My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Living life on the edge: a practice technique discovery

I am a very safe person.  I am a very thorough person.  And I pride myself on accuracy and discipline.  These qualities are painfully obvious when I'm practicing and they usually serve me well.  

But I recently hit a wall, a humongous wall - the C# minor Fugue from book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.  It may only be a 3-voice fugue but it's fast...really fast.  And there are lots and lots of notes.  It's one of those pieces that when you look at the pages, all you see is black.  Some people might think that's just an exaggeration when a musician complains of black pages, but I'm here to say it's true, it really is.

I didn't do anything different to begin learning this fugue; I started from the end, working in small chunks until I reached the beginning; I took time to choose and write in fingerings; I worked out which hands were going to take which notes.  Once the notes were learned, I did what I always do with technically difficult pieces, I started working it up with the metronome, being sure to bump up the metronome marking only when I could nail it at the tempo I was currently at.  Brava, Erica, responsible, right?

Well, not really.  Perhaps it was responsible but it simply wasn't working.   

Thankfully, while twittering the other day, I read that an accomplished pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, was going to live stream her practice sessions every day this week.  She practices 12-13 hours a day (I'm not so sure that's a great thing, by the way) so there's a lot of time to catch her at it. (Click here to watch some of it.)  I decided to watch a bit and I was amazed by the fact that most of her practicing, even of technically difficult passages, were practiced quite quickly and I sensed that a lot of the time she was trying to just memorize gestures - there wasn't as much of a concern about each and every individual note.  It dawned on me that perhaps I should just live life on the edge, throw off my security blanket, and simply go for it.  

So that's what I did.  I was careful to try this method without jeopardizing my commitment to not repeating the same mistake twice and to keeping a relaxed mind and body- two of the maxims I live by. I also wanted to maintain musicality throughout the process in spite of the fact that my body and mind really wanted to panic.   Here's a video showing how it all went...

This is a new way of practicing for me and it really is a bit scary but I think it was starting to work by the end of just a half-hour of practicing.  What a relief!  And thank you twitter friends and Valentina Lisitsa.  Just goes to show you that there's always something new to try and new to learn!

So here's hoping that I'll finally be able to record this Prelude and Fugue so that I can move on with my Bach project.  Now please excuse me...I have some more cliffs to jump off of!


  1. Fascinating, Erica!

    Because -- it's exactly how about 6 mos. ago I cracked Chopin 10.2.

    Yes, *that* one.

    It worked just dandy. Hard to believe the results.


  2. Interesting, Robert. That's another one of those pieces that seems so hard to break the speed barrier. It's good to know that you found this method successful too. I make myself laugh because I tend to come up with certain techniques, specific ways of doing things and then sticking to them like glue no matter what - for instance, working pieces up a metronome marking at a time. But I'm learning that being so stubborn isn't always the best thing.

    So we'll see how successful this new method works with the Bach Fugue...results should be out next week sometime ;-)

    Thanks, as always, for your comment. Happy practicing!


  3. Wondering how this is working now that you have had a week to work with it.

  4. Good question, Patrick. It's definitely still a work in progress and it hasn't completely been successful yet. I would say that it has taken me to the next level in terms of fluency and comfort but I still can't play through the entire fugue comfortable.

    I had some tweeps mention that playing difficult passages backwards, hands alone, might be a good idea. I'm not sure I can really do that, but it's worth a try. I'm eager to try it tomorrow. I will report back soon.

    If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them!