Russian pianist, teacher, composer, and founder of Piano-Yoga®, GéNIA (pictured below) has kindly written this fascinating and very helpful guest post. It focuses on the most effective methods of keeping concentration during practice and playing.
Often pianists mistakenly believe that many of their challenges manifest due to a lack of practice or lack of skills, rarely being aware that they could simply exist due to a lack of concentration. We all know about the cases where pianists work for hours, only to collapse later in their pubic performance, either playing for a group of people or just for one person! They blame themselves, and very often feel inadequate. With stress building up, and feelings of disappointment making them feeling ‘not good enough’, they do start playing even worse than they were playing before and, on some occasions, even stop playing altogether, while developing an ever-growing guilt complex. Little do they know that often this issue could be easily addressed, sometimes with only a very slight adjustment. All they need to do is just to be aware!
The reason this negative stuff accumulates in our heads, as if it was an attic which had a lot of baggage thrown into it, is because it is created by our emotions. Once the doubt starts appearing in our mind, if not careful, we unconsciously start looking for a conformation of this negative state. However, often our piano performing problems manifest due only to a lack of concentration, and nothing else! A point of caution at this stage: you always need to make sure that your professional expertise is up to scratch, as no amount of concentration without that expertise will help you to master the piece if you don’t know how to play it!
Here are 3 questions that will help you to establish whether you need to read this article further, which will later suggest various tips on how to improve your concentration:
1) do you ever collapse when playing in front of someone else, whilst playing perfectly by yourself at home?
2) do you sometimes go through hours of practice, only to discover that you have still not mastered a thing?
3) do you get overwhelmed, and think that you are not good enough from time to time?
If the answer to any of the above is ‘YES’, then you can take a look at the tips that I suggest below.
You might be interested to know that ‘grounding’ for musicians can sometimes be very difficult. The reason is that we, musicians, are very sensitive creatures. We work with sound, and are used to expressing our emotions through it. We assess sound by checking how it makes us feel: happy, smiley, gentle or harsh, upset or annoyed. So musicians constantly create sounds and, at the same time, regularly assess them. It is very hard, therefore, to switch off one’s attention in daily life not only from ANY SOUND that surrounds us, but from assessing how we feel in every environment. Therefore if you are surprised why you played perfectly at home, yet collapsed when played even for one person, it was partly because you responded to the energy of this new person, which could be either compatible or incompatible with yours, and if you play in a different environment, you also respond to the environment, with its own sounds and energy, which could be also complimentary to your state or the opposite.
There are plenty of different reasons while you may not be able to practice efficiently (stress could be one of them), but what I would like to do in this article is to concentrate on how this can be improved. Hence here are a few tips that you can experiment with, and see whether your practice or public performance have improved.
Piano-Yoga® Sitting Sequence
This exercise comes from my Piano-Yoga® book “Transform Your Hands: 10 Week Course of Piano Exercises”. You can do this exercise every time when you practice, and especially before your public performance, as it will give you extra grounding, as well as a sense of peace and calm.
Aim: To make your playing secure, focused and controlled.
Initial Position: Sit straight at the height you usually sit at the piano. Make sure that you sit close to the edge of the piano stool, or chair, but not too close to the keyboard (you should be approximately a forearm’s distance away). Have your feet parallel, hips width apart, and close to the pedals.
Step One: Lift your toes and put them down, preferably one by one, so you can see a little bit of floor in between them. Lift your heels as high as possible, then start lowering them down in a slow and controlled manner, trying to stretch your heels as far back as possible.
Step Two: Check your abdominal area. Make sure that your abdominal muscles are slightly engaged, by drawing the stomach in slightly. This action will protect your spine on a physical level, and will help you to store and control the energy within your body.
Step Three: Check that your shoulders are down and parallel to the floor. For some people it will mean bringing them down, and slightly back. However, do not pull the shoulders back too far, as this will force the ribcage and chest to stick out. This consequently leads to over-arching of the back, which puts additional and damaging pressure on the lower back. This should be avoided by all costs.
