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Hi all!

When starting to work with a stretch piece, what is your approach? How do you start?

(I intentionally keep this question as open as it is.)


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A stretch piece is one that is very difficult for me to sight read so I can't really read through it to find out where the hard spots are. My approach then is to try to figure out the hard spots by looking at the score and trying these hard spots out to have a feel for whether I can do it or not.

Once I decide that the difficulty is not so crazy that it will take me forever then I start by working on the main technical difficulty. For example, my current stretch piece is the Rachmaninov C-sharp minor prelude and the main difficulty for me is in the chord jumps so I started with those, practicing jumping between every pair of chords in the piece (a time consuming process as you can imagine). Another example, when I was doing Grieg's March of the Trolls there were two main technical difficulties - the glissando-like note runs in the right hand and the fast octaves in the left hand. I would practice these specifically separately from the rest of the piece making technical exercises just for those things.

Once you master the technical difficulties then learning the rest of the piece is the same as any other piece. Just go through it phrase by phrase and practice slowly with all the usual methods.

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Work slowly and in small chunks.
Make sure it is something you like enough for the long haul. If not, you can drop it.

Last edited by malkin; 11/18/21 09:02 AM.

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For any piece, one has to figure out how to solve the technical difficulties. For all but the most advanced players, this is where a good teacher is very important. A very advanced player is supposed to be able to figure out how to solve technical problems mostly by themselves.

Practicing in chunks and starting slowly can only help so much. For example, if a pianist's scales are poor, then just practicing a Mozart sonata may help the scales somewhat, but that person may need more basic technical knowledge/practice on scales in addition or before playing the Mozart sonata. Repeating a poor technical approach is not helpful. Repetition, by itself, will generally not develop good technique.

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I practice a stretch piece the same way I practice pieces below or at my level. I read through what I can of the piece; what will vary is the speed of the read-through snd the amount that is easy to handle.

Then I flag and work on problems, develop fingerings, etc. This is done for small segments. The flag remains in the piece until they are ‘good to go’. Any technical problems, I discuss in my lesson.
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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Repeating a poor technical approach is not helpful. Repetition, by itself, will generally not develop good technique.

Very true.

Repetition of something played with poor technique will just reinforce the poor technique, making it harder to overcome later on if and when (hopefully) proper technique for that movement is learned.

The old adage holds true here: "you get what you practice".


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As for the original question, how to learn a stretch piece, if the piece is in an unfamiliar key, (which makes any such piece somewhat of a "stretch piece"), spend time focusing on that key signature...play scales, arpeggios, chords and their inversions, and perhaps a very much simpler piece in that same key.


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Originally Posted by malkin
Work slowly and in small chunks.
Make sure it is something you like enough for the long haul. If not, you can drop it.

Yes, my stretch pieces are all beautiful!

About the small chunks: do you chose a chunk, work with it, then let it rest and decay, then work with another chunk, let it rest and decay, etc, and then revive all chunks and make them into a whole? Or do you work with many chunks simultaneously - that is, start your practice with chunk 1, fifteen minutes later chunk 2, etc?


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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
A stretch piece is one that is very difficult for me to sight read so I can't really read through it to find out where the hard spots are. My approach then is to try to figure out the hard spots by looking at the score and trying these hard spots out to have a feel for whether I can do it or not.

Good advice, thank you!


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Originally Posted by dogperson
I practice a stretch piece the same way I practice pieces below or at my level.

One of my problems with stretch pieces for me is to keep it all together. With pieces at my level, depending on the piece, I start with hands separately, then hands together. Or I split the piece in two or three parts, and even though one part needs a bit more time than the other, I manage to get them polished approximately at the same time, and I can keep everything in mind. But with stretch pieces, it feels like it is too much to keep it all my mind.

I don't know if I managed to express clearly what I mean...


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Originally Posted by rocket88
if the piece is in an unfamiliar key

Good advice, thank you!


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
one has to figure out how to solve the technical difficulties [...] this is where a good teacher is very important

Yes, and for this I trust my teacher. But I am struggling more with deciding where to start, how to dive into it.


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Depends on how well you know the piece. My last piece has a few LH arpeggios in Eb. Despite the awkward fingerings, I know the melody well enough to put the piece together. Many of my pieces are not very advanced so learning the notes is less of an issue than working out the best fingerings.

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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
Depends on how well you know the piece.

It is a brand new piece!


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When I start a stretch piece, I play through it first hands separately--not to learn each hand separately, but to get a feeling for the melody, fingering, and rhythm. This will give me a first approximation of where the hard parts are.

After that, I will usually choose the first phrase as my starting chunk. Often that's where motifs are introduced and often the first phrase is relatively easy as compared to later phrases. After that, with that first taste of the piece, I will then go to the hard parts and start on those. And while those hard parts will be worked on in isolation and repeatedly, until I have them under my fingers, I will also be continuing beyond the first phrase (or you can go to the end and work backwards from there).

For me, a key conceptual part of learning a stretch piece is to focus on smallish sections. If I look at the whole thing, it's overwhelming. But taken in smaller pieces, it's not so overwhelming.


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Originally Posted by Animisha
Originally Posted by dogperson
I practice a stretch piece the same way I practice pieces below or at my level.

One of my problems with stretch pieces for me is to keep it all together. With pieces at my level, depending on the piece, I start with hands separately, then hands together. Or I split the piece in two or three parts, and even though one part needs a bit more time than the other, I manage to get them polished approximately at the same time, and I can keep everything in mind. But with stretch pieces, it feels like it is too much to keep it all my mind.

