Structuring Your Piano Practice

Practice Makes Perfect

This week’s piano post has been suggested by many of you; ‘structured practice for the more advanced pianist’ has been whirling around my inbox recently. I have written about it several times for beginners, but it does take on a different mantle for those of you who have clearly passed that stage. Piano practice has frequently been cited by pupils as the main reason for wanting to quit, after all it can be boring even when the piece being studied is a favourite. However, without sufficient practice, the piano is a challenging instrument to tackle indeed (it is that with practice too). So the conundrum is how to make practice more compelling and possibly less work, or rather involve a shorter practice time as well as making progress. Here are some tips and ideas for those from around Grade 6-8 level and above.

Always warm up. Many don’t believe in this, but it does help free your muscles and make you feel better too; it can provide mental stimulation for your practice session. Many eminent pianists have mentioned the importance of doing this (see my interview series where I chat to many pianists about their practice regimes and techniques). It doesn’t need to be longer than a few minutes, but it is best to start very slowly building up speed, working your fingers to the full, producing a large sound. Scales are good for this as are Czerny or Hanon studies. Both hands should work equally well during warm ups; avoid a ‘dragging’ left hand.

How many pianists actually do any technical work? If you can work on your technique in the right way (it’s best to be guided here by a good teacher who knows how to teach technique), you will find your pieces much easier to play. When you start doing technical work make sure your shoulders are down with no tension in your upper body, then work on simple studies for a further 5 or 10 minutes, this can really help with weak fingers especially the fourth and fifths. When doing this type of work, watch your hands and fingers and try to avoid the ‘collapsing hand’ syndrome. Knuckles should protrude rather than buckle! There are lots of elements to focus on here; developing strong fingers and crucially a free wrist, agility and speed,  and producing a good sound, so this should stop your mind wandering and not knowing what or how to practice next (this is a really common complaint amongst young or inexperienced pianists and is how boredom sometimes sets in).

After 10/15 minutes (or a lot longer if you have ample practice time) of warm-ups and technical work, you are now ready to work at your pieces. When asked, many pupils have no idea where to start beyond playing the pieces through and perhaps going over sections that have caused concern. How about starting with the left hand? In my opinion it’s possibly more important than the right, because it often contains fast-moving accompaniment and needs to cover a large amount of keyboard. It often provides the key to the harmonic structure and many stylistic features too.

After working out the fingering, rhythm and notes, try dividing your piece in sections (look for any obvious repeated passage-work or structural signposts as this speed up learning). Practice the left hand in each section until you can play fluently and from memory. Then work at the right in the same way because this will really help when you start playing hands together, and you will know the piece in a much more detailed, thorough way.

If the piece being studied is fairly complicated, then work at very small sections without pedal (as this will just mask errors at this stage), and with the metronome if possible. Even if the piece you are studying isn’t particularly difficult, you will find there are so many benefits from practising in this fashion. Once you can play fluently, using a metronome is always a good idea for a while at least. The more you focus on small passages, the better you will know the work. Work at several pieces concurrently, frequently swapping them around so your mind is constantly challenged and engaged.

Another consideration is the sound being produced; think about the type of sound you want for each piece because then it will be much easier to ‘produce’ it at the keyboard. This is a personal element, but it does go hand in hand with dynamics, expression and phrasing too. Musical concerns need working on at the same time as the technical issues; always be aware of the stylistic traits of composers, their genres or the historical periods from which your piece hails, as this will affect the way you play it.

Working in detail as suggested above could take hours, but it’s easy to put a time frame on it by deciding what you want to achieve when you sit down for each practice session. Be realistic and try to resist the temptation to set lots of goals for every session. One suggestion is to divide a work into four (or perhaps more) sections; work at the last two sections meticulously one day, and the first two the next (I prefer working backwards but you don’t have to!). If you can train yourself to really think about what you are doing during practice sessions you will achieve so much more in a shorter time frame (sounds ridiculous, but wasting practice time is sadly very easy to do).

This method eliminates the desire to just play pieces through. You could finish your practice session with some sight-reading; not everyone’s favourite thing, but necessary all the same. If you don’t have any suitable material just get hold of a hymn book (with four-part harmony) or some Bach Chorales; these are great for reading and are tuneful too. As with all sight-reading practice, start slowly and do not stop.

Finally, remember that concentration is the key factor so the minute your mind starts to wander stop practising and go and do something else! The more you focus, the quicker your practice session will fly by and the more you will achieve. Train your mind to think clearly at all times and enjoy.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


 

6 Ways to Introduce Children and Babies to Music Making

Unless you have been on another planet, you will know there has been much baby talk this week, with the arrival of Prince George of Cambridge, the new royal baby. So I thought it may be appropriate to highlight the best ways to introduce a little child to making music. It’s entirely natural for young children to enjoy music and want to take part in musical activities, however, I believe the best age to commence formal piano lessons is around the age of seven or eight years old. This doesn’t mean small children can’t enjoy lots of different musical events or activities, and it’s extremely beneficial for their development too.

