Several students have recently asked me for a ‘practice reminder list’ consisting of important elements to consider during their daily practice session. We all want to ensure fruitful practice; there’s nothing more depressing and dispiriting than spending an hour or two working away at the piano only to discover that nothing has really been achieved. We’ve all done this at some point, but helpful, solid practice can only take place when the right physical and mental conditions have been instilled. This does require some thought and preparation at each practice session.
These suggestions can be applied to any standard or grade, although the students who requested this list are all around Grade 8 and the DipABRSM level. Even at higher levels of piano playing, the following should still serve as a reminder in order to establish good habits and purely to ‘feel’ comfortable during practice time. These tips have all no doubt been mentioned before around my blog on many occasions, but frequent reminders are necessary, even if so as to keep students on track, alleviate any tension and provide food for thought. When you sit down at the piano try to remember the following…..
- Good posture at the piano is crucial, so when seated, ensure the stool is at the correct height (for you), and try to eliminate slouching! A straight back will change the sound produced and proffer relaxed shoulders and arms. Many find sitting towards the edge of the stool (nearest the keyboard) allows more control. As a rough guide, when the hands are placed on the keyboard, the forearms should be virtually parallel to the floor and shoulders should be down at all times. Mirrors can be helpful here – apparently Claudio Arrau often practised using them.
- If feet are placed firmly on the floor, you will feel anchored or solid, in control and much more comfortable. This is an easy tip and will become a good habit if regularly considered.
- Allow plenty of space between yourself and the keyboard. Lots of space provides ample opportunity for free arm movement.
- Wrists must be flexible. Probably the most important tip of all. Locked, stiff or solid wrists will only encourage tense, uncomfortable and restricted piano playing. It does take a concerted effort to banish this all too common problem (and a good teacher is paramount), but at the start of each piece, technical study or scale (or sight-reading exercise), keep a running commentary in your mind encouraging the wrists to ‘unlock’ and feel loose (you might need to constantly remind yourself at first). Many find making a circular motion when using the wrists helps enormously, disengaging any building tension.
- Keep an eye on your hand, watching for changing knuckle positions. Knuckles should really be pronounced or at a higher, elevated position, thus forming an arched hand (the old adage of grasping an orange is true and useful – see photo below). Any sign of a collapsing hand, particularly around the 3rd, 4th and 5th fingers (weaker fingers), will make it difficult to play tension free.
- Playing on the tips of each finger is another often forgotten element. Ensuring all fingers work properly and all joints are fully engaged takes lots of focus and concentration, but if it is built-in to a practice session then it will become a good habit.
- Keep moving. The more freely you move around the keyboard, the less chance there is of becoming ‘stuck’ and therefore tense. There are always many notes to negotiate in piano music and sadly, these notes don’t magically appear before us! We have to be able to move freely in order to get around the keyboard and reach them all. This rather obvious, but nevertheless significant point is always worth remembering, and is as important in a Grade 3 set work as a Liszt or Chopin concert study or the like.
- Mental focus. Surprisingly, this is one of the hardest elements to learn. Notice when your mind begins to wander (it happens to everyone) and quickly correct it. Regular prompting will serve as a useful refocus.
Hopefully these tips might serve as reminders at the beginning of daily piano practice and after a while, they will become second nature.
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.