[1.II.4] Starting a Piece: Listening and Analysis (Fur Elise)

The best way to start the learning process is to listen to a performance (recording). The criticism that listening first is some sort of "cheating" has no defensible basis. The purported disadvantage is that students might end up imitating instead of using their creativity. It is impossible to imitate someone else's playing because playing styles are so individualistic. A mathematical "proof" of this impossibility is presented in section IV.3. This fact can be reassuring to some students who might blame themselves for the inability to imitate some famous pianist. If possible, listen to several recordings. They can open up all sorts of new ideas and possibilities that are at least as important to learn as finger technique. Not listening is like saying that you shouldn't go to school because that will destroy your creativity. Some students think that listening is a waste of time because they will never play that well. In that case, think again. If the methods described here will not make people play "that well", I wouldn't be writing this book! What happens most frequently when students listen to many recordings is that they discover that the performances are not uniformly good; that they actually prefer their own playing to some of those in the recordings.

The next step is to analyze the structure of the composition. This structure will be used to determine the practice program and to estimate the time needed to learn this piece. As any experienced piano teacher knows, the ability to estimate the time needed to completely learn a piece is critically important to the success of the practice routine. Let's use Beethoven's Fur Elise as an example. Analysis always starts by numbering the bars on your music score. If the bars are not already marked, mark every 10th bar in pencil, just above the center of the bar. I count any partial bar at the beginning as bar 1; others count only full bars, but this makes it awkward to identify the first partial bar. In Fur Elise, the first 4 full bars are essentially repeated 15 times, so by just learning 4 bars you can play 50% of the piece (it has 124 full bars). Another 6 bars are repeated 4 times, so learning only 10 bars enables you to play 70% of it. Using the methods of this book, therefore, 70% of this piece can be memorized in less than 30 minutes, because these bars are quite easy. Among these repeated bars, there are two interruptions that are difficult. A student with one to two years of lessons should be able to learn the required 50 different bars of this piece in 2 to 5 days and be able to play the whole piece at speed and from memory in 1 to 2 weeks. After that, the teacher is ready to work with the student on the musical content of the composition; how long that will take depends on the musical level of the student. We will now address the technical issues in the difficult sections.

The secret for acquiring technique quickly lies in knowing certain tricks for reducing impossibly difficult passages to not only playable but often to trivially simple ones. We shall now embark upon that magical journey into the brains of geniuses who figured out incredibly efficient ways to practice the piano!