Guest Post: 11 ways to kick start your practice routine

Happy World Piano Day! Today’s guest writer is Evgenia Chudinovich (GéNIA). GéNIA (pictured below) has written for my blog before (you can read her very popular article here), and she is a highly experienced pianist, teacher, author, composer, and creator of Piano-Yoga®. Here, she offers some practice tips for those in need of some inspiration!


Have you ever had the familiar feeling that you really would like to do something but you just do not have the time for it? If only! In reality, very secretly, you know that you have the time, however you just cannot bring yourself into doing something.

I have news for you! For a start, thousands, it not millions of people, have had this feeling at least once in their life. It does not matter if it was about piano practice or learning a foreign language or simply starting a regular exercise regime. You know you want it, you even know need it, but still something is holding you back.

So what shall we do it about it? How do we start?

In this article I am going to concentrate on piano practice, however these tips can be applied to anything! Here are 11 ways to get back to your piano practice:

  1. Establish a routine. This is absolutely essential, as without a routine there will be no continuous progress. The routine can start from 10 minutes daily to an hour a day. All you need to do is to establish the constant time (or times if you have a patchy schedule) and stick to it. For example 10 minutes in the morning always at 8 am, or in the evening, or 3 days a week in the morning and 3 days a week in the evening according to your availability.
  2. Plan in advance. Try to think in weeks and months, rather than from day-to-day, unless it is absolutely impossible for you to know what your week looks like. Your body will get used to doing the same thing at the same time, and at some point, it will start ‘asking you for it’ rather than you making yourself do it.
  3. Use an alarm. This is a very simple trick but it works wonders. Put the stop time, and do not think about the time until the alarm sounds. You can start with short sessions rather than longer ones, so start with 10 – 15 minutes, and then slowly increase the time to 30 minutes or 45 if you like.
  4. Establish a specific goal. Why are you learning the piano? I understand that you want to learn to play, but you need to ask yourself why you want to learn to play: Is it because you want to impress others, or just play for yourself, or both? Then ask yourself what would symbolise the achievement of this goal? For example giving a private concert performance or sitting at the piano and playing ‘Clair de Lune” to yourself when you feel like it; it can be anything, however please be specific. Once you have a goal, it is much easier to start practicing!
  5. Start with small steps. Let’s say that you have established a goal and please be as ambitious as you like, as it is very important! However it is also important to be realistic by not putting yourself under too much pressure in attempting to achieve the goal, so you don’t feel inadequate and stressed. Therefore if your goal is too ambitious (like learning to play the original ‘Claire de Lune’ whilst you only know how to play piano with your right hand), establish gradual steps that would help you to achieve it. For example, with regard to ‘Clair de Lune’, it can be achieved by doing several graded exams before you tackle this piece, or you can choose a different way by learning how to play with the left hand first, then how to play pieces with lots of flats, proceed with learning how to play fast by concentrating on piano technique, and so on.
  6. If this is available to you, learn from a professional. In every area, whether this is music, languages, dance, or yoga, you can save yourself a lot of time, and achieve things quicker, by receiving guidance from a reputable professional. Ideally it is good to have regular contact with such a person, hence weekly lessons with the piano teacher is a norm, and most recommended. However not everyone can afford it. This is where many make a mistake, as they think there is no point in having lessons at all, if they cannot commit to weekly sessions. However, a professional can help you on many levels: from establishing your goals to highlighting your weaknesses and creating a programme that will help you to achieve your goal faster. Therefore even bi–weekly, monthly or occasional lessons will be always better that no lessons at all.  On this note I would like to caution my readers, as these days there is a lot of information available on the internet, and you need to make sure that you learn from someone who is qualified, rather than someone who speaks and looks nice, makes funny jokes and makes it look easy. Please do your research before you find the right teacher. You can also read my blog How to find the right teacher for you.
  7. Create ‘tests’. These are very important, as they will keep you focused. From time to time – for example every 4 weeks – create a test. It can be either doing a small recording and assessing it, or playing for a friend or even playing for a group of people or your teacher. By preparing every step you will be advancing and learning. Do not get discouraged if some ‘tests’ do not go the way you want them to, as we learn from our mistakes as much, if not more, then we learn from our achievements.
  8. Keep a diary of your practice routine. I always have a folder with notes on my piano. Write down a date, and jot down what you would like to do and achieve next in your playing, as, when you start your practice next day, it will be easier to pick up from where you left off.
  9. Be clever with the time management of your practice. Of course, if you are a beginner, and have only one piece of music to play, it is easier to concentrate during your practice. I personally encourage my students of any age and level to do piano exercises regularly. Franz Liszt spent many hours a day doing his. If it was good for Liszt then it is definitely good for everyone aspiring to play well. Therefore, make sure that you plan the time to do some scales and/or exercises, in addition to the pieces that you are working on. If you work on more than one piece and have more than 10 minutes to practice, then divide the time into sections, according to the pieces that you are playing plus exercises (if you decide to do them), and set the alarm for each section of your practice. When the alarm goes off, stop working on what you have been working on, and write down in your practice diary what is left to achieve, or what you would like to concentrate on next. Then move on to the next piece. If you prefer to concentrate on one piece per day, then make sure that you alternate the pieces together with the days.
  10. Always, always, always: try to imagine the end result of what you are trying to achieve. At the beginning of your practice, or after the exercises section, close your eyes and imagine how you would like to play a piece which you are working on. Let your senses guide you. If you want to imagine yourself playing at the Wigmore Hall or Carnegie Hall or in a really cool jazz club, or just in front of a group of friends at the dinner party, go for it! You can do it, and in reality you never know what can happen in life, so never say never. Be inspired by your own desire, as this would make your practice more genuine and sincere.
  11. Be consistent. You won’t always feel like practicing. On some you would feel like you really want to play and on others, it would be like ‘No Way’! In the latter case, gently acknowledge that today may not be the best of your days, but please do still try and play, even though you don’t feel like doing it. It will still pay off.

I hope that you enjoyed these tips! Let me know how you get on, either through my website www.piano-yoga.com or through my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pianoyogaeducation. And if you wonder if I ever have days when I do not feel like practice, the answer is ‘Yes, sure!’ What do I do? Go through the 11 tips listed above 🙂

GéNIA


My Books:

For much more information about practising 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 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

Guest Post: Maintaining Concentration in Piano Playing and Practice

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.


 

GeniaHeadShot1

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.

Exercise:

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):

New Sitting Away 1

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):

New Sitting Facing

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.

Piano-Yoga® Meditation

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!

Namaste,

GéNIA

www.genia-music.com

www.piano-yoga.com

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

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