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How to Manage Repetition in Practice

First published in June, 2017, this post addresses the issue of how many times we repeat a passage, and what should be going through our head as we do so. This is something that applies to all pianists, no matter the age or level. ***   ***   *** Recently I overheard someone practising in an institutional practice room (OK, perhaps I was eavesdropping a bit) and had to smile at what was going on in there. It was the very end of Ravel’s Sonatine, where the left hand is called upon to make a daredevil leap over the right hand, and land on two black notes at the top of the keyboard. There are several intelligent ways to practise this jump to increase the chances of getting it right, but what I heard was quite a number of repetitions in a row, played back to back with absolutely no reflection time in between the repetitions. The student got it “wrong” (meaning it was inaccurate, uncomfortable or she felt it was somehow missing something) many times in succession and then after all this did it to her satisfaction just once – and left it. Had she managed to refine the movements during all these inaccurate repetitions to reach a desired result, now permanently on tap, or had she practised getting it wrong nine times in a row and correct on the tenth attempt? If the latter, the chances of getting it right on the first attempt in performance would be 1 in 10 – not favourable odds. There is no doubt that to refine complex motor skills required in such a passage, a certain amount of repetition is necessary. Yet repetition is a double-edged sword, since whatever we […]

Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice

First published on October 16, 2014, Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice came about in response to students who were trying to run before they could walk. I needed to find a way to get them to practise slowly enough and at the same time enjoy the process. ***   ***   *** If you’re serious about playing the piano, there’s no getting away from slow practice. It is a cornerstone of our work from the beginner stages right through to the advanced level, and a practice tool also used by professional pianists and seasoned virtuosos all the time. In this post, I aim to help you not only realise the importance of careful, accurate slow work but also to enjoy it fully! I have noticed some folk think they should be beyond slow practice – that’s only something beginners do. Far from it! In Abram Chasins’ wonderful book Speaking of Pianists, the author describes a time he showed up for a lesson with Rachmaninov and overhead him practising – but so slowly that he didn’t recognise the piece at first. I know I have used this quotation before, but I am going to use it again because it speaks volumes about how a great pianist used ultra-slow practice for a work he was maintaining (not learning) to keep it spick and span: Rachmaninov was a dedicated and driven perfectionist. He worked incessantly, with infinite patience. Once I had an appointment to spend an afternoon with him in Hollywood. Arriving at the designated hour of twelve, I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached the cottage. I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising Chopin’s etude in thirds, but at such a […]

The Three Little Pigs

First published in May, 2016, The Three Little Pigs reminds us of the importance of solid preparation as we learn our pieces, and is the second in this short summer series of reposts from past years. ***   ***   *** We all know the story of The Three Little Pigs, in which each pig builds a home. One takes hardly any time building his out of straw, so he can spend more time playing and relaxing. The second pig builds his home out of sticks, which takes slightly longer, but he too values his down time. The third pig chooses to build his home out of bricks, which requires a great deal more time and effort, but he values taking the time to build a home properly. When the Big Bad Wolf pays a visit, needless to say only the third pig’s house of bricks stands up to the wolf’s huffing and puffing. Comply with Building Regulations The first two piggies used substandard and unsuitable materials, while the third piggy had checked wind load and used approved and recognised methods of construction. In the UK, Building Regulations are minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building. They are developed by the Government and approved by Parliament. In my piano studio, I take pride in teaