How to begin?

About practising part 4: it may seem strange to start writing about beginnings in the fourth part of this ongoing series about practising… but the decision to wait until now to discuss the initial stages in the learning process was deliberate.

But before you go on, here are the links to in case you missed them:

Part 4: Current blog
Part 3:
Internalisation and working away from the instrument >
Part 2: Micro practice >
Part 1: Both sides of the brain >

Enthusiasm can too easily manifest itself with impatience as we itch to literally play new music as quickly as possible. In our desire to push forward we risk imperfection, resulting in frustration, burn out and even a dislike for the repertoire we were initially so keen to assimilate. Far better to take a broad over-view in advance of note assimilation. As is so often the case with practising, a slow, calmly thoughtful approach may well be more effectively useful than one that is fast, frenetic, and thought-free.

I would strongly argue that taking time to reflect in the initial stages of familiarising oneself with a new repertoire is absolutely crucial. To ponder on what we are about to do, the music we are about to study intensively and thoroughly, to analyse and familiarise ourselves with the historical and musical background, can be extremely rewarding indeed. Pre-play research can and should make us even more passionate about the whole learning process. Just as a novelist often needs to do research before starting to write the first sentence of a new opus, so too should the musician take time initially to ‘practise’ via work away from the instrument.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves in the first instance exactly why we want to play a particular piece? Though our teachers have a duty of care to steer us in the direction of particular works which their experience and know-how tells them will be beneficial for us, it is never advisable to commit to hours upon hours of practising if you are not especially enthusiastic about the music itself. Why assign yourself lots of work if you are not passionately in love with the music? Of course, we are all subject to change, and it could well be that we gradually become fired-up as we immerse ourselves more and more in the notes themselves.
In any case, the most effective practising/preparation of repertoire occurs when we reach a state of ‘flow’ or ‘peak experience.’
Pre-practice research at its best brings a heightened sense of excitement and endeavour to what we are embarking on which can do much to stimulate flow/peak experience. We should be inspired, energised, hungry to play and be part of the music when our curiosity makes us even more excited by a particular composer’s world. There is nothing ‘academic’ or purely cerebral about research when it is impassioned. Music is a kinetic art. It thrives on communication and connection, and if we can link the notes in an exciting way with other art forms, trends in society, philosophies, or even political approaches, our connection will be stronger. Of course, there are many contrasted and different approaches to beginning to study music without actually touching an instrument itself. Let’s look at some of the ways we can fast-track inspiration in the earliest stages of learning.


Though it has long been controversial to recommend recordings to students about to study particular works, it would surely be folly to totally ignore the achievements of others? We can avoid the dangers of copycat interpretation by ensuring that we never listen exclusively or obsessively to one solitary performance over and over again. Fortunately, we live in an era where it is easy to access multi versions of the most famous pieces inexpensively and easily. By taking time to survey the field we can familiarise ourselves with the notes without getting dogmatically locked into thinking that only one tempo, (or singular approach to rubato, ornamentation, tone production, and so on) is ‘correct.’ 
Certainly, there needs to come a period in the study when you stop listening to versions of the piece you are tackling as played by others. Perhaps you should then shift your background listening to works written at the same time by the same composer or others with whom s/he was influenced? Never restrict yourself to a single genre. Listen to music for all instruments and voices.
Indeed, it could well be argued that background listening from the beginning should always include satellite and seminal works that are of vital significance for the particular piece you are studying. It would be folly to tackle Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ variations without familiarising yourself with the ‘Eroica’ symphony and the incidental music for ‘Prometheus.’ It makes sense to fall in love not only with the first two symphonies but also with the opus 18 Quartets as you play any Beethoven sonata up to and including at least the B flat op. 22.
The broader your musical awareness, the greater your potential for all-encompassing interpretive imagination. You can and indeed should listen from different perspectives: a study with scores is of crucial importance… but listening whilst singing or moving/conducting along could be equally beneficial. Letting the music float over you can also be helpful on a relaxing and subconscious level. Listen, listen, and listen again!

Philosophy, historical perspective, and religion

Will we interpret Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ in a more convincing way if we read and digest Wilfred Mellers’ ‘Bach and the Dance of God’ beforehand? Is it necessary to know about Napoleon Bonaparte before playing middle period Beethoven? Do we need to read up on Schumann’s polar opposites Florestan-Eusebius, understand about ‘the league of David’ and know about the secret pitch symbols that refer to a gallery of characters when we play Carnaval and other solo piano works? How crucial is it to understand the political tragedy that was in Poland in the mid-19th century in order to come to terms with the music of Chopin?
Of course, music begins where words stop… but it will certainly not do our sense of focus any harm to be aware of the historical background and contemporary political landscape that was in place at the time a particular piece was written. Knowledge may not instantaneously give us musical genius, but it can certainly focus and enliven our minds and spirits. Ronald Stevenson recalled how Heinrich Neuhaus once courageously commented on the need to read the Lutheran Bible in order to understand Bach at the Moscow Conservatoire after a communist party member’s son performed a Prelude and Fugue from ‘The 48’- a courageous, potentially dangerous thing to suggest in Soviet Russia of the 1960s. To note the Christian symbolism, symmetry, and patterns in the music of Bach is to be even more in awe of his genius.

