6. Shortening Difficult Passages: Segmental (Bar-by-Bar) Practice

A most important learning trick is to choose a short practice segment. This trick has perhaps the biggest effect on reducing the practice time because of many reasons.

  1. Within a difficult passage of say, 10 bars, there are typically only a few note combinations that stymie you. There is no need to practice anything other than those notes. Let’s examine the two difficult sections in Für Elise and find the most troublesome spots. This may be the first bar or the last five bars of the first interruption (bars 45 to 56), or the final arpeggio in the second interruption (bars 82 to 105). In all difficult segments, it is critically important to observe the finger markings. For the last five bars of the first interruption, the difficulty is in the RH where most of the action is in fingers 1 and 5. For bar 52 (the one with the turn), the fingering is 2321231, and for bar 53, it is 251515151525. For the arpeggio in the second interruption, use the fingering 1231354321. Either thumb under or thumb over (see 5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales) will work because this passage is not overly fast, but I prefer thumb over because the thumb under will require some elbow motion and this extra movement can lead to flubs.
  2. Practicing short segments allows you to practice it dozens, even hundreds of times, in a matter of minutes. Use of these quick repetitions is the fastest way to teach your hand new motions. If the difficult notes are played as part of a longer segment, the longer interval between repeats and the playing of other notes in between can confuse the hand and cause it to learn more slowly. This faster learning speed is quantitatively calculated in 5. Learning Rate Calculation (1000 Times Faster!), and that calculation provides the basis for the claim in this book that these methods can be 1000 times faster than the intuitive methods.
  3. We all know that playing faster than your technique allows is detrimental. However, the shorter a segment you choose, the faster you can practice it without ill effects because they are so much easier to play. Therefore, you can practice most of the time at or beyond final speed, which is the ideal situation because it saves so much time. In the intuitive method, you are practicing most of the time at slow speed.