Most songs have some sort of challenge section to them. In the case of some songs, it can just be one hairball measure. Here is a practice technique that can help you nail it.
Enter Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor
A couple of weeks ago, I brought out Chopin’s “Waltz in A Minor” to Nafisi Tian. When she went to play through it during her lesson, she realized she had played it before and was having a semi-easy and fun time of it… until she got to the hairball measure with the triplet followed by a quintuplet. From the way she played it, I could tell she had never really worked out the rhythm or the fingering for that measure. I broke it down into a few steps and then challenged her to play the one measure at least 50 times between lessons. She accepted the challenge. Here is the measure with the hairball:
Introducing “Drill In & Work Out”
I call this my “Drill In & Work Out” technique of practice. The rest of that piece is easy peasy lemon squeezy compared to that measure, so it requires special attention. It needs to sound as easy peasy as the rest of the piece.
I’ll break it down into the following disciplines:
Rhythm: Pineapple Macadamia Purple
What’s hard about it is the rhythm and the speed with which it must be executed. While the rest of the piece has maybe three to six notes in the right hand per bar, this bar has ten (if you don’t count the grace notes going into the next bar).
What I learned from Ric Haddad is that if you can say it (or sing it), you can play it. So let’s say the rhythm using Blue Jello words. In this case, it would be “Pineapple Macadamia Purple.” Practice just saying the words and memorizing them. Then get out the metronome and say the words in time to the slowest click possible, which is really about 50 bpm.
Here it is written out along with a recording of how you might say the words in time.
Let’s Study the Notes
Now it’s time to see if we can find a pattern in the notes. As it turns out, there is an easy pattern! The first nine notes are all arpeggios on an E major triad in successively higher octaves. So just play through those a few times without worrying about rhythm to get your bearings on the keyboard and add the final two notes in the “purple” pattern.
Work Out the Fingering
This part is really important. You need to commit to the same fingering every time, and, at this speed, it better be efficient! If you don’t commit to the same fingering every time, you will be flailing around and wasting precious nanoseconds while your body tries to deal with the indecision. For this particular passage, I would recommend the following fingering:
Practice Saying Blue Jello Rhythm While Playing Slowly With Perfect Fingering
If you can say it slowly with perfect notes and fingering, you’ll be able to speed it up no problem. Take your time with this part.
Play & Say Blue Jello Rhythm With Slow Metronome
Now is the fun part! Set your metronome to 50 and see if you can get everything going in time. If you did all your previous work properly, you might be able to nail it in just a few tries.
Here’s what it could sound like:
Add Adjacent Bars
Now it’s time to add a few notes at the end. Here’s what that would sound like:
Then add the bar before it:
It might feel like you’re having to learn that hairball bar all over again, but keep going. Play it another ten times or so until it starts to feel good again.
Play The Entire Section
Now start at the beginning of that section and play all the way through. You may notice that you’ll have to go back and practice the one bar again and work it out again. It can be like the game of Whack a Mole: just when you get one bar tamed, another one will start to give you trouble. Just keep whacking the moles. And then get up the next day and whack some more. And then get up the next day and whack some more. Then play it in front of someone, and whack some more.
Eventually, the day will come when you will be able to play the entire song smoothly without error.