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Understanding Musical Context When Solving Technical Challenges in Your Repertoire

Often times, when we encounter a technically challenging passage in a piano work, what is usually our first instinct in trying to solve it? Well, if you have been following my posts, I hope you would have considered hands separate and slow practice. Remember: working at a slower tempo and dissecting the parts separately will give you greater understanding on how the passage works. While slow practice is a great place to begin, it doesn't fully give you the mastery or confidence in conquering the passage. Today, I want to share a critical component with you, or the "secret sauce," in solving technical problems in your piano pieces.

Analyzing the musical context of a passage is a lengthy process that involves understanding how phrasing, contour of the line, breathing, articulation, and inflection will influence one’s technical approach. To me, I feel that this is most often an overlooked step. When working on our repertoire, I see this far too often where many of us tend to isolate technique and music. I think this is a big mistake––they should be closely related to each other. As a parenthetical note, I am not suggesting at all that we should abandon technical exercises/development outside of our repertoire. That work is vital. If you would like to learn some of my exercises that I have developed, check it out here.

To me, we need to understand how a passage works before we can even begin to diagnose and troubleshoot the issue. If we rush ahead without considering the passage's musical context, most likely we will use an inappropriate technical approach; thus requiring us to unlearn the habits before implementing a more suitable method. Here is an example from Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 where I will break down the passage in detail to further illustrate what I mean.

In Example 1, how do we approach the notoriously challenging RH octaves? The first step is to figure out is where would we breathe if we were to sing this. In my notated example, I determined that I would breathe before and at the end of the octaves passage. Also, consider Chopin’s slur: further suggesting that he wanted it to be performed legato as one gesture. In other words, avoid flapping our wrists on each note: this approach makes the successful execution of this passage exponentially more difficult, but more importantly, it doesn’t seem to align with what Chopin intended.

So, how do we translate what we just learned to the piano? Firstly, incorporate the “breathing” by picking your hand completely up from the keyboard, which will get rid of any residual tension. This step is important as it will loosen your wrist and arm before you play the series of octaves.

Example 1. Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, m. 119.

Now, how do we play the octaves? Keep the wrist low and gradually move it up as you are ascending. There should be no jerky motion here—almost as if you were gliding on the keyboard. Again, the reasoning behind this physical approach is that we are trying to create a seamless sound (like singers) as if this gesture was a singular musical impulse, which leads me to…

And lastly, to achieve a smooth and connected sound, we need to rely on the fingers (fingers 4 and 5 on the black and white keys respectively) that play the top notes to be legato. This is only possible by gently letting go of the bottom notes to fully transfer the weight to the right side of the hand.

I hope that you found this post to be helpful. Unquestionably, the lengthy process of blending musical context and technique in your repertoire requires discipline and patience. As noted above, understanding the music, with proper and thoughtful analysis, will help guide you to an informed decision of a proper technical approach. To me, it is another creative practicing method that makes studying music so enjoyable and inspiring!

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