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9 minutes reading time (1777 words)

Steps to Parnassus: Preparing Students to Play Advanced Masterworks

All learning of complex knowledge and sophisticated skills must be approached by first learning more limited and simplified versions of what students are eventually needing to master. The nature of the simplifications—the substance and magnitude of each task, the sequence in which the tasks are presented, the speed of the presentation, and the number of practice opportunities—has everything to do with the success rates of learners. And the way in which complex ideas and skills are broken down into digestible units is entirely within the purview of the teacher.1 

Like most teachers of young pianists, I am struck anew each year by the number of variables that we confront and juggle to elicit the very best from our students. Many of these variables are beyond our immediate control: How much time do our over-scheduled students have available for practice? How supportive is the family? What sort of musical and artistic exposure do our students receive outside of the lesson? What sort of instrument do they have to practice on, etc.?

A Commonly Observed Problem in Student Performances

However, there is one variable that we can control: choice of repertoire. This is probably the most significant variable in determining both the ultimate accomplishment of our student's performance and the satisfaction and sense of achievement the student will derive from the entire music-making process. I have sat as an adjudicator at many auditions, festivals, and competitions mulling an all too familiar scenario: a student struggles through an advanced work with an unsatisfactory outcome—the result of technical and musical challenges that extend far beyond the student's current ability. Inevitably, the student is dissatisfied, knowing intuitively that his playing is not what it should or could be. While many factors come into play when choosing repertoire for our students, the previous scenario is all too common. At these times I find myself thinking how easily this could have been remedied if the teacher had selected a simpler work for the student to tackle in the first place. I believe this is more important than any other decision that teachers make. By choosing a more manageable work, we open the door to the possibility of artistry, accomplishment, and excellence—factors that also cultivate long-term motivation and inspiration. I do not buy into the tempting idea that playing an advanced work prematurely will somehow be motivating. Instead, I believe that this hides weaknesses that ultimately prove damaging to the instructional framework necessary for long-term motivation. Playing an advanced work poorly is not motivating! In most cases, it is dispiriting and frustrating to student, teacher, and listener alike and reflects an educationally questionable process.

In my piano pedagogy classes at the Cleveland Institute of Music I draw an analogy with math instruction. It would be absurd to present a pre-algebra student, still grappling with multiplication and long division, with an advanced calculus problem. Those of us who have heard pre-college students struggle through Chopin Ballades or other challenging repertoire know that this instructional disconnect occurs more frequently than it should in our field.

Long-term Planning

As a pedagogy instructor, I go to great lengths to help students in my classes avoid this common scenario. One of the tasks we work on has proved particularly useful; I like to think of it as a bridge-building exercise. This is a two-part process.

First, we look at a frequently performed masterwork from the advanced repertoire and think very specifically about the teachable skills that will prove most decisive in fashioning an accomplished performance of the work.

Second, we try to identify simpler works from the repertoire where these same skills can be introduced in more manageable increments, thereby creating a bridge to the advanced work's requirements. Ultimately, I hope to have my pedagogy students think about repertoire in a systematic manner—avoiding careless repertoire choices that have the potential to undermine the efforts of a well-intentioned student.

Let's take Rachmaninoff's popular Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op.3, No. 2 as an example. This work can easily be mistaken as one of upper intermediate/early advanced level difficulty, when in fact to play it well requires a sophisticated array of skills that should first be methodically cultivated in simpler repertoire. In my pedagogy class, we spend time listening to this or other advanced works and then think very specifically about the three or four teachable skills that will prove most consequential in opening the door to the artistry and imagination that will bring the work to life. Of course, playing the correct notes with rhythmic fidelity is a given. Having taught and evaluated performances of this work on many occasions, the following emerge as priorities in fashioning a convincing performance:

  • Comfort and security in playing chordal textures and being able to voice these chords appropriately with the choreographic implications that this implies (Excerpt 1).
Excerpt 1: Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, mm. 1-3.
  • An ability to control voicing, layering, and texture when a single hand contains two independent parts (Excerpt 2).
Excerpt 2: Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, mm. 14-15.
  • Playing rapid alternating hands (Excerpt 3).
Excerpt 3: Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, mm. 38-39.
  • An adeptness and accuracy in deploying both the damper and una corda pedals (and possibly the sostenuto pedal too, but that is another discussion!)

Some examples from the standard intermediate and early-advanced repertoire that have the potential to address these skills in simpler environments:

Schumann's "Chorale," Op. 68, No. 4, from the Album for the Young might seem far removed from the world of the Rachmaninoff in terms of difficulty and character, but it is a good early step in learning to play chords with both hands, to use the arms and body to voice them beautifully, and to pedal them appropriately. The slow-moving nature of these chords affords an ideal opportunity to master the mechanics of legato pedaling. These skills are directly related to what is eventually needed in the Rachmaninoff Prélude (Excerpt 4).
Excerpt 4: “Chorale” from Album for the Young, by Robert Schumann, mm. 1-4.