Literature and Poetry, Painting and Dance

Of course, it takes a certain amount of courage and restraint to stop simply plunging into the first bar of a new piece and immediately start work on technicalities such as fingering, articulation, memorising, and so forth. So often the first thing students often say they do when taking up a new repertoire is to add fingering. Pencilling in numbers above notes from practice day one may be empowering in that it commits you to a certain approach- but surely for more experienced players it is better to keep an open mind and commit to fingering (and similarly to breathing for wind instrumentalists and bowing for string players) at a later stage? Having the patience to explore the artistic background to a particular repertoire will encourage a deeper understanding of the music’s context. There are so many examples that could be offered, but it is particularly pertinent from a literary perspective to mention Robert Schumann. If you are about to study his opus 2, ‘Papillons’ then it really does help to remember that it was directly inspired by Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre. Surely it would do no harm to glance through or at least learn about the synopsis of this highly romantic tale? By all means, experiment with fingering from day one of study if you wish to – but keep an open mind about what you are going to do and remember that there are more important priorities to concentrate on in the first instance.
What I am thinking about can immediately be seen if we consider the famous Baba Yaga movement from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ The pictures that inspired Mussorgsky’s most famous composition were created by the painter Viktor Hartmann, who was also an architect and designer. Without knowing Hartmann’s image of the witch, it would be easy to play this part of the work with rhapsodic abandon, throwing caution to the wind. After all, isn’t Baba Yaga a fearsome witch who eats children? But Hartmann’s picture shows the home rather than the witch herself. The picture can most certainly help nurture a prospective interpreter’s rhythmic discipline: It shows a strange clock-shaped hut in the middle of the woods, build on chicken legs. This immediately explains why Mussorgsky brings the tolling of a clock into his music alongside the fearful sweeping pianistic gestures so evocative of a demented witch chasing after children.
Of course, awareness of poetry, literature, art, and dance in a more generalised sense can be perhaps even more crucial for the development of taste and style in performance. The music of Debussy was unquestionably nurtured and developed through the composer’s association, interaction, and inspiration from many of the greatest writers and painters of his own time.
We know that he came directly into contact with Stéphane Mallarmé at his home in Paris, meeting there leading writers such as Paul Verlaine, and artists of the calibre of Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Indeed, it was in Mallarmé’s home that Debussy was introduced to the great man’s poem ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ which of course led to Debussy’s orchestral tone poem and an iconic break that had far-reaching effects on the history of western music. Is it asking too much for prospective conductors of this masterpiece to take the time to read Mallarmé as part of their initial preparatory study?
But awareness of background inspiration is but one way into the music. We should not frown in horror when a pianist plays Debussy’s fourth Prelude ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ without having read Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Harmonie du soir’ from ‘Les Fleur du mal.’
We should not fain disbelief if the same pianist is unaware that the same poem also directly inspired one of Liszt’s transcendental études. True, awareness of the synesthesia and the visionary romantic pre-surrealistic imagery evokes much that will directly focus a prospective interpreter on the task in hand, but ultimately, all the scholarship on earth will count for very little if the playing that ensues is not harnessed by a pair of intensely sensitive, receptive ears…. along with excellent mind-finger co-ordination. 


Research and discoveries should always be open-ended. We should beware of dogmatic literalism in our musical preparation. We should never feel that we have found a definitive, indisputable interpretive truth when exploring music. Though it is invaluable to read about the composer’s own thoughts and wishes on how particular passages should be interpreted, we should not lose sight of the fact that art constantly reinvents itself, and that composers themselves often had second thoughts. Chopin frequently reconstructed his music, finding alternative versions for waltzes, and completely transforming his celebrated E flat Nocturne by adding ornamentation to a copy for one of his pupils- after it had been published.
Though it can be invaluable to study Russian music with Russians, and French music with the French, the quixotic magic of music means though there will always be performances that appear more convincing than others, often it is not so much what is being done by the interpreter that counts, so much as how it is being done. In theory, there is no reason it cannot be as refreshing to hear Prokofiev played by someone who has never spoken Russian as by a citizen of Moscow who has studied with a professor who studied with a teacher who met Prokofiev and heard him perform live!

Play throughs and sight-reading

So, when does one stop musical research and start to get down to learning notes? In a sense, we should never stop stimulating our musical minds and imaginations as we continue our journey as practising musicians. Perhaps we can gradually start the lengthy process of assimilating and convincingly internalising new music simply by playing through parts of it every day. There is something to be said for gentle sight-reading as a kick start for serious work. It is certainly less stressful to do this before committing yourself even half-heartedly to a particular bowing or fingering by writing it down.
When intense micro-chunked practising begins to take shape, it is certainly worth considering where to start. Though textbook approaches to practising encourage economical concentration of effort by focusing on the problem areas, taking time to isolate and ‘cure’ our problems, I often wonder if it is not more encouraging and motivating to start with the place in a piece, we love the most? I also question whether or not it is really necessary to start with the opening note and methodically wade through a piece from bar to bar in ascending order.
Perhaps it is better to go straight to the place you love the most?! Find the phrase that truly melts your heart- the magic moment that makes the whole work shine for you. If you can immerse yourself in that particular passage, then perhaps you will gain in confidence, finding more inspiration and wherewithal to continue the long process that will ultimately lead to total mastery of every detail in every bar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.