This week’s piano post has been suggested by many of you; ‘structured practice for the more advanced pianist’ has been whirling around my inbox recently. I have written about it several times for beginners, but it does take on a different mantle for those of you who have clearly passed that stage. Piano practice has frequently been cited by pupils as the main reason for wanting to quit, after all it can be boring even when the piece being studied is a favourite. However, without sufficient practice, the piano is a challenging instrument to tackle indeed (it is that with practice too). So the conundrum is how to make practice more compelling and possibly less work, or rather involve a shorter practice time as well as making progress. Here are some tips and ideas for those from around Grade 6-8 level and above.
Always warm up. Many don’t believe in this, but it does help free your muscles and make you feel better too; it can provide mental stimulation for your practice session. Many eminent pianists have mentioned the importance of doing this (see my interview series where I chat to many pianists about their practice regimes and techniques). It doesn’t need to be longer than a few minutes, but it is best to start very slowly building up speed, working your fingers to the full, producing a large sound. Scales are good for this as are Czerny or Hanon studies. Both hands should work equally well during warm ups; avoid a ‘dragging’ left hand.
How many pianists actually do any technical work? If you can work on your technique in the right way (it’s best to be guided here by a good teacher who knows how to teach technique), you will find your pieces much easier to play. When you start doing technical work make sure your shoulders are down with no tension in your upper body, then work on simple studies for a further 5 or 10 minutes, this can really help with weak fingers especially the fourth and fifths. When doing this type of work, watch your hands and fingers and try to avoid the ‘collapsing hand’ syndrome. Knuckles should protrude rather than buckle! There are lots of elements to focus on here; developing strong fingers and crucially a free wrist, agility and speed, and producing a good sound, so this should stop your mind wandering and not knowing what or how to practice next (this is a really common complaint amongst young or inexperienced pianists and is how boredom sometimes sets in).
After 10/15 minutes (or a lot longer if you have ample practice time) of warm-ups and technical work, you are now ready to work at your pieces. When asked, many pupils have no idea where to start beyond playing the pieces through and perhaps going over sections that have caused concern. How about starting with the left hand? In my opinion it’s possibly more important than the right, because it often contains fast-moving accompaniment and needs to cover a large amount of keyboard. It often provides the key to the harmonic structure and many stylistic features too.
After working out the fingering, rhythm and notes, try dividing your piece in sections (look for any obvious repeated passage-work or structural signposts as this speed up learning). Practice the left hand in each section until you can play fluently and from memory. Then work at the right in the same way because this will really help when you start playing hands together, and you will know the piece in a much more detailed, thorough way.
If the piece being studied is fairly complicated, then work at very small sections without pedal (as this will just mask errors at this stage), and with the metronome if possible. Even if the piece you are studying isn’t particularly difficult, you will find there are so many benefits from practising in this fashion. Once you can play fluently, using a metronome is always a good idea for a while at least. The more you focus on small passages, the better you will know the work. Work at several pieces concurrently, frequently swapping them around so your mind is constantly challenged and engaged.
Another consideration is the sound being produced; think about the type of sound you want for each piece because then it will be much easier to ‘produce’ it at the keyboard. This is a personal element, but it does go hand in hand with dynamics, expression and phrasing too. Musical concerns need working on at the same time as the technical issues; always be aware of the stylistic traits of composers, their genres or the historical periods from which your piece hails, as this will affect the way you play it.
Working in detail as suggested above could take hours, but it’s easy to put a time frame on it by deciding what you want to achieve when you sit down for each practice session. Be realistic and try to resist the temptation to set lots of goals for every session. One suggestion is to divide a work into four (or perhaps more) sections; work at the last two sections meticulously one day, and the first two the next (I prefer working backwards but you don’t have to!). If you can train yourself to really think about what you are doing during practice sessions you will achieve so much more in a shorter time frame (sounds ridiculous, but wasting practice time is sadly very easy to do).
This method eliminates the desire to just play pieces through. You could finish your practice session with some sight-reading; not everyone’s favourite thing, but necessary all the same. If you don’t have any suitable material just get hold of a hymn book (with four-part harmony) or some Bach Chorales; these are great for reading and are tuneful too. As with all sight-reading practice, start slowly and do not stop.
Finally, remember that concentration is the key factor so the minute your mind starts to wander stop practising and go and do something else! The more you focus, the quicker your practice session will fly by and the more you will achieve. Train your mind to think clearly at all times and enjoy.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.