I don't know if I managed to express clearly what I mean...


Your experience may be different than mine but I don’t generally find an entire section difficulty, but just measures or sections. That’s why I flag the exact places where I have a problem and can work on those.


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Hi Animisha,

I'm working on a stretch piece now that's almost coming together, as in, it's almost decent enough for a play-through recording (which doesn't mean it will be mistake free and awesome). Besides what everyone said above, one thing I do to help "keep it all together" as you indicated is: I start my practice by playing the whole piece from beginning to end once. This means I'll be going through the easier parts and the harder parts, even if I need to slow down, or make a mistake in the harder parts. That helps me both with keeping the easy parts in shape/fresh, and maintaining a sense of the whole for the piece. It reminds me of the phrasing/dynamics/voicing I want to use, and where. After this one pass, I do a drill down practice in which I isolate the problematic measures and work only on them for several repetitions.

Also, like others said above, when it's my very first time with a stretch piece, the first thing I do is try to come up with fingerings for the hard passages on my own (as an exercise to test my own ability) and then I double check my choices with my teacher before I commit to them. Lately I've been getting pretty close to what my teacher would have picked (proud moments :-), but here and there he suggests some changes that make things much better. I feel like good fingering can make or break a stretch piece.


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Originally Posted by Animisha
Originally Posted by dogperson
I practice a stretch piece the same way I practice pieces below or at my level.

One of my problems with stretch pieces for me is to keep it all together. With pieces at my level, depending on the piece, I start with hands separately, then hands together. Or I split the piece in two or three parts, and even though one part needs a bit more time than the other, I manage to get them polished approximately at the same time, and I can keep everything in mind. But with stretch pieces, it feels like it is too much to keep it all my mind.

I don't know if I managed to express clearly what I mean...
You have to ask yourself why exactly do you think this is a stretch piece. The reasons given above mostly focus on the technical difficulties (fast scales, big jumps, awkward positions, etc) but there might be another reason. Maybe the piece is conceptually too complex for you and you need to memorize too many things. If you learn a complex piece it's much easier to memorize and understand when you notice things like what key you are in or which chord or scale you are playing. Instead of learning random notes like E, D in the LH and G-sharp, B, E in the RH you notice that it's an E dominant 7th chord, etc. But if your theory is weak you have to memorize every note of every chord and this process becomes more lengthy and more tedious. There is more information to assimilate and internalize. And it's not only theory knowledge but also general reading and playing ability. The more music you learn the larger the chunks of information you can take at a time and that means you can process and internalize more complex pieces.

In the end you have to decide yourself. Try learning a small section. See how much work you need to put in to learn it and how hard it feels. If the piece has a lot of repeated material (most pieces do) you might need less time than you think to learn the whole piece but only you can tell how hard it feels. Anyway, I recommend that you try it at least a few times to get a better appreciation of the process and your own limits.

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First of all, I no longer attempt pieces that are way above my reading level. I’m working hard to improve my sight reading, keeping my eyes on the score as much as possible, so my stretch pieces aren’t too much above my reading level.

As Stubbie mentioned, I also practice in phrases or small sections. I listen to the piece several times with the score in front of me, then mark out the phrases/sections with a pencil. It’s easy if there are phrase markings, a little more challenging if it’s a Barouque piece, so it’s just an approximation. Then I attempt to sight read the whole piece, phrase by phrase, really slowly, hands together. That gives me an idea of where the harder parts are. If some of the notes are unreadable for me, I skip the section and just keep going. The first read is just to see what I encounter.

Then I make notes, grading each section for difficulty. Often, especially if it’s a faster piece, I’ll find a good recording and download it to my laptop, then use Audacity to slow down the tempo to about half and dump both recordings on my iPod. I use my ears a lot when learning pieces. I played violin for years, so that’s just how I internalize pieces (which may or may not be a good thing, since I often wake up in the middle of the night or early morning, with the pieces playing in my head, lol).

Then I just start at the beginning. Easier sections I drill until relatively comfortable. More difficult sections I will drill between five and 10 times, all very, very slowly. I try and get through the whole piece in the first week, going super slow with no mistakes. Sometimes that means the metronome is set at 20. 😂

In the second week, I have a good idea of what parts are now pretty playable, and where most of the work will be concentrated. I’ll start concentrating way more on the harder parts, blending them little by little with the surrounding music so that there aren’t any hard stops in my playing. Eventually things get a little bit easier, and I start to bump up the metronome little by little. I continue practicing slowly until the whole piece can be played at an even, slow tempo via metronome. It takes a lot of drilling of the hard sections to get to that point, then blending them with the previous measure and the one following. Then I start adding sections together until I can play each page together. Then I add pages together, repeats, etc. It just takes patience and time.

I haven’t played anything longer than 5 pages, so obviously take as much time as you need, depending on how long the piece is. These are just my personal guidelines. Your mileage may vary, LOL.

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As pianoloverus posted, I follow my teacher's direction, except that I forget much more quickly than he seems to know, so I review constantly.

For me there is a difference between a piece that is beautiful and one that I enjoy working on. Sometimes, a piece that I find beautiful is frustrating because I am not able to make the beauty happen. The successful long term relationship pieces are ones that tiny increments of progress are satisfying and a zillion repetitions are not annoying.

For example, I've been hacking away at a Bach invention for months and months, and still love it and the work. On the other, I started Sleigh Ride a week ago, and I'm already tired of it. (OK, this isn't a great example, because I would never consider SleighRide to be beautiful!!)

Fortunately, Sleigh Ride will go away after Christmas, whether it is mastered or not and Bach is forever.


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