Piano songs - Canon in D

Gain deep understanding of piano songs including their rhythm, tempo, tone and mood by taking the time to learn a bar at a time fixing mistakes as they occur.

With a high degree of certainty, I can honestly say that I know how to play the piano but remains a weak performer. Perhaps it is because I started late, most performing pianists started as children. Once out of curiosity, I tried putting myself on stage to try performing in a piano competition. I was so overwhelmed by nerves that I did not get past the first phrase. Stubbornly I went again the next year thinking I only needed to be better prepared. Crashed and burned just the same.

“Everyone knows how to play but only a few know how to perform” - Anton Rubinstein

Being able to perform piano songs well is not about being fully prepared by having had enough practise. It is something deeper. More to do with imagination, emotion, inner hearing and intellectual understanding of the music I wished to perform.

Piano songs studied a bar at a time

As I reflect on that failed attempt at performing in front of a large audience many years ago, I realized my so-called preparation was superficial. I spent a lot of time practising but none on understanding. I failed to make a connection with the music, instead was merely striking the keys to produce some sounds.


  • What? - In-depth understanding of a musical phrase
  • Why? - Transcend playing into performing
  • How? - Intense concentration on a small section such as a bar

It was my first time or I was only in my third year of taking lessons or I did not have enough time to practise properly because I was already a working adult – are excuses I could offer, but if you are going to do something do it right until you get it without excuses. Therefore, I have returned to the piano with a vengeance.

Taking the "aim small miss small” approach. Practising only 1 bar a day for only 30 minutes and selecting only compositions I care deeply enough to learn. If I get stuck on 1 bar due to mistakes, I would only fix that bar thus keeping the loss in time and energy small.

It will take months to finish a composition this way but that is not the goal. Understanding the music is the goal. It is much easier to gain a deep understanding of 1 bar of music at a time than a whole page.

Take the bar from Canon in D shown in Image 1 below for example. The 2-note of AD is played by the third and fifth finger followed by C played by the fourth finger. To me this is a nasty combination of fingering because with the fifth finger already pressing down on a key, lifting only the weak fourth finger to strike a key strains its muscles and tire the joints.

The cycles of rhythm and tone in piano songs

While I worked on perfecting the fingering to play this bar, I noticed that because the bar is part of a phrase in which the bars prior to it have been learnt well, I grasped the rhythm accurately and managed to time the tempo with precision. This is so because in a phrase the bars tend to follow a similar rhythm and tempo, despite consisting of notes of different pitch. Having cleared the hurdles of absorbing rhythm and tempo, all concentration could then be channeled to the task of getting the fingering right.

The same can be said of its tone, mood and expression. Playing the bar and rendering the phrase felt familiar because they are of one passage. Several of the phrases that came before conveyed a recognizable tone and mood easing the way for expressing them.

Conclusion; I gained the intellectual understanding of the bar’s artistic image which included its rhythm and tempo by taking the time to learn each bar in the phrase 1 bar at a time. Simultaneously allowing me to familiarize myself with the tone and mood of the phrase. Paving the way to solve other problems such as fingering.

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