2 Ways of Solving Technical Problems on the Piano

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today I’m going to share with you two ways of solving technical problems on the piano. There are many different ways of solving technical problems. But I find that most pianists use these two methods, particularly the first method I’m going to show you. We’re going to use a very tiny excerpt from the first movement of the Mozart Sonata in C major K. 330. There’s a tricky passage in the development section early on. I’m going to play this for you on the accompanying video starting from the beginning of the development section through to this tricky passage. Then we’re going to go back and dissect what makes this passage difficult and how to solve it. This can translate to problems you have with finger work on almost anything you play. So this will be very valuable for you!

One of the primary ways of practicing is utilizing progressively faster metronome speeds.

I think all serious pianists practice this way. This is the lifeblood of serious piano practice. So if you’re having trouble with a passage, start at a speed in which you can play it with total security. Start very slow, 60 bpm, for example. Play through the passage as many times as it takes to be able to play fluidly and easily. You not only have to be able to play it reliably, you have to feel comfortable. You want to feel like you can do it without even thinking. You want to make it a total fluid line before ever raising the metronome at all. You have to be very critical at this stage because if you start increasing the speed before you have it absolutely perfect and repeatable, then you’re just going to be embedding those insecurities in your playing when you get it up to speed. This is the most important part. Take the time on the front end to really cement things and get it really comfortable before ever raising the metronome.

Take it one notch at a time.

Once the passage feels 100% solid at 60 bpm, raise the metronome speed by one notch. Why one notch? Because you can’t even feel it! That’s the secret. Gradually get the security in your playing, not just playing it perfectly, but feeling comfortable where you can repeat it again and again easily. If you have the patience to work through your music this way, you will be rewarded with a refinement and a security that is unparalleled. That’s the secret to developing security and confidence in your playing. I guarantee if you spend the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to get a passage up to speed this way you will be richly rewarded.

Work to the point of diminishing returns.

You’re going to get to a certain point where you can’t play any faster. You might have a breakthrough and get two or three more notches. Then you hit that brick wall again. At that point, it’s time to stop and move on to another part of the piece to work on. There’s always tomorrow. When you get to a point when you really can’t get it any faster without spending an inordinate amount of time, leave it for the next day. You’ll be surprised the next day, maybe when you first start, you’ll have to do it at a slower speed. Maybe not all the way back down to 60. Maybe the first day you’ll get it up to 80 or 84. And maybe the next day you start around 72 and you work it up the same way and get it up to 90 or 92. Each day you will get metronome speeds progressively faster, starting a little faster than you ended up the previous day. Find a speed where you can play it with that same security and confidence and move up from there. Practicing this way is really rewarding because you might think you’ll never be able to get it, but it will only take 10 or 15 minutes to do this.

Very few passages in the sonata are this difficult.

You don’t have to necessarily work the entire piece one notch at a time. Although if you have the patience to do that, you’ll have an incredibly refined performance. But certainly key sections will require this kind of focused attention. And of course you’ll have to work on larger sections than just tiny snippets. You have to put things into context! So after this, you might go back a few measures or even go back to the beginning of the section.

There’s another way of practicing that’s diametrically opposed to this.

This second method is completely different. It’s sometimes a tremendous time saver, preventing you from having to go through the tedium of metronome speeds. Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact place where you can’t play up to speed. Maybe you can play almost all the notes up to speed, except there are two or three places where you can’t get from one note to the next fast enough. If you can isolate those two or three places, you can get the whole passage without having to go through the entire thing methodically. Let me show you how this works.

Of course if there is a scale passage as in this excerpt, that helps. If you can play a G major scale in one octave as occurs here, you’ve got it, right? Well, it’s more complex than that because normally when you play the G major scale you’re going to end with fingers over the next keys of the scale. But here, you want to end with the fourth finger over A, and the second finger over the F-sharp to be ready for the next section. So you need to practice that. Then you can play the next small note group and get it up to speed. Then you put the two small sections together. You might not be able to put them together right away. You can try, but chances are, if you’ve never played the note groups together, you’re going to have trouble with that at first. So instead, play just up to the second note group but don’t play it yet. First, get just those first few notes fluid and comfortable and up to tempo. Then stop just before the next group of notes with your fingers right over the next notes you are about to play, but don’t play them. After the pause, play the next note group. Do this again and again, shortening the break between these two small note groups little by little until you get to a point where the break is so short that it’s rhythmically imperceptible. So you know the break is there mentally, but it’s no longer aurally perceptible. It just gives you that moment to relax because you practice relaxing at that exact point by stopping on the last note of the previous group of notes while being over the next note group in a totally relaxed manner. You can work through small snippets one by one in this manner stopping just before the next note group while being right over the notes you are about to play.

Now you have two entirely different ways of solving technical problems!

The great thing is you can alternate between them. Sometimes one method will work just like magic. You’ll be able to move quickly through metronome speeds and in 10 minutes you’ve got an entire passage solved. Another time you may work this way and find that you can play almost all of it up to speed, so you find exactly where you can’t quite play up to speed and work on just those note groups. Then you can put the note groups together.

These are two incredibly valuable techniques for solving many technical problems you have in your piano practice. Remember when doing progressive metronome speeds, be totally secure at the slowest possible speed so you gain a high level of security and confidence and repeatability first. Then with each progressively master metronome speed, strive for that same level of comfort and speed. Take it to the point of diminishing returns. When you are working way too long just to get one notch, leave it for the next day. But it’s possible you can focus on just a couple of small note groups that you can master by stopping just before a problem spot, being relaxed with your fingers over the keys of the following passage.

I would love to hear how these methods work for you! I use these two techniques incessantly in my practice, and many other pianists do too. Thanks again for joining me! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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2 thoughts on “2 Ways of Solving Technical Problems on the Piano”

  1. Hi Robert,
    thank you so much for all you insights and lessons online.
    As a completely self-taught, amateur pianist, I feel pretty confident about some polyrhythms. These include 2 against 3, 3 against 4 etc. But groups of five notes seem to defeat me – how on earth do you practise these, and is it even possible to do this slowly?

  2. I was taught to use both of these methods, and they do work for me. Trying to teach this to young students has been a real challenge though. Not realizing how much time is saved, they consider it to be too slow and you already know what the results of that kind of thinking are.

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