Saturday, March 23, 2019

Economy of Motion

My previous post concentrated on some basic recurring issues I tend to have but I noticed that despite writing these out, some of them keep resurfacing. In order to expedite my learning process, this time I will attempt to outline theory and methodology for approaching pieces and maintaining proper good habits; sort of a checklist if you may.

Learning new pieces

In order to formalize the approach to new pieces and to avoid pitfalls of my practice and in order to avoid too vexing initial analysis, the goal of these steps is to put in an hour or two of work before actually starting to work on a piece.


First and foremost, one should know what the piece is about. Might be good to look into the history of the piece a little bit too, but the main points to perform here are:
  1. Listen to a recording (or many) of the piece
  2. Establish an idea of what the composer is trying to say
  3. Identify the key mechanisms that are used to convey these ideas (f.ex. use of staccato)

Key and Time Signatures

Identify the key and time signature(s) of the piece. Possibly going through the basic fingerings for scales as a sort of reinforcement learning. Many of my recent pieces have featured more than one key and time signature so this requires crawling through the score of the whole piece.


After numerous tougher passages in some pieces, most recently with Debussy, I've noticed that rhythmic issues come up pretty late in the process. Arguably rhythm is one of the most important things to get right and even more so in the beginning. This does not imply lack of expression or rubato but the basic understanding of the rhythm per hand in and hands in conjunction with each other. Thus, the first exercise is to go through the piece, passage by passage by performing the clapping exercise.

Clapping Exercise

  1. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Right hand
  2. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Left hand
  3. Clap through the rhythm of the piece with Both hands
  4. Repeat 3. until comfortable (possibly listening along a recording)

High level analysis of harmony and phrases

One of my earlier attempts at formalizing this process went to deep into the analysis part and would have basically required hours of preparation before touching the piano. While possibly beneficial, it just turned out to be too tedious to actually do so I never even properly tried... Great success!

Instead, the new approach goes through higher level harmony changes without necessarily attempting to perform proper roman numeral analysis on the chord progressions. While still greatly beneficial at some point, the attempt here is to help organize the piece in ones head to better chunks initially before starting to hammer away further practice and analysis.

Harmony analysis

  1. Identify a phrase (often but not necessarily limited by legato lines)
  2. Identify harmony changes within the phrase
  3. Repeat for all phrases in the piece

Hands separately

Now, knowing the keys and time signatures, the rhythm and having a basic idea on how things should be shaped and articulated based on the high level analysis and initial look into the character of the piece, one can start to hammer away at hands separately phase.

While the steps outlined here are somewhat experimental, as I often notice that my HS practice does not properly incorporate dynamics and phrasing, my hope is to get more out of the initial phase of learning. Especially since I should, by now, have put in a decent amount of work as to how the hands should be playing on principle.
  1. Select a bar
  2. Play through the notes at ones own pace
  3. Try to play through the notes with correct rhythm (albeit slower of course)
  4. Incorporate phrasing and dynamics
  5. Repeat from step 1. for next bar
  6. If out of bars, move on to the next hand
The actual length of one block does not have to be a bar, but can be a phrase, a page or the whole piece - but all steps need to be completed for both hands. One should gradually make the played sections longer in order to learn the full flow of the piece as well.

Hands together

Once Hands separately (and possibly before as a teaser) is smooth enough, one should start to work on hands together. These are essentially the same steps as Hands separately but ... together.


A lot of the previous practice focuses on individual phrases (or collection of phrases), but not necessarily a convincing performance of the whole piece. Polishing can take a long time but hopefully the previous steps have expedited the journey to this point and less time will need to be spent here.

Economy of Motion

I titled this post as "Economy of Motion" for the sole reason of writing a bit about that subject. It has, over time, dawned on me that playing fast passages is more and more smoke and mirrors in the sense that instead of individual notes, playing broken chords (or such) can be done with close to a singular hand motion, producing multiple sounds with the cost of one movement. Obviously this is not always the case, but many impressive sounding pieces can be played in such a fashion. In my personal experience, Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum was one of those pieces and even though I did hit a sort of peak with that piece before reaching breakneck speeds, the notion stands.

I recently had consistent problems with rolling chords (arguably still do) and I was not quite sure why. In my practice, I generally could roll those chords with ease when done individually so the hand motion was not the issue but whenever playing those chords in context, I had trouble and was rushing to be able to play it in time.

After a while, my teacher pointed out that the problems in such cases are often in the previous notes. Furthermore, in one particular passage he pointed out that the last note of one rolled chord would actually be held by the pedal so I could already make my way to the beginning of the next one in my left hand to be ready to play it when it is time.

In a couple of other scenarios, not involving rolled chords, I was basically staying idle with my left hand in the position where it had a rest and in another I was measuring up my overhand leap to arrive at the time it was time to play.

The solution in all cases, instead of being fast, was to be efficient. Move in position in good time and be prepared to play. Fundamentally this should always be the case, but the biggest realization for me was to look at the preceding notes of the problem notes. I tried to illustrate this point in a previous post as it was not the first time I realized this, but this time I think it will stick with me better. That is also why I drew up this new version of the illustration.

A lot more of my focus will go into being more efficient when learning and polishing pieces and figuring out how to handle those tricky passages. This is a part of the learning process as well as overall technique.

Next steps for me will be to delve deeper into the polishing phase of everything, since I feel I have fairly big gaps in there and polishing tends to take a long time. However, that's a topic for another time.

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Economy of Motion

My previous post concentrated on some basic recurring issues I tend to have but I noticed that despite writing these out, some of them keep ...