More about the waterfall technique


I would like to address some of the rationale behind the principles of the waterfall technique. The technique is seemingly too simple, but every aspect of it exists for a reason. Hopefully, this will address many common concerns.

These principles I will address include:

  • Starting really fast
  • Going down instead of up
  • Going down on click at a time
  • Focusing on arm drops
  • Focusing only on arm drops
  • Not correcting mistakes
  • Playing a large section of music

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Starting really fast

The instructions for the waterfall technique are to start at the maximum tempo on the metronome (which on my metronome is 208 beats per minute).

It is important to understand that this technique is intended for long-term growth at the piano, not short-term mastery of pieces. If your goal is to learn a piece by next week, or to be able to play at 50% tempo to satisfy your teacher in your lesson tomorrow, there may be faster ways of achieving these goals (you should also be prepared to accept that these particular goals may not be possible for you at this time).

With that in mind, we could imagine a few possibilities:

  1. Start at the maximum tempo on the metronome
  2. Start at the final performance tempo
  3. Start at something less than the final performance tempo

Starting at the maximum tempo is designed to teach you maximum freedom. This is freedom you will need to play at any tempo, and it will serve you in every piece you play. Additional, in my opinion, it is an effective way of avoiding learning injurious habits (movements that can cause injury at slower tempos will become impossible to even attempt at a fast tempo).

So, the above list is sorted from long-term benefit to short-term benefit.

You are free to modify the waterfall technique and start at any of the tempos given above (or any other modification you think would be useful).

Going down instead of up

It is a common practice to start at a slow but comfortable tempo and ramp things up as mistakes disappear. You should understand that the waterfall technique essentially does this as well, but in a way that avoids certain problems. Namely, some things work at slow tempos but not at fast ones. If you start at the bottom, you may perfect the piece at a slow tempo, using physical movements that are simply impractical at a fast tempo.

The idea is to keep things integrated. We want to start with the end result in mind. I want you playing the piece at full tempo immediately, and then only drilling down when you realize that something isn’t working.

Going down on click at a time

In some sense, what I’m after is this: Play the piece, and notice what mistakes occur. Play again, checking each time to see if your mistakes are still present. Essentially, repeating the piece at the same tempo.

On some level, I suspect that staying at a fast tempo and never slowing down would work. Practically, I do slow down when I realize there is a problem, because I want to see it more clearly. The idea here is to do it very gradually, so that at no point do I fundamentally change the way I’m playing. Going step-by-step helps to ensure that you are only making tiny changes in the way you play.

It can be frustrating to decrease only by a single click. Remember that you are free to decrease by more clicks if you’d like. But, you should understand that the goal is not to play correctly. It is to zero in on the spot that is giving you trouble, repeating it until you see exactly why you are having trouble (and you may never know how to put this insight into words). Slowing down the tempo is just a way of facilitating this.

Focusing on arm drops

The arm drops are the beats. They are the fundamental structure of the music. Everything you play needs to be conceived mentally in terms of a sequence of beats. The audience will have the illusion of a continuous flow of music, but for you it should be one thing at a time. The arm drops help you with this. They are a simple physical gesture that you can use to formulate any interpretation of the piece at any tempo.

It is of no consequence whether or not you are dropping your arms correctly at the fast tempo. Take a guess and do it. The idea behind the practice is to, over time, begin to understand either (a) how to make all of the other details fit the guess that you made, or (b) why your guess can’t possibly work. That’s it.

There is nothing sacred about “arm drops” from a physical perspective. The fact of the matter is that often you won’t actually be dropping the arm solely with gravity. This is a psychological tool. Try it, and see if it works.

If you have a better way to play a beat, something that will work for all styles of music, at all tempos, and all dynamic levels, go ahead and use it. For example, “tapping your foot”, or “conducting”, or “bopping your head” could all work. I am simply looking for something more digestible than “playing the piece on the piano”.

Focusing only on arm drops

The point of focusing only on the drops is to have a steady point of focus that you can return to over and over. Additionally, it is to have specific points at which you can check if there are mistakes. It is far easier to ask if the notes that fall on the beats are correct than it is to ask if there were any mistakes at all.

Sometimes, I will play a section and have no clue if there were any mistakes. Having somewhere specific to fix your attention, somewhere that doesn’t take you out of the piece as an integrated whole, can make this task much easier.

I should emphasize that this is an exercise. I am not suggesting that you only ever think about arm drops while you are playing. Try this and see what the obstacles are.

Not correcting mistakes

The waterfall technique asks that you don’t stop to correct mistakes as you make them. This is a huge difference from how most people approach music practice.

The problem, as I see it, is that when you make a mistake, you don’t necessarily even know if it is:

  • Fixable: Just because you observe it doesn’t mean you know why it happened, and until you know that, how are you going to fix it?
  • Important: Some mistakes are not as apparent to the listener as we think they are. When we are performing, our attention is often drawn to whatever is making us most anxious, or whatever part of the piece we are most worried about. Sometimes, this may be a relatively minor detail, almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I want your conscious attention always on the big picture. If the mistakes are truly a big deal, they will eventually affect the big picture, if you practice this way.
  • Actually a mistake: Often, we aren’t sure if we played something correctly. Or, we think it must have been wrong, but we don’t really know this for a fact. I don’t want you relying on those types of feelings. Many musicians become almost neurotic, assuming they must be making certain mistakes, because teachers have always gotten on their cases about those issues. Only fix mistakes if you know they happened. Otherwise, you are potentially distracting yourself and wasting your time chasing something that may not even be real.

Playing a large section of music

There is nothing wrong with zooming in on a tiny section of music to work on it. However, there is also something to be gained from committing to a large section and playing it to the end. This way, you stay in playing mode and out of problem-solving mode. Ultimately, this is the place from which you want to perform, as it is the only place that truly lets you express the music.

Conclusion

Let me repeat that the waterfall technique is for developing insight that leads to progress in the long-term. It is for discovering and surpassing limitations you may have that affect every piece you play, not just the one you happen to be working on at the moment.

Sometimes progress doesn’t go in a straight line. Sometimes you have to go backwards before you go forwards. Often, ways of playing that seem to “work” are actually holding you back in the long run, and changing those habits can cause things to fall apart for a while before you learn to put them back together.

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