A Way to Practise Passage-Work, by George Kochevitsky
from Clavier magazine 13 (8): 19-20 Available in the library: ML1.C53 MUSI 1974
Very little is written specifically about practising piano and the best way of approaching a particular piece of music. So even though it was written in 1974, I found this article to be extremely relevant and interesting. Kochevitsky discusses a procedure for practicing the piano targeting overcoming technical difficulties in specific pieces of music.
In his opinion, it is very helpful to construct the symmetrical inversion of a complicated passage in one hand for the other hand (as in mirror reflection) and to practice both hands together. There is a physiological explanation of this. What is thought to be the development of piano technique is in actuality, the development of the nervous system. Owing to the connections between the identical points in both hemispheres of the brain, the nervous processes taking place in one hemisphere are reproduced in the analogous points of the other. The proprioceptive sensations (those sensations from the movements of the pianist's playing apparatus) have a decisive influence on the development of the piano technique, and are intensified in this way.
Playing softly is important because this minimizes arm activity and allows the finger activity to be perceived more clearly in the cortex cells. Further the right hand, usually better developed, helps to overcome the difficulties encountered in the left hand part. The process is reversed with left-handed people.
The author also discusses a Chopin etude (op. 10 no. 12) in detail and demonstrates with specific musical examples where and how this technique can be applied as an ideal practise method.
A few years ago, I performed one of Chopin’s etudes (op. 10 no. 4) for a piano competition, and I remember having a relatively short time to learn and polish it. This particular etude had much difficult and extremely technical passagework; in retrospect, it was composed in the same parallel, mirror-reflection style as in the etude Kochevitsky discusses. At the time, I remember asking my teacher the best way to practise in order to make the most of the little time I had. She emphasized the importance of practising the parallel passages with both hands, and slowly. I discovered that this method was extremely successful.
My teacher did not actually tell me the reason why this approach worked as well as it did. Perhaps she did not actually know. For her, it may have been simply an intuitive instruction, based on years of experience practising and performing the piano from a very early age. And at the time, I never thought to wonder why; I was just happy that it worked. Following that experience, in learning other repertoire, I found frequent occasion to utilize this practising strategy but still never thought much of the reason it worked until I recently, when I discovered Kochevitsky’s article.
One other thing that my teacher stressed was that in addition to practising softly in such passages, it was important to play slowly and accurately as well. Accuracy is important for the same reason as playing softly – in essence, the fingers are being trained, and not just the brain. Playing something incorrectly not only affects the fingers, but how it is learned in the brain. From this perspective, I entirely agree with Vince Lombardis in his statement that “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”