Some time ago I made some very strong criticisms of the free book “Fundamentals of Piano Practice”. Those criticisms still stand. But now I want to be constructive, and not destructive.
Let us, from the start, understand that there is no “one true way” to practice. Different ages, different background, different aims, different hands, different ways of thinking, different music. These all affect how you practice. Besides, the way you work at music will change as your knowledge and skill increase, and whatever point you are at in your musical development there are still different kinds of practice for different purposes.
I want to deal with some of these. I believe that my ideas and recommendations will be helpful to most pianists (if they have not yet figured it out for themselves!) but remember that you are unique, so some of this might not work for you.
So here are what I believe are the main kinds of practice, and what they are for.
In a trial run the most important rule is “Stop for nothing”. Keeping the rhythm is the most important. The worst thing of all is to “go back” to “correct” a mistake. That just adds a second mistake to the first one. This type of work reveals the parts of the piece that are not yet secure. Unless you have the technique to play something almost perfectly at sight this should be a relatively small part of your work, but even then working on small details would be likely to improve a piece. For most learners it should definitely NOT be the main form of practice.
PRACTISING FOR IMPROVEMENT
There are MANY exercises and methods for overcoming technical difficulties and developing technique. One of the functions of a teacher is to suggest suitable methods for each student. Literally there are hundreds of them, invented over more than three centuries. I cannot even begin to list them here, but I will be looking at some of them in future articles.
When you are working out a difficult section you need to figure out (often by yourself, without the teacher there to guide you) WHY it is impossible or difficult before you can fix it.
First ask: “Do I already have the technique, and just need to work out how to apply it, or do I need to learn a new piece of physical co-ordination?” The former can be achieved quickly. The latter can take a long time to grow.
Only when you have a section of a piece right should you aim to repeat several times slowly to fix it in your memory. Make sure that timing, fingering, and dynamics are correct or very close. A slow tempo is no problem as it will improve with repetition.
How many times should you repeat something when you get it correct? You will need to experiment to see what works for you. Some authors recommend working until you can play a passage five times in a row, correctly, each day until it is secure. That might be difficult! If you play something correctly 4 times, then mess up on the 5th, then you have to start counting at 1 again! Some can master things in fewer daily repetitions. You might be one of the lucky ones that m,asters difficulties quickly. On the other hand you might need to play something 7, 10 or more times at each session to securely master some difficulties.
In general practice for improvement will have the following characteristics:
- Sections will be short
- They will be played as slowly as necessary to play them close to perfectly
- Repetition over several days (or even weeks)
- Each small part mastered must be re-integrated into the piece
When you need to learn a new technique it is often a good idea to find a study or exercise that develops it. Alternatively you can make up your own exercises.
It is usually easier to perform difficult acts of co-ordination from memory, rather than with extra burden of decoding the notation. Technically challenging sections are more difficult when you use the score, whether you are reading in detail, or just using the score to prompt your memory.
Beware: Make sure that you do not end up with a string of brilliantly played difficulties, connected by badly played “easy bits”!!
PRACTICING TO MAINTAIN A PIECE THAT YOU KNOW
It is NOT enough to simply play through the piece every few days. If that is all you do then the “finger memory” (kinesthetic memory) will get stronger, while the musical and intellectual memory gets weaker. Eventually part of the sequence of conditioned actions will fail and the piece will break down.
Some people call this “over practising”. It is not. It is INCORRECT practising.
In addition to “play throughs” you must:
- Re-study the score occasionally (away from the instrument) to check that mistakes have not crept in to your remembered version
- Continue to study the piece looking for yet more patterns and regularities, harmonic sequences, melodic shapes and so forth, and reminding yourself of those you already know
- Play through MENTALLY away from the keyboard (imagine the exact movements and sounds)
Some other activities that you might find useful are to:
- Play hands separately
- Play the musical lines separately
- Play melody lines with the “wrong” hand, or with a single finger
- Reverse the left and right hands
… anything that enhances your musical and intellectual understanding and not the kinesthetic memory will help
PRACTISING FOR PERFORMANCE
This assumes that you have already done everything above, and know the piece thoroughly. The basic idea here is to see if the piece stands up under extra pressure. Anything that adds to your nervousness, fear, difficulty … that gives you more of those butterflies in the stomach, is useful here.
First you MUST decide whether you will perform from memory or from the score. The worst thing is to decide to play from memory, then at the last moment to change your mind and play from the score. You are likely to:
- End up playing large sections from memory, then be unable to find your place in the score
- Mess up the page turns
- Miss large leaps when you have your eyes glued to the score
Here are some useful things you can do to make things harder for yourself:
- Record yourself
- Play on a strange piano, and/or in a place that is unfamiliar
- Play at a time of day that you do not usually play
- Play when you are hungry and/or thirsty
- Play in an artificially hot (or cold) room
- Play late in the evening, to see if you can manage when at your most tired
- Invite some friends to listen
- Take any opportunity to play pianos in public places (street pianos, libraries)
- Wear your concert clothes
- Make a trial performance in front of your teacher
- Make a trial performance in front of a different teacher
Any realizable combination of the above.
There are several dimensions to practice:
- The environment where you work
- What to do, how accurately, and at what speed (QUALITY)
- How many times to repeat an exercise (QUANTITY)
But often forgotten is possibly the most important of all: INTENSITY.
It is hard to generate intense concentration artificially. It comes naturally from a love of:
- The instrument
- The music
(… and perhaps other factors?)
and is easiest to muster when you are refreshed and mentally alert.
A few repetitions with the greatest possible focus and concentration are as effective as hundreds of mindless repetitions.