by Josh Tobiasz
So you're practicing German Dance and looking for some extra help? Look no further, this is a great place to find some extra tips to help you get that piece under your fingers!
This may or may not be one of the first pieces you've picked up from the RCM level 1 books and if you're just coming from a different set of books, such as the Alfred's or Hal Leonard's series, you'll definitely have noticed the jump in difficulty. One of the greatest challenges of practicing from the RCM books are the frequent finger movements, hand shifts, jumps and all sorts of tricky techniques!
So what can you do to get comfortable with these new challenges? That's what this article is here for! Take a look at the following tips below to help with practicing German Dance in D Major
Tip #1 - Break it down - look for hand movements
Hand positions may be down and out compared to what you were used to in the old method books (Alfred, Hal Leonard, Bastien, etc.), but that doesn't mean that they're completely gone. A great way to build up your muscle memory quickly is to familiarize yourself with hand movements so they don't surprise you every time!
Let's see if we can can find a few of these hand movements in the first couple systems of this piece. One hand at a time of course, Below is the first 4 bars of the right hand:
As you can see, we've got 3 coloured boxes representing 3 different hand positions. Each of these boxes are based on separate closed 5-finger positions (each finger being adjacent to the other). It's certainly possible to play all the notes with one or two positions by stretching out your fingers, but for level 1 that may feel somewhat uncomfortable or even unstable under your fingers. Using this closed 5-finger position, you should find that in the orange box finger 2 naturally lands on the A.
There's two options here, do we reach for the thumb on the F# in the green box, or do we follow the finger suggestion and lift our finger 2 to move to the new position on F#?
Let's compare the two choices:
Stretch thumb to F#:
Pro: You only need to reach your thumb over, and your fingers can easily shift in place beside it
Pro: It'll easier to play the blue box without moving your hand
Con: Placing a thumb on a black key requires a deep reach, and the quicker tempo of this piece will force you to place the next two white keys at a higher placement. That means less tone control and a greater need for precision (the white keys have less contact space higher up). This motion may also feel awkward in the hand.
Pro/Con: Although the blue box will be easier to play without moving your hand, stretching to the high D is still a risky move and easy to miss.
Con: You'll have to be more conscious of the phrase marks which can already be easy to overlook
Lift hand and play F# with finger 2:
Pro: Fingers 2, 3 and 4 may need a slightly wider hand movement, but using finger 2 means you won't have to reach up deep into the keyboard. These fingers fit the pattern of these keys much more comfortably.
Pro: The phrase marking can almost automatically be played correctly without paying much mind to it.
Con: You will certainly need to move your hand again to play the notes in the blue box
After looking at two options, the second will give you the best balance of tone quality and flow. Although I wouldn't say that the finger numbers always present the best possible way to play something, most of the time following the prewritten finger suggestions is your best bet.
Let's look at the different hand placements in the first system for the left hand part:
Just like the right hand part, it's a good idea to explore different possibilities of finger numbers to see what will give you the best balance between comfort and tone quality. I'd recommend to follow the finger suggestions here as well, since it matches the right hand part pretty closely.
Tip #2 - Create checkpoints and practice loops
After you've identified different hand placements in this piece, try putting them together and then repeatedly play them in a loop. Start hands separate unless you enjoy the added difficulty of this challenge. Remember that the easier you make an exercise for yourself, the faster you'll learn. This can make even the most challenging pieces playable!
When you're ready to put this hands together, focus on just the coordination between your left and right hand first - working on rhythm and flow can be another step in the process. Add in the rhythm to the loop when you feel ready.
Can you play the three outlined positions without pausing in between them? If you're pausing, don't stop looping until you can do it. If this isn't working, check out the next tip!
Tip #3 - Tricky spots and hesitations
Sometimes it can be hard to keep a steady flow. If you're just coming from a starter method book, hand movements and finger stretches can present a discouraging challenge. One way to help reduce the difficulty of hand movements is to practice repeatedly moving between the different hand positions. Let's look back at the previous example:
Here we already have 3 different positions. If possible, try playing all the unique pitches in each box in a solid blocked chord/cluster. In the orange box, we can definitely play all the notes since there's only 2 different pitches, D and A. Make sure to follow the finger numbers! Try playing the notes in the green box all together. How about the notes in the blue box? How fast can you switch between each of these 3 blocked positions?
Here's a good challenge: can you do it without looking at your hand?
After jumping between each of the different positions like this, try and play it normally. Did your hesitations disappear?
Next step, let's do this same exercise for your left hand! Which hand did you find more challenging? When you attempt to put this hands together, I recommend directing your attention towards the hand that was harder to play while playing your other hand in autopilot.
Tip #4 - Apply some music theory
If you've ever found it a lot easier to play a piece or song that you've heard before, music theory can give you a similar experience. Music theory is a great way to create a more detailed roadmap in your practice strategy. Let's start by building a chart of all the different basic chords in the key of D Major, then play each of the below chords to help familiarize yourself with its sound:
With all these chords layed out, next we need to scope out where these chords appear in the piece. Here's a hint, there's a great deal of alternation between the Dominant (V) and Tonic (I) chords. You also might want to mark some of the chord symbols in your book; it's good to leave some landmarks as you practice.
Let's take a look at a closer look at a couple repetitive phrases starting with measures  to :
Gather up the unique pitches in each of the measures and see if you can identify the different chord degrees in D Major. Keep in mind that chords are often inverted, so those cases you'll have to unscramble them. There's a special chord here - the Dominant 7th chord (V7). Based on our chart above, the dominant chord is simply an A major triad (A C# E) in this piece. The 7 superscript represents an interval of a 7th from the root note (A) of the chord:
A B C D E F# G
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
In a nutshell, the G in this chord gives this chord more tension which makes the return to the Tonic chord in measure  sound more satisfying.
Next try playing the I - ii - V - I chords in that order from our D Major chord chart. Can you play it with a steady beat? Try to familiarize yourself with the sound and repeat the pattern a few times.
Now try playing the the left hand part from the music; if you played the right notes, it should sound very similar.
Remember to keep your practice focused
Generally how well you perform this piece will depend on how much time you put into practice, but how you approach practice can significantly affect how much time you can fast track to completing the piece. If you are finding yourself playing from start to finish with each practice session, it's not necessarily bad, but I'm sure sometimes you may have asked the question "how am I supposed to play this piece with steady flow and at a faster tempo?". Your gains are there - they're just spread out thin through the entire piece overall. If you can stay focused on on section at a time before moving forward, not only will you notice your improvement from shorter practice sessions, you may find yourself shaving off several hours of practice to get to the same place!