Tortoise and Hare Chunking

The way in which many of us learnt piano and subsequently now teach our students is based very firmly on the idea that the best way to learn things is to start playing very slowly (and often hands separately) and then, over time, slowly build up the pace until it’s at performance tempo. But is this the most efficient way to practice all your music??

I’m starting to think not. Why? Because the intermediate step of slowly building up tempo is extraordinarily time-consuming. Yes, it will get you where you want to be eventually, but I’m discovering, through my own study (and practice) that there may be a shortcut for certain types of music.

Try this: practice a small chunk really slowly and carefully for only as long as it takes your brain to remember what’s going on. Then concentrate extremely hard while playing it at performance tempo straight away – you can often achieve what would have taken days in a number of minutes. Get it right at performance tempo enough times to be confident and then move on to the next chunk. When you come back to the section next time, you may need to refresh it but it won’t take much work to get it back into your fingers and from then on, you’ll be able to play it at performance tempo.

This method comes down to “chunking” – a practice technique of which I’m very fond. Chunking simply involves working on very small parts of a larger work rather than whole phrases, lines or pages of music. The chunk may be as long as part of a phrase (although that will often be too much to start with) and as short as a movement between two hand positions. Chunks can be anywhere within a work and I like selecting the hardest parts to start with. My students’ music often looks like a patchwork quilt where I’ve highlighted all the chunks for them to work on week to week!

When the chunk has been highlighted, pull it apart and practice it slowly and firmly, hands separately if required, and ensuing that all movements, fingering and notes and 100% correct from the very beginning. This will avoid the need to “practise out” any mistakes in the future.

Once the brain can play the chunk hands together with all articulations, dynamics and phrasing at a very slow tempo, it’s time to turbo-charge your concentration (you’ll need it!) and focus intently while you play it at performance speed retaining all dynamics, articulations, etc. You may not get it exactly right the first time, so prepare and focus and try again. If it is still too hard, the chunk might be too long (time to break it down further) or you may have not been focussing hard enough – it really does take a lot of mental effort.

The final step is to join two or more chunks together using the same method: work slowly to bridge the gap or join the chunks and then work at full speed. You will then be able to play a much larger section at performance tempo after a very short time.

I’m finding this works really well with 20th and 21st Century composers who often write in a very fragmented way. But I’ve also used it with Rachmaninov and Beethoven. Slow movements, of course, don’t really need this treatment.

The hardest thing about this method of practising is the concentration required. It really does take immense concentration to practice something completely new at top speed after only coming to grips with it moments before. But why waste concentration if we can save time with a little extra effort? Consider all the time you spend at the piano and decide what your time is worth per hour. Could YOU afford you if you didn’t concentrate 100% every minute??

I know some teachers will disagree with the thought of breaking apart phrases in order to practise them, believing that phrases and melody lines should always be played whole. I don’t disagree, but it all depends on the music. When phrasing is important, the older method of starting slowly and ramping it up may well be the best way to proceed. But this is a technique worth considering whenever a fast musical work can be broken down into quite small chunks without ruining the flow of the melody. Practice as a tortoise and then as a hare, but don’t waste time being a cat (or whatever animal fits between!!) if you can avoid it!

All the best!

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  • http://leahcoutts.com.au Leah Coutts

    I’m loving your blogs on effective practice Tim!

    I’d be very keen to see a video of a snippet of one of your practice sessions. Students often compare their practice to performances on YouTube rather than the practice strategies that led to the performance… I think many students are shocked that performers actually practice or also have lessons of their own. It could be a great time-lapse video from the start to a performance.