On Trouble-shooting in Practice and Rehearsal

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I mentioned a while back that I’ve been practising the piano regularly in 2022 for the first time in years. This has entailed a combination of reconnecting with past pianistic past skills gone rusty and developing skills in new ways that weren’t accessible to the younger me at previous stages in my musical journey.

It has also involved a parallel process of rediscovery and development in regard to the processes of practising. Last time I worked in any kind of structured way at the piano (as opposed to just playing the instrument every so often…and less and less often over the years…) I didn’t have the years of teaching and rehearsal experience I do now. So, I’m finding all kinds of interesting interchanges between my life helping others grow as musicians and my own efforts to re-establish some level of competence.

In particular, I’m finding the phrase, ‘What would I advise someone else to do here?’ a very useful point of reference whenever I get stuck. Always easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own, even when you’re only pretending they’re someone else’s problems.

More specifically, there are some interesting parallels between piano practice and choral rehearsal for trouble-shooting the detail. Some of these I originally learned at the piano and have taken into my choral life; others have travelled the other way. There is a common theme, though of: wherever you think the problem is, look in one of these other places to fix it.

  • What’s going on in the bar (or two) before it goes wrong? This one I definitely first learned as a pianist. If you hear something going wrong, the immediate instinct is to practise the bit where you hear the mistake. But so often the mistake has been set up by something that is not so audibly wrong, but leaves you in an awkward position that leads you inexorably into the problem you noticed. You notice the bit where you fall off your bike, but it was wobbling round a pothole 5 yards ago that got you out of balance.

    A particular signal for this kind of issue is that when you isolate the ‘problem’ bar, it sounds fine, but it goes awry when put back in context. Also, when you’ve unpicked the set-up, the ostensibly tricky bit looks after itself

  • What’s happening in the other parts? Mozart is very treble-dominant; so much of the time the right hand is twiddling all over the place with runs and trills and whatnot and the left hand is much more static and intermittent. So the temptation is to focus on the attention-seeking material in practice. But sometimes giving a bit of TLC to the supporting harmonies makes the whole thing far easier. Just because something is simpler, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve attention.

    Likewise in choral contexts, the immediate response to a passage that’s not working is to give attention to the part that seems to be finding it hard work. But sometimes taking them out and giving everyone else some attention really helps everyone. Partly it’s because it gives the part who were struggling a more secure framework into which to slot their material, and partly it’s just the chance to hear what else is going on improves their understanding of the overall musical gestalt.

    You’ll notice that in making this comparison, I’m effectively saying that it’s important to the give the RH the chance to listen to the LH sometimes. Though, really, on the piano I think the dynamic is about cognitive capacity: in clarifying the LH role, you free up brain space to handle the fancy bits in the RH. But I still like the way my friend Kate talks about how singing in a choir influenced her pianism: are my hands actually listening to each other?

  • What’s happening in other body parts? Now this is one I’ve definitely learned from my choral life. In singing, we are used to considering our activity as a full-body experience, and if you are having difficulty with a passage, the answer so often lies not directly in the vocal mechanism, but in the lower back, or the root of the tongue, or the connection of your feet with the floor.

    I can recall my childhood piano teacher talking a lot about shedding extraneous tension, but it was always about tension in the hands, wrists or possibly arms. My biggest technical aid these days is the glute-stretch. Again, you hear the problem where the fingers meet the keyboard, but it’s the lower back, the thighs, the buttocks, and to an extent the shoulder blades where the real work in solving the problems lie.

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