Youngsters love singing and experimenting with all types of musical instruments. Mother and baby classes have become increasingly popular and can no doubt be found in most towns and cities around the world. It’s probably the best way to encourage a small child to take an interest in music, but there are many options for music making at home costing very little. So with this in mind here are a few ideas for your little ones:

1. Rhythm is one of the most important elements to be grasped in music making. You can use very simple household items such as Rulers, Saucepans, Pots, Wooden Spoons etc. and ‘beat’ in time with the pulse to any type of music (pop and rock is good for this type of activity). It’s good fun and will urge a child to observe a basic pulse (the basis of elementary aural training or listening tests). Children love to get up and dance too, so all kinds of movement to the music can be encouraged.

2. Instruments can be formed by using bottles filled with various amounts of water (forming pitched ‘sounds’ if struck or blown), filling empty jars or containers with rice or any kind of dried beans (forming a ‘shaker’), or just using an upturned box as a drum! These could be supplemented with triangles, little bells or various percussion instruments encouraging children to explore different sounds and effects.

3. Familiarise your child with all styles of music; listen to everything from Classical to Folk and beyond. Music from various periods and cultures make this type of activity even more valuable. Children do not differentiate between styles, so this therefore is the ideal time to encourage them to enjoy all genres; a must for those who are keen for their little ones to fall in love with Classical music particularly. Introduction to various instruments can be done by listening to their respective sounds via recordings.

4. Singing is one of the most important elements in musical development. Simple tunes, nursery rhymes or hymns can provide the perfect foil for a child’s first vocal experiences. Be sure to assist by joining in and making sure children really listen to the tune so that they can try to pitch the sounds successfully. This can take a while but practice makes perfect in this respect.

5. Drawing pictures can fire a child’s imagination and creativity. Whether sketching various instruments (instrument colouring books can easily be obtained), or scribbling images of how a piece makes them ‘feel’; is it happy, sad, fast like a train, or slow like a snail!? This is a great idea for musical development later on too.

6. Pitching notes can be challenging for little ones to start with, so it can be a good idea to help them distinguish between high pitches or tones and low pitches; a variety instruments or even everyday sounds or noises can be the perfect foil here.

It can be great fun exploring some of these ideas with children; I love helping my nephew and niece in this respect (who are aged five and two years), and it’s interesting observing their responses. If you implement some of these ideas, by the time your child starts instrumental lessons they will have already understood the basics.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.


The Joys of the Parent Pupil.

The new term brings fresh challenges and new pupils for many music teachers. One interesting group of prospective students is parent pupils.  A parent will  occasionally announce that they wish to start playing the piano alongside their child. There are many reasons for this; it may be that they want to keep an eye on their son or daughter and their progress (or lack of it); perhaps they want to be able to help their child with weekly piano practice; or it may just be that they have always wanted to play and think it will be an excellent hobby that will fulfill a creative desire. Whatever the reason they can be very satisfying students to teach.

Parent pupils will be able to help their offspring in so many ways. They will have an informed interest in the joys and frustrations involved in learning and realistic expectations about rates of progress as well as the importance of regular practice. They can also give complete support and encouragement which is crucial if the child is to make swift progress with their playing.

One of the benefits of this relationship is shared practice. The parent can help the child foster good practising habits by regularly monitoring posture, hand positions, and rhythm. Technical exercises which may seem boring can be turned into fun if both parties explore different ways and speeds to practice observing who can play the most accurately. Another game could be ‘spot the deliberate mistake’ which will help devlop note reading and aural skills.

The parent – child duo are a ready made duet partnership. There are many duet (two pianists playing one piano together) pieces arranged for beginners and hopefully a helpful teacher will guide their students to the most appropriate ones. The parent will help their child focus on the details such as keeping time and correct notes and fingerings, they will also be able to share in the sense of achievement after performing a piece for the family.

Perhaps the most important role the parent pupil can take is to lead by example. They can illustrate the importance of regular practice by making time in their day and consequently when their child sees this they tend to follow and gradually view practice as a necessary route to improvement. When a parent’s good intentions occasionally fall by the wayside they might find themselves being gently reprimanded by their child! Another amusing situation occurs when the child becomes more fluent than their parent and parents will then find themselves ‘having a lesson’ from their son or daughter. Most parents are delighted with this development and it gives children a real sense of confidence and achievment too.

Children to do need real support when learning to master an instrument. It does help if a parent is around to help with practice sessions particularly if the child is young, so if a parent does decide to take lessons this can only be a positive influence on a child’s musical development. If you have been planning to take piano lessons with your child then what are you waiting for? Get playing and have fun.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.