HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I hope Christmas exceeded your dreams and expectations, and I wish you good health, success and happiness during 2016.
I want to start this year on a high, and really motivate pianists, piano students and piano teachers everywhere to enjoy their piano playing and their practice sessions. So today’s post is aimed at encouraging progress and real improvement throughout the year. With this in mind, I’ve mentioned a few practice tips and ideas which will hopefully be helpful for any practice session, irrespective of standard or level of playing.
Those who play the piano sometimes complain that when they sit down at the instrument to practice, they never really know where to start; they play through their pieces, correcting odd errors, then play parts of their piece again, and finally, feeling bored and frustrated, give up and do something else instead. So the idea behind this post, is to implement some structure to refresh practice regimes; progress will be quicker if you stick to a timetable, and one which you are both enthusiastic and motivated to follow. The latter point is crucial in my opinion, as working towards a goal (any goal) is one of the best ways to make leaps and bounds in your piano playing.
My suggestions are based on approximately 60 minutes of practice time per day; you may want to elongate or decrease each element accordingly, depending on other commitments or level of interest.
- Ideally, practice when you are able to really focus. It might be morning or evening, but it must be at a time when you are enthusiastic and alert.
- At the beginning of any session, when sitting on your piano bench, drop your arms by your side and relax until you feel no tension whatsoever. As you place your hands on the keys, keep this feeling (and make a note of the feeling too), allowing your whole upper body to be free. Always keep your shoulders down. I ask my students to return to this ‘position’ at regular intervals during lessons (and practice sessions), encouraging them to resist ‘locking-up’ (I spend a fair amount of time on this during lessons). For more ideas about resolving tension in piano playing click here.
- Start by warming up your fingers. Don’t play cold! There are many exercises which serve as a warm-up. Whether you like to start with a few scales, chords or five-finger exercises, ensure you begin slowly playing deep into the key bed. Do this for at least a couple of minutes. For a few warm-up suggestions, click here.
- Aim to work at several elements at every practice session. I suggest beginning with sight-reading. The better you read, the easier it is to learn piano pieces. Add a ten minute sight-reading session every time you practice and you’ll see results fairly swiftly. Keep a collection of sight-reading material – you will needs lots, and almost any music do, as long as it isn’t too difficult. it’s much better to start a session with simple examples and gradually add more complex tests (if you find an exercise easy, you’ll be encouraged to continue). For sight-reading practice ideas click here.
- Many don’t like the idea of scales and arpeggios, so I often suggest working at studies and exercises as an alternative (especially if a student doesn’t plan to prepare for an exam). There are many scale ‘alternatives’; Czerny, Hanon, Joseffy, Cramer, or the great little exercises I recommend to my students drawn from the ABRSM’s Graded Pianoforte Studies. These studies (they start at primary level and run through to Grade 7) provide variety and are more akin to pieces than studies. Allocate some time at every session for technical development (how they are practised, of course, is absolutely paramount, and a good teacher will guide you here). If you do fancy working at scales and arpeggios, and would like more tips, click here.
- After the inclusion of all so-called ‘extra’ piano studies (technical work and sight-reading), which will probably take up half a practice session (around 30 minutes), you can spend the remaining time on your chosen piano pieces. I say chosen, because if you don’t select the pieces yourself and play works you feel some connection to, then you simply won’t want to practice them. This goes for exam pieces, festival pieces, or any other performance you are preparing for – or you may just be learning a work for yourself. Selection plays a crucial role, so whilst strict about technical development, I usually encourage adult students to choose their own pieces.
- There are innumerable methods to adopt when practising pieces. Let’s say you have three on the go; you will need to rotate them, ensuring they all receive some attention, hopefully daily! As the learning process begins, research each piece thoroughly, learning about its background, its composer and why it was written. Then look at the structure, texture, key, time signature, and varying tempos in your piece (write these details down in your notebook, or somewhere in the score). For more about why it’s a good plan to write on your score, click here.
- It can be a good plan to develop a ‘routine’ at the beginning of the learning process. It might look like this: Separate hand practice (until you really know ALL fingering and note patterns, and these elements feel like second nature), ingest the pulse and rhythmic patterns fully, tapping the rhythm on the piano lid before you start (both hands, together), then spot practice (hands together) but working at a bar at a time, digesting the necessary rhythms and movements, followed by playing sections at a quarter of the intended speed, counting aloud then using a metronome (if preferred). When secure, gradually increase the speed, still working in sections until you feel confident. These ideas are not new, but the more of them you incorporate, the better the results.
- Once grasped, work through each piece again, but slowly; playing slowly is always the key, but discipline will play a fundamental role here (are you able to resist playing up to tempo, working purely in a systematic manner?). Practising slowly provides time to think and correct any potential errors BEFORE they are made. You could end your practice session, playing the piece through (or as much as has been practised at any session), checking and assessing your improvement (in a sense, becoming your own teacher and critic). This final step is quite important, as it will finish your session on a positive note. For more information regarding slow practice, click here.
- Become accustomed to addressing technical and musical concerns at the same time; dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and articulation are imperative and should be given much thought when practising. Here’s some more information about articulation, tonal production and pedalling.
I wish you well on your musical journey during 2016, and I hope these few tips might plant the seed for fruitful piano playing. Don’t forget to play to friends and family regularly – performance practice is key to making you an effective communicator. Explore various piano courses and seek a very good teacher – the secret to real improvement is finding the right coach. Good luck!
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.