Remaining with Schumann, "Important Event," Op. 15, No. 6, from Scenes from Childhood, is very different in character to the Rachmaninoff. However, the chordal texture and the physical requirements needed to play this work have direct relevance to what is eventually needed in the Rachmaninoff. Once again, knowing how to bring out the top voice in the chordal texture is important here—because the notes should not all be equal in volume. Furthermore, this work requires a choreography that overlaps closely with what is needed in the Rachmaninoff. Playing these chords with just the fingers and hands is not feasible and the student needs to learn how to engage his arms and entire body in order to play the chords convincingly (Excerpt 5).

Excerpt 5: “Important Event” from Scenes from Childhood, by Robert Schumann, mm. 1-4.

A more challenging work that builds on these same skills is Heller's Study in D Minor, Op. 45, No. 15 ("Warrior's Song"). Here the texture comes closer to approximating what is required in the Rachmaninoff and also requires the student to open his hands in order to negotiate larger chordal patterns. As in the Rachmaninoff prélude, the chords are contained within an octave span and a similar choreography to the prélude is required (Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: “Warrior’s Song” from 25 Studies, Op. 45, No. 15, by Stephen Heller, mm. 1-4.

Knowing how to control two layers of sound color and two independent voices within one hand is critical in the B section of the Rachmaninoff prélude (Excerpt 2). This skill needs to be recognized, cultivated, and taught early. When I have presented masterclasses to students playing advanced repertoire, I am surprised that many students are unclear as to why a single note has two stems pointing in different directions. Burgmüller's "The Quiet Stream," Op. 100, No. 7, is a good easier example to familiarize a student with this notation and texture (Excerpt 7).

Excerpt 7: “The Quiet Stream” from 25 Progressive Pieces, Op. 100, No. 7, by Johann Friedrich Burgmüller, mm. 1-2.

Although, in this example, the prominent voice is in the lower part of the right hand—as opposed to the upper part of the right hand in the Rachmaninoff Prélude—it is a perfect introduction to the concept of dividing one hand into two independent voices.

While the world of J.S. Bach might seem very distant from that of the Rachmaninoff Prélude, there are innumerable examples of these layering and texture requirements throughout Bach's keyboard writing. The Little Preludes provide plenty of exposure to this technique within a simpler environment. The Short Prelude in E Minor, BWV 941, is a work that every one of my intermediate students learns in order to develop fluency in this most important skill (Excerpt 8). The right hand in this example plays two voices, each of which has to have an independent sound color. This correlates directly with what is eventually needed in the B section of the Rachmaninoff.

Excerpt 8: Short Prelude in E Minor, BWV 941, by J. S. Bach, mm. 4-8.

It is tempting to think that the brilliance of the alternating hand passage in the Rachmaninoff is the most challenging aspect of this work. However, if an adequate bridge has been established, it is easier to execute the alternating hands than it is to communicate the layers and the voicing described above. A great example of this technique in a simpler work can be found in Octavio Pinto's "Run, Run!" from Scenas Infantis (Excerpt 9).

Excerpt 9: “Run, Run!” from Scenas Infantis by Octavio Pinto, mm. 1-4.

While the examples from Schumann's Album for the Young and Burgmüller's "The Quiet Stream" provide opportunities for cultivating a secure grasp of legato pedaling technique, the Rachmaninoff Prélude requires use of partial pedaling and also a comfort with using the una corda pedal, given the wide dynamic range required. A composer who immediately comes to mind for sophisticated pedaling techniques is Debussy. While there are not many works by this composer that are easier than the Rachmaninoff, "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" provides good preparation for the pedaling required in the Rachmaninoff Prélude.

Excerpt 10: “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” from Préludes, Book I, by Claude Debussy, mm. 10-13.

When I assign a more advanced work such as this Rachmaninoff prélude to one of my students, I like to feel confident that this bridge has been established and maintained. This allows these teachable skills to be negotiated with confidence and skill. We want to step—not leap and stumble—toward Parnassus. Of course, this will not guarantee a stellar performance. However, exposing our students to these skills prior to tackling an advanced work provides their own innate artistry a better and more realistic chance of blossoming. Thinking about repertoire selection from this vantage point allows the teacher to take ownership of this consequential variable. A wise selection can determine our students' success, satisfaction, and joy in performing the masterworks that enrich our great tradition.

1Robert A. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction (Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2005), 90.

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