Happy New Year! It’s January 1st 2019 and I hope you have all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve. At the start of any new year, we make resolutions, create new goals, or perhaps re-evaluate or reflect on existing goals. It’s the perfect time to revisit our hobbies, or investigate new ones. Many have written over the past year, telling me how they have really loved learning to play the piano again, after a lapse of one or two, or indeed many, years. Today’s New Year’s post is intended for those who have taken a break from their piano playing and have decided to start playing again. It is possible to move from intrepid pianist to competent, confident player with the help of an excellent teacher and solid, regular practice.
Here are a few ideas to help your practice regime over the coming weeks. Piano practice can tend to fall into a rut and it usually requires an occasional overhaul, so that interest is kept and improvement, monitored.
- Regularly monitor your progress. It doesn’t matter how you do this; you might decide to write your updates in a notepad, noting what you feel has improved, or it could be that you ask for judicious feedback from your teacher, or perhaps perform regularly to fellow students, who might provide a candid opinion (this usually only works if you reciprocate the favour!). However, as a pianist it’s too easy to lock yourself away, playing only for yourself, where it can be challenging to be honest about improvements. Try to remain pragmatic about your own playing, because this is the most effective way to change for the better.
- Record your pieces. Recording our playing reveals far more than we might imagine. It doesn’t matter how you do this, and you may prefer to record short passages, phrases, or a few bars at a time, but as long as you listen carefully to the results, you will be able to find a starting point from which to build and improve your technique and interpretation. We rarely sound how we think we do, so it can be a shock at first, but it proffers a realistic perspective which can really help in the long run.
- Only play a piece through at the end of a practice session. This goes for sections or movements of works too. A common misconception when practising is that it is beneficial to perpetually play your pieces through. There is no doubt that this can be advantageous for memorisation and for structural practice, but during the early stages of learning particularly, it is generally more useful to spend time working at small sections. The ability to break pieces down, almost reconstructing them, enables our brain to think about them in a different way and can certainly aid mastery. When you’re happy with your sectional practice, you might feel it necessary to ‘play’ the piece in its entirety, either at a slower tempo or up to speed at the end of your session.
- Slow practice is key. Many articles sing the praises of playing slowly. But it is such an important facet that it’s definitely worth adding to your new list of practice tools for 2019. My suggestion to students is to implement several practice speeds whilst working at a piece (or a technical exercise or study). The slowest tempo must be one which works for exaggerated practice, whereby you can equally focus on both hands, fingerings, movements, notes and sound at the same time. Therefore you should ideally think about a subdivided beat (if the piece is in quavers, practice in semiquavers or even demisemiquavers, for example). The second tempo can be a little faster, allowing you to ‘move’ around the keyboard, but still keeping in check all the above technical considerations. The final tempo could be similar to the speed of the piece, but slightly slower, so that you still have crucial thinking time, for accuracy and sound.
- Articulation will make or break your performance. Clarity, neatness and precision in your finger work will make all the difference when it comes to clean playing. It’s vital for almost every style or genre, but of special importance in Baroque and Classical music. Clean finger work can be developed by ensuring fingers not only play every note with a full sound, but also by paying attention to the end of a note too, that is, how long you leave your finger depressing each key. If you are playing rapid scalic passages, for example, make sure notes are equal in length by employing a very firm pulse. Such articulation is more of a challenge for the weaker fingers, such as the fourths and fifths, but it can be honed with spot practice and a flexible, loose arm, wrist and hand (remembering that only the fingers and knuckles should remain firm).
I hope these ideas may inspire you to focus rigorously during your practice time, so that you make the most of your sessions irrespective of whether they are long or short. Good Luck and enjoy your piano playing.
For those returning to playing the piano, you may like to take a look at my piano course written especially for the returner. Play it again: PIANO is published by Schott Music, and currently consists of a two-book course which contains 49 graded, progressive piano pieces from the standard repertoire, as well as including many more unusual works, from Baroque through to Contemporary (also including Jazz, Blues, Rock, Improvisation, and Latin styles). Each piece has copious practice tips and suggestions, as well as a whole technique section at the beginning of each book, and a music theory section at the end of each book. Book 1 is approximately Grade 1 – 4 level, Book 2 is Grade 5 – 8 level, and Book 3 (to be published in February 2019) is Grade 8 – Associate diploma level. You can purchase all the books on Amazon.
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.