One of the reasons modern aircraft are so safe is the number of backup systems they have on board in case one system fails. Apparently there is a backup to extend the landing gear if the primary hydraulic system fails – flaps and flight spoilers have backup systems too.

But what happens to the poor pianist when disaster strikes? If we are to perform to our best abilities in turbulent weather, such as might be generated by our mind in an exam room or recital situation, surely we need backup systems too? Even a casual performance in front of just one person (who might even be in an adjoining room) can cause system failure. While we can never guarantee a performance is going to be trouble-free, we can build in enough safety features to prevent a little slip turning into a catastrophe.

It’s not so much the amount of practice we do that makes us secure – although we should never skimp on preparation time or underestimate how long it will take us to fully assimilate a new piece – but the quality, breadth and depth of it.

The intelligent pianist prepares for performance by focussing on five main areas:

Background Research and Developing a Personal Narrative

Researching the background of a work can only enhance our appreciation of the music. Knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time the work was written feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. Immersing ourself in the storyline or narrative we have allowed our imagination to conjure up, focussing on an image or scene (such as dancers dancing, a moonlit evening, a colour scheme) is so much more inspiring, meaningful and communicate when we perform than zooming in on the technical elements (a fingering, where to put our elbow, etc.).


Analysing the formal structure of the music as we see it is absolutely a hallmark of the intelligent pianist’s approach to performance preparation. This usually embraces harmonic and formal analysis, but can also be done more freely using graphs or mind maps. I have written several posts about analysis, so to find out more follow this link.

Aural Memory

If we are playing from memory, or want to learn our pieces deeply, we need a cultivated aural memory of the music. How do we develop this? Transposition by ear  is a great way to go. Can you play a line from memory with just one finger? Or a two-part single-note passage in octaves? Can you play the music the right hand needs to play, but with the left hand?

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory happens automatically as we practise, but we can enhance motor control by practising technical exercises generated from the patterns in the music and using practice tools such as ultra-slow tempi , working in small sections and so on.

Muscle memory is like a false friend, it’s with you when all is going well but vanishes at the first sign of trouble. Pieces learned solely by muscle memory work well when we are playing for ourselves, in the company of a trusted teacher or in performing situations where we feel safe and comfortable. When the stakes are higher and we succumb to anxiety, it can feel as though all the practice we have done comes to nothing.


Bring the whole lot together by sitting away from the piano and enhancing your learning before and during regular practice at the piano. Visualisation is a potent learning tool often overlooked by the piano student who feels physical contact with the instrument is the only thing that counts.

If you want to see how the analysis and visualisation aspects might work in the initial learning process, I can recommend a couple of chapters in Piano Technique by Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer. On page 23, the author gives a step-by-step analysis of the C major Invention of Bach which Leimer intends to be studied away from the piano before any contact. From the preliminary analysis and visualisation away from the piano, the student is then expected be able to play the work without the score. Some will be able to, others will need a bit more practice. Please do not give up if you find yourself in the latter category, persist and you will improve.

Here is the process Leimer outlines for the first four bars:

First we must again inform ourselves as to time and key signatures – 4/4 and C major. The motif begins on the second sixteenth note of the first beat and consists of four tones gradating upwards, and then two descending thirds, ending with a leap to the fifth (dominant).


The motif appears literally with the second quarter of the third beat in the lower voice. Hereto are added in the upper voice the eighth notes as a counterpoint.


The first motif is repeated in the second measure, in the upper voice, from G, thus forming [the following] with the leap of a fifth to the last note, D

In the same measure the lower voice is approached by a leap from the last note of the previous measure, to the fifth belonging to the motif, followed by another note an octave lower, in counterpoint.

With the second sixteenth note of the third quarter note beat, the motif in the lower voice begins also on G, with the difference that the leap to the fifth has been changed into a leap to the fourth.

In the third measure we find inversions of the motif, which are carried out closely four times, the leap to the fifth, however, having been changed every time into an interval of a second. These inversions of the motif follow each other, sequence-like, always beginning from the next lower tone, so that measures three and four can be easy committed to memory, by visualization.

In the lower voice we again find four consecutive eight notes in counterpoint, then a similar series from G, and finally six scale notes from E.

After having carefully studied the notes, the intelligent reader and player will be capable of playing the first four measures of the invention with music. All my pupils are set at this task, which they accomplish without difficulty.

If you have not played this Invention, why not sit away from the piano and see if you can learn the first few bars in this way? With a bit of practice you will find you can learn notes and even practise difficult passages using visualisation techniques while sitting on a train – using just your head, and possibly your air piano.

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