Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around, teaching and adjudicating, providing the opportunity to hear a large and varied smorgasbord of piano playing. Whether pianists are young or old, beginners or very advanced players (and there has been an unusually large cohort of superb playing this year), several issues persist amongst pianists. With this in mind, my post today focuses on a few (hopefully) constructive, yet easily implemented, ways to improve piano playing, based on what I’ve witnessed.
1. Pedalling. It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining or right pedal. It’s such a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately, and in many cases, beautifully, only to hide all this good work under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy judging acoustics, especially if pianists aren’t used to the hall or piano, however, if in doubt stay away from the sustaining pedal! It can be a good idea to practice your piece completely without pedal (from beginning to end). Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without using the pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal (to start with), for a cleaner performance. Listening is crucial. Know the work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passage work and chordal passages.
2. Legato. The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot (i.e. the sustaining pedal), is often a lack of smooth, legato playing. It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively, when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully digested. You may be pleasantly surprised by the pleasing sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your exam piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate ‘joining’ fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
3. Tempo. Starting and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some pupils, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before beginning. Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample (although it will feel like two minutes!). This will not only grant time to collect thoughts, but will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic. Always feel the pulse, counting two bars before playing, almost as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a chosen tempo. Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush (or slow down).
4. Body Movement. As many know, too much movement (whether swaying, nodding of the head, obsequious arm movements or moving around on the stool), can be detrimental and distracting. However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity causes a harsh sound and wrong notes (generally). This is a matter which can be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation. In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start by careful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano. Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms in a way so they transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
5. Close to the keys. It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable. Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action (this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it). This isn’t to suggest rigidity or keeping hands/fingers ‘in position’, but on the other hand, moving (i.e. being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers) and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.
These points are fairly easy to effectuate; work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines. They will instantly improve piano playing, creating an assured performance.
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.