As the year draws to a close, we tend naturally to reflect on the past twelve months, typically pondering various events, occasions and experiences. Although humans want and need to move forward, sometimes it’s also necessary to examine the past, searching for methods to improve and succeed in many areas of our lives. Certainly, professionally this can help in multiple ways, enabling us to understand past mistakes and strive to be the best we can. This type of personal analysis can be effectively applied to piano practice too; considering whether practice sessions are really as productive as they might be.
Concert pianist Stephen Hough’s recent article in the Telegraph Blogs raised some interesting questions. He has written abundantly about piano practice, looking at different aspects of practice as well as lifting the lid on the problems and perils of practising whilst on the road. Many congratulations to Stephen on being awarded a CBE for services to music in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List.
Stephen’s most recent post remarked on the pros and cons of sitting at the piano in order to practice productively, as opposed to working mentally away from the keyboard. There have been copious articles and comments on this subject, on social media and elsewhere, deciphering the benefits of practising without a piano. It is possible to prepare scores mentally and make musical decisions regarding interpretation without physical practice, but surely piano playing is a muscular, athletic activity which relies, in part, on muscle memory; fingering, hand and wrist movement, and arm weight all require an accurate, calculated physical and mental approach.
Piano playing is very much a mental and physical pursuit, and these activities must go hand in hand. Many will disagree, and there are pianists who can apparently learn complete works from memory without ever touching the instrument, but these phenomenally talented individuals are exceptions. Glenn Gould claimed to never practice, for example, preferring to do all his work mentally. For the majority, however, the most effective plan is to practice at the piano for real improvement.
Piano practice is the most popular topic on my blog site because all pianists, irrespective of level or standard, want to know how to improve and get the most from their practice sessions. With this in mind, here are a few positive practice tips and ideas to inspire plenty of piano time during 2014.
1. The piano teacher. Good piano playing is extremely hard to achieve without the help of a great teacher. A teacher can help in so many ways; building technique, instigating musicianship and perhaps more crucially, providing encouragement and support. Use EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate a suitable professional tutor. My own publication, So You Want To Play The Piano? dedicates a whole chapter to this subject.
2. Schedule practice sessions into your week. Organisation is key here, otherwise there will be a tendency to go from one lesson to the next (if you are taking lessons) with scant improvement which will be frustrating for all. It’s better to practice little and often than cram a three-hour session the night before your lesson.
3. Set goals. Decide what you want to achieve and set a time frame. It may be to learn a particular piece, to complete a whole diploma programme from memory or sit Grade 2 piano. Goals are tangible, bestowing a necessary sense of achievement.
4. Structure your practice time. I have written about this on several occasions. Here’s my most recent post on structuring practice time. Structuring your practice allows you to gauge improvement, as well as giving practice sessions a sense of purpose and direction.
5. Technical work. To play well, some technical work must be done; whether this be scales, arpeggios or Hanon exercises. Honing your technique will really improve your playing, providing it is worked at correctly. Set aside some time for this important aspect at every practice session if possible.
6. Small steps first. Try to work in very small sections, breaking piano pieces up thoroughly. Divide into sections, play hands separately, and perhaps use different rhythms, accents and articulation for practice purposes. Work diligently and slowly. Slow practice is essential for good playing. Playing at speed becomes relatively easy once a piano piece has been mastered and fully assimilated slowly. Work at difficult passages separately, always mark them up in the score, and isolate left hand passagework.
7. Fingering. Write fingering on the score before you start and learn it properly so that is becomes a habit. Good habits such as suitable fingering will aid smooth playing and this is especially important during tricky, complicated passages.
8. Get rhythmical. If you don’t enjoy using a metronome, ensure a suitable method for keeping time and divide beats into small denominations. This will aid rhythmical playing. Learning to ‘feel’ the pulse is also vital and takes time so patience is key. Playing piano duets is a useful way to learn to keep the pulse because hesitation isn’t an option when working with others. As with most elements, start slowly building up speed.
9. Learn succinctly. Resist the temptation to play through pieces without learning them properly first. Sight-reading is always a good component in a practice session, but it’s best not to read works you plan to perform. Practice tends to make permanent and this goes for incorrect fingerings, rhythms and notes too. Learn precisely from the beginning without ingraining mistakes or bad habits.
10. Use your ears and focus. This might seem strange, but it is easy to practice digitally without listening properly. Try to listen constructively to everything your play. Also focus and concentration are vital when practising, avoid going into the ‘play through’ mode!
Happy Practising! I wish everyone a very Happy, Healthy and Pianistically Fruitful 2014.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.