When we learn a new piece, the process of practising is a journey that takes us from Point A (where we may not know the piece at all) to Point Z (the performance).
I know a lucky pianist who can learn a new concerto overnight and perform it from memory the day after, but for the majority the journey is somewhat longer and more arduous. It may be fraught with frustrations, as well as joy and satisfaction as we overcome hurdles and reach new levels.
I gave a day workshop on practising this past weekend in London, and one of the points I continually stressed was that it is not just about the destination but about the journey. Unless every stage along our practice journey path is done skilfully, we’re not going to get the results we are capable of in the performance.
Tangible Practice Methods
In order to practise each step excellently – with focus, concentration and meaning – we need to know what we are doing. I spend a lot of time patiently explaining practice procedures to my students. I like to think my instructions are clear and precise, and very targeted to the individual and where they’re at in their development. I need to make sure not only that they have understood, but also that there is enough of an incentive for them to do it at home. After all, it is in the practice room where most of the progress is made.
Witnessing the Practice
Not every lesson needs to be an attempt at a performance; if a piece is new this might not be a good idea at all. There is every point in working at a slow tempo in the lesson, or working on small areas hands separately where necessary.
A while back I read an excellent blog post targeted to piano teachers by Dan Severino, entitled The Silent Piano Lesson. From time to time Dan devotes a whole lesson where he doesn’t say a word, but sits back and listens to the student practice. Such a great idea!
I do it slightly differently by asking for a sample of the weekly practice at the beginning of most lessons, to check the student is on the right track but also to witness their daily work. They know I’m going to hear the practice, so they tend to pay more attention when I’m showing them what to do.
The Learning Stages
Here is a rough plan of the various stages:
- Preliminary work away from the piano (listening, researching, analysing, reading the score)
- Note learning (experimenting with fingering, slow practice, separate practice, repeating small sections, etc.)
- Refining and polishing
- Practising a performance (for oneself, a teacher, a small audience)
- More refining and polishing (spot practice on what went wrong in the previous stage)
- Maintenance and continued exploration (how to keep a piece in shape, fresh and alive between performances)
For me and my students, memory work features in all the stages of the practice from the very beginning. Even if the piece in question is not going to be played from memory in the end, a certain amount of memory work deepens the learning.