It’s a familiar problem for most pianists. You’ve wrestled with a particular piece of music and practiced it repeatedly. But still there’s that one tricky bit which seems to lurk in the score just waiting to ruin an otherwise flawless performance. And you know exactly where it is. You even anticipate it as it looms ahead.
It is normally a bravura passage with complicated fingering or a series of awkward but necessary chords. Most teachers suggest the obvious remedy … which is to practice that particular bit over and over again. But this isolated repetition is only a partial solution to the problem.
The real answer is something I call “body memory”. When a skilled concert pianist’s fingers flash over the keys as he plays a complicated piece, almost 90 percent of that miraculous dexterity is body memory. He’s flying on automatic pilot. Months of repetitive practice have fixed the physical motions in his fingers. He doesn’t know if the next note is an A or a C#. He’s just playing the music.
(* A little disclaimer here for eager young students. You do have to know and memorize the basic chord progressions. You’ll need “memory spots” which I’ll discuss in another lesson. Flying purely on automatic pilot can cause an inconvenient crash.)
However, we can use this wonderful body memory to help us learn difficult passages quickly and securely. In order to smooth out these tricky spots, you have to fix a physical memory in your fingers. And the best way to do this is “Aggressive Practice”.
First, isolate the passage which is giving you difficulty, like this fragment at the end of Chopin’s Opus 64, No 1, which is popularly known as the “Minute Waltz”
Play the right hand passage very slowly, rounding the fingers into a paw and striking each key VERY firmly. Be absolutely sure not to change a single fingering. Feel the passing over of the fingers and be sure that all the notes are being played absolutely evenly in tempo and in tone. Play the passage as firmly and mechanically as possible.
When you can do this without pause five times in a row, then increase the speed gradually. If you stumble at the increased speed level, then pull back until you are absolutely comfortable with the notes and the fingerings. After about ten repetitions, you will be astonished at how much cleaner this passage will be.
Remember, learning a difficult passage follows exactly the same rules as the old Pitman course in touch typing. You must repeat the passage slowly and perfectly before moving on. And a FIRM touch will imprint the physical body memory right into your fingers.
* This passage is a very free cascade of notes over the left hand. When you add the left hand you do not want to interrupt the even flow of that cascade. Slowly add the left hand notes to the treble. keeping your ear and attention on the upper notes. The upper notes must be evenly played. The left hand notes are “slipped in” to that melody.