I hope 2018 is a peaceful, healthy and happy year for everyone, and I really value and appreciate your continued support and readership.
A new year provides the ideal opportunity to work on personal development, whether that be on a spiritual, emotional or physical level. I’ll be paying more attention to some of these issues with a new yoga routine; I’m sincerely hoping to be sufficiently disciplined and motivated to stick with this programme! As well as spiritual development classes , which I’ve already been attending, albeit not on a regular basis.
Discipline and motivation are also prerequisites for significantly improving piano playing, and the new year is the perfect time to reassess progress. I write a ‘5 tips’ style article for Pianist magazine’s bi-monthly newsletter and this format has proved to be a popular one, so I thought I’d adopt it for this post. The following tips are to inspire and invigorate practice routines – I hope they will precipitate enjoyable, fruitful practice.
- A new year equals new repertoire. It might be the prime time to explore alternative piano pieces. This could work whether you are studying for graded exams and diplomas, preparing for competitions, or simply working towards achieving smoother, more fluent playing. Begin by listening to what, on first site, may appear to be the least attractive works on various exam lists (you might never consider such options, but they could become favourites if given a chance), and then branch out further, consulting lesser known composer’s catalogues. One of my professors loved to play Victorian music (especially works by female composers), introducing a wide range of composers who otherwise I may never have become aware. Contemporary piano music continually offers interesting options too, and can really afford something different for those who fear they are stuck in a practice rut.
- Setting goals is another profitable new year resolution. Not everyone likes being ‘goal orientated’ but when working with my students, I find they all respond favorably when pursuing a tangible objective. Over the past year each student has had a particular objective; from playing more frequently in music festivals and concerts, to learning a suitably complicated diploma programme from memory, or even taking part in a piano course for the first time. Rapid improvement has always followed. What are your piano objectives for 2018?
- For those who have a tendency to skip a piano warm-up, maybe now is the time to implement this beneficial start to your sessions. Warm-ups take a few minutes, but can make the world of difference to your focus, concentration and finger power. You can read my warm-up suggestions here. Further to these ideas, if you prefer not to play exercises or scales, experiment with a few simple chords or cadences (chord progressions) very slowly with a full sound, paying attention to each finger and finger joint, ensuring they are working optimally, with the finger tips (or pads) connecting fully to each key, ready for practice. Careful practice, i.e. watching every hand and finger movement can prove exhausting, needing absolute mental absorption. This may be a new way of working for you, but it is sure to keep your attention and renew interest in the fundamental physicality of movement needed for successful piano playing.
- If you have never had a desire to sit down and play a piece from memory, maybe now is the time to explore this option. Playing from memory is not necessary for most piano exams and diplomas, but it is a requirement for those thinking about auditioning for a place at a music college or working towards taking part in a piano competition. Start small; take a short piece (just one or two pages in length) and work at memorising each hand separately, without the score. When you can play both hands through confidently (without the score), practice hands together. Learning memorisation skills will help to direct your attention to the music and to the sound you are producing, therefore sharpening your listening skills and polishing your interpretative powers too. For more memorisation tips, click here.
- It might be time to seek out new pedalling solutions. The use of the Sustaining pedal (right pedal) and Una corda (left pedal) are de rigueur for pianists from elementary level right through to advanced. But how many explore the Sostenuto pedal? The middle pedal (on a grand piano) is fun to introduce. I’ve been working on implementing this pedal technique with two of my advanced pupils, working on Bartók and Takemitsu; but it can be a beneficial addition when playing french repertoire like Debussy and Ravel as well. More on this final point soon!
With some thought, you can easily add variety and new musical ideas to your practice sessions. May your year be full of piano playing progress, fun and exploration.
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.