upon this journey there is a starting point and a destination, if not in plain sight, certainly in the mind’s eye (or ear!). Let’s imagine this destination is at the top of a challenging climb. Whether it’s Ben Nevis or Mount Everest depends on the length of your legs – or your fingers!
Once we have chosen the destination, the first step is ‘making a start’. It features tentative baby steps, a little sight reading as you weave a path through the challenges ahead, working out notes, phrases, rhythms and fingerings slowly, hands separately and in small sections.
Younger pianists find this phase frustrating. Playing hands separately is boring and looking at key signatures, time signatures and counting is what beginners do! They need to stop to rest often despite the slow pace. Experienced pianists know it is imperative this stage is not rushed as bad habits are hard to break. They pace themselves, find footholds and secure ropes. It’s an exciting time, a voyage of discovery and identifying the challenges to come.
Step two is about ‘making progress’. Gradually the piece starts to take shape, phrases make more sense and the pianist develops a greater awareness of how the music fits together as a whole.
Younger pianists are excited now because they are allowed to play hands together and feel they are playing real music. Notes are mostly secure (no need to keep checking the key signature) and rhythms are ingrained (rightly or wrongly). The view is good from here, and given the choice they might not climb further, but they will probably run in circles as fast as they can!
For experienced players this is a time of uncertainty; the end goal is glittering somewhere on the distant horizon but there’s still a long way to go. And yet, they have come too far to turn back! The twists and turns of the path ahead are clearer. The trouble spots have been identified and need more work but the easier passages are falling into place. A few ambitious sprints are quickly abandoned for a more measured pace.
The last stage is ‘crafting the music’. You are taking the final steps towards your destination.
Young pianists think they’ve made it, but the teacher is still nagging about dynamics, pedalling and giving the last note its full value! They don’t care about the destination anymore; they are ready to start a new journey (having already forgotten how frustrated they were at the outset!). For experienced pianists, it’s a steep climb at the end; the most technically challenging parts remain elusive on occasion (and despite the best of intentions, some bad habits were formed along the way).
Finally, you are there; it’s performance day – an exam, a concert or something more informal. Now you’ve reached those heady heights, all you can do is hold on tight, enjoy the view and hope you don’t fall off!
My friend and piano teaching colleague Rob Foster notes that for some pieces you will make the journey many times in your life and, like a favourite city, experience them differently every time you return to them.
Why not take a moment to reflect on the music you are playing now: where are you on the journey?
Liz Giannopoulos, Music Tutor and Mentor