Block by Block

by Sean on October 7, 2011

A Practice Technique for Intermediate Students

blocks and piano illustrationDuring a piano lesson today with a new (to me) intermediate student, I taught her the concept of blocking sections of music to which she replied that I was “brilliant.” While I humbly accepted this compliment, I was reminded that although this brilliant concept is a staple of practice techniques for more advanced students, it is too often neglected to be taught by many teachers. If you are a teacher who does not commonly share this idea with your students, I do not see much harm in starting sooner rather than later. If you are a student who has never heard of this, an earth-shattering breakthrough awaits you in the paragraphs to follow.

How It Works

Blocking is a technique that helps you to learn a new section of music more easily than just playing note by note. Probably most importantly, it saves an incredible amount of time and frustration.

The first movement of the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven is a great example of how this technique can be employed. Instead of learning each individual note of the right hand one at a time, you can play each group of 3 notes (each triplet) as a single chord. That would mean in the first measure, rather than playing G#, C#, and E one after another, play all three notes at the same time. Then, for the whole measure, you are thinking in 4 beats rather than 12 individual notes. If you plan to learn 4 measures in one session, 2 measures, even 1 new measure at a time, this process can more than cut your practice time in half. Even when the melody of the right hand makes its entrance in the 5th measure, you can still block it as part of the chord.

Where It Applies

This technique can be used all over the classical repertoire. You can find places in virtually every Mozart, Hadyn, or Clementi piece for piano that breaks a chord into individual notes. If you are not already familiar with the terms broken chord or Alberti bass, it simply means that the notes of a chord are broken up. All of these composers among many others use broken chords, usually in the left hand as an accompaniment figure.

Another famous piece you may be studying that uses broken chords is Mozart’s C major Sonata, K 545. The left hand begins exclusively with an Alberti bass. You can simplify the study of this piece by blocking each 4-note group of the left hand into a single chord while playing the right hand over it.

Why It Works

Blocking is more a note-learning tool rather than a way to put things together as they should be played as a finished piece. For this reason, some students are hesitant to try it. The thinking is along the lines of: “Since this is not the way the piece will actually be played, why should I spend time doing this when I will still need to spend time learning how it really goes?”

Perhaps an analogy with language might illustrate the difference this technique can make. Say, for example, you are attempting to memorize a line of words: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Whether you know this Joyce Kilmer poem or not, it is probably safe to assume that in no more than a few minutes you could memorize, recite, and rewrite these words from memory.

Now, try memorizing this: “В некотором царстве, в некотором государстве, жили-были старик и старуха…” Unless you speak Russian, I would feel fairly confident in saying that it would take longer to rewrite that line from memory than the Kilmer poem.

Why is this? The answer is obvious, yet many students choose to ignore its relevance in music.

The first phrase is easier because in English, we see each word as a unit and remember its significance in the context of a complete thought. In the Russian fairytale, not only are many of the letters different from what we already know, we have no idea what the words mean. We would simply be learning an arbitrary collection of symbols that have no apparent connection to each other.

Learning a line of music is no different if you have not yet learned the intricacies of harmony, the relation of one chord to another, or even which notes create which chords. By blocking chords, you are learning the equivalent to words in a sentence. In time, you will learn exactly what their place is, how they connect to one another, and so on. Blocking is one way to make sense of a seemingly random array of notes.

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