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 or through my Facebook page 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 🙂



A few thoughts on Beethoven’s Für Elise

This small seemingly straightforward work has become such a favourite with pianists of all ages and abilities. It is perpetually at the top of the ‘must learn to play’ list and is instantly recognisable from the first few notes. For many, Für Elise represents Beethoven (1770-1827), although in reality it’s of scant importance when surveying the Master’s output for the instrument. Perhaps it’s popularity rests on the fact that it is an easily accessible and playable piece, which is around Grade 4 standard. Several readers have written asking for practice tips and ideas, so here are my thoughts on this evocative miniature.

No-one really knows who ‘Elise’ was, and in fact it is thought that Beethoven apparently wrote this piece for  Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792–1851). She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810. Therese declined and instead chose to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik in 1816.  There are also several other dedicatee possibilities.

The original score was dated 27th April 1810, but the work wasn’t published until 1867, many years after Beethoven’s death. Ludwig Nohl discovered and transcribed the score and it’s the early version of the manuscript that is now the usual or ‘accepted’ version. Für Elise has become the official ‘nickname’ but the title is actually Bagatelle in A minor WoO 59.

The tempo marking, Molto grazioso, suggests a graceful tone and this should be strictly upheld; generally a slower tempo is much more effective. The work is in the style of a perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion or movement) so a gently flowing tempo allows the haunting melody to be expressively enunciated. Fingering needs careful attention because this will make or break any performance, so write it all in the score.

The familiar sections of this work consist mainly of rolling semiquaver figures; often widespread arpeggios in the left hand and a beautiful, simple melody in the right. These sections frame two contrasting episodes, both containing more dramatic material. It’s important to have a clear musical overview when learning; the form here is A-B-A-C-A.

Für Elise is in the key of A minor with brief diversions into F major and C major, so start by playing the scales, arpeggios and chordal progressions (tonic, sub-dominant and dominant) in these keys. This can help with fingering and note patterns. There are three sections with virtually the same material (containing the famous melody), so by beginning here, a large chunk of the piece can be mastered fairly quickly. Start by practising  hands separately. Combining them shouldn’t prove too difficult, as much of the material is played using separate hands; one hand replying to the other, rather like a conversation.

Two issues need attention within the outer sections; the first is the necessity of a completely accurate pulse and the second is the careful balance of sound required between the hands.

The former can be solved in many ways, but a good idea might be to set a very slow metronome semiquaver pulse, so in effect each note will be accounted for (you can also do this by counting aloud to each beat; six per bar, although your pulse must be extremely regular for this to work). Try to be sure to ‘sit’ on the metronome beat with no deviation when practising at least. Whilst this passage work looks innocuous, its simplicity can make it all the more difficult to articulate. Therefore, very careful listening is necessary, in order to allow for a totally even approach on and between each note. It’s this almost robotic articulation that will help your rendition to sound professional. Care is especially required during the following passage; every note must be placed correctly (bars 14 – 16):

Fur Elise 1

Work at each phrase (these outer sections consist of four bar phrases), thinking about fingering and placing each semiquaver precisely.

To achieve a good balance between the hands, a relaxed wrist and firm finger action is important, try to resist ‘locking’ the wrist and arm together; plenty of movement in your wrist will ensure a good sound which is necessary for the melody particularly. When practising rotational wrist movement, firstly try to encourage the wrist to move copiously or much more than necessary. Practising wrist movement between every note will help free tension, which can occur even when tackling simpler works.

The left hand needs to be light and very legato (or smooth). Practise moving from the bottom to the top note using a rotational wrist motion and a heavy sound (almost ‘digging’ into the key bed), then lighten the sound and you should hear even figurations. The right hand melody also benefits from heavy articulation at a slow speed. Resist the temptation for too much rubato (or ‘pulling’ of the tempo) to begin with. A completely seemless legato sound is necessary throughout the melodic line. Once the hands are combined, the left must ‘give way’ to the right, and provide the perfect accompanying role, always softer and lighter.

The first of the two more dramatic sections begins at bar 25 with three chords introducing a light-hearted melody. The left hand broken chords (or Alberti-Bass) can be ‘blocked out’ for quick study (playing all the notes in the chord in unison). When played as written, the thumb needs to be lighter and again a rotational hand movement will help with even rhythm and tone. The melody needs special attention because it contains a different rhythmic pattern and some ornamental passage work. Practice without the ornaments to begin with, adding them only when the passage is secure rhythmically.

The demisemiquaver figurations that end this section frequently cause some technical difficulties. When playing fast passages which require complete rotational movement such as bars 1 and 3 here, firstly ensure the elbow remains static, whilst the arm moves horizontally, turning from side to side, supporting the constantly pivoting hand and subsequently, the fingers. This needs to be done with freedom of movement but also very rhythmically. Equally important are active fingers. Use a firm fingertip (playing on the fleshy part of the tip), and start rotating slowly, picking up each finger cleanly. The movements will become smaller as the tempo gradually increases. Start by accenting top notes:

Fur Elise 2

Then the bottom notes:

Fur Elise 3

Finally accent in various patterns with different rhythms.

The second dramatic section begins at bar 62 and requires a smooth repeated note action in the left hand. Many prefer to change fingers on repeated notes, but this passage needs such a constant, equal sound that it may be better to use one finger (perhaps the third), again employing a loose pivotal wrist motion to keep articulation even. In order to build up a reliable wrist action without incurring any tension here, practice one bar at a time moving the hand in an ‘up and down’ motion (from the wrist), stopping and releasing any tension building in the wrist at the end of each bar. After a while (when flexibility has increased) the number of bars can be elongated (playing two together then three together), until all 16 bars can be negotiated without any tightness.

The right hand chords (which are full of angst, thanks to the diminished seventh chords), need a beautiful legato line. To achieve this, play the top line of each chord alone with suitable legato fingering, like this:

Fur Elise 4

Pay attention to the musical shape of the line and ensure a full singing tone. When satisfied, add the other notes in each chord. They must be much softer and unobtrusive. As the harmonies change, add more tone, colour and sonority. Practice without using any pedal so as to obtain complete finger legato. The pedal can be added in small doses when the notes are securely learnt; experiment with various flutter and half pedalling techniques (continually changing the sustaining or right pedal), so that harmonies are enhanced as opposed to smudged.

A cantabile touch (or singing tone) will make for an expressive, musical rendition. Use plenty of arm weight to produce the required rich sound. Once the notes are in place, explore various dynamic colours and small amounts of rubato for a convincing, musical performance.

Here are a couple of renditions to hopefully provide inspiration!

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.