Step Four: Stretch through your fingertips by bringing your shoulders as low as possible, straightening your arms so they are either side of the piano stool, and then by opening your palms and spreading out your fingers. Make sure that your knuckles are parallel to the piano and that your palms are facing in the opposite direction to the keyboard (See picture below):
Step Five: Keeping your shoulders down and, whilst maintaining exactly the same posture, turn your palms in the opposite direction, so that they are facing the keyboard this time. If done correctly, this will make you feel a pull on the inside of your upper arms, and even your forearms. (See picture below):
And now, keeping your body in the alignment that you have acquired, start playing the piano, whether this is as exercise, scale or a piece.
Look out for: To experiment with the benefits of this sitting sequence, try to play any piece, or exercise, the way you usually play. Now, by thoroughly going through all the steps, incorporate this sitting sequence and play the same piece again. Do you notice the difference?
Benefit: This sequence will not only help you to play better physically, but will also help you to put yourself in the right frame of mind. I recommend using it all the time, and in particular when you are performing at concerts or exams, as it keeps your calm, comfortable and focused.
I also suggest this five-minute meditation before every piano practice session. I often do it when I am on tour and/or surrounded by a lot of people and have a hectic schedule.
Step One: Sit with your spine straight. I personally prefer to sit on my yoga mat in a cross-legged position, as this is how I feel the most relaxed, but it is not necessary. Just make sure that your spine is straight, and your shoulders are back and down, and away from your ears. For those who suffer from back pain, I recommend using a small cushion to support your back.
Step Two: Close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing. Try to establish a nice rhythm, like counting 1-2 on drawing the breath in, and 3 – 4 breathing out. Take 10 breaths.
Step Three: Acknowledge all the problems and issues that you are facing at the moment, from the smallest ones to the monumental. Accept the volume of everything that is in your mind right now, from, for example, returning phone calls that are overdue, doing some family chores that you would rather not do or making decision on something that you have still not reached a conclusion on. Acknowledge all of them, and mentally embrace them.
Step Four: Now, imagining that each of the problems start transforming into a big grey matter or pile which is lying next to you, slowly, by accepting these problems one by one, imagine that all of them now look like grey piles that are scattered around you and you are sitting in the middle of them. See them, and feel them!
Step Five: Now imagine yourself getting up and opening the window in the room where you are. As my apartment is located on a top floor I can visualise this vividly. Open the window and start throwing each grey pile out, one by one, far away from yourself and your environment. See yourself scooping those piles up, and getting rid of them. After a while, when you finished, the space around you will become clean and clear.
Step Six: Feel this clean and clear space. Breath in deeper and notice how light and refreshed you feel. See and feel the clean and empty space around you.
Step Seven: Now turn your attention to the piano. Acknowledge the instrument that you are about to play on. Feel its energy (every piano has its own energy!), feel the keys and concentrate on the texture and colour of the instrument. Decide what you would like to work on, and feel the validity of this decision (for example, working on a particular page of your piece, or memorising the piece, etc.).
Now open your eyes, and enjoy your practice!
Look out for: Try to maintain a straight spine during the whole exercise, and make sure that you are not disturbed. If you notice that your mind starts wondering, gently bring it back.
Benefits: This exercise will help you to maintain your concentration and focus, necessary for efficient piano practice. You can try to do it before doing other tasks in your day, slightly modifying the exercise accordingly.
I invite you to try these exercises, and email me any feedback you may have.
Have fun, and enjoy your practice!
GéNIA is a concert pianist, composer and a founder of Piano-Yoga®, a holistic method for piano playing, performing and teaching. If you would like to know more about Piano-Yoga® visit http://www.piano-yoga.com or come to Piano-Yoga® Club that takes place every first Wednesday of the month at Schott Music in London. The next Piano-Yoga® Club will take place on the 2 December with the topic ‘Transforming Concentration in 5 Easy Steps’.
© GéNIA 2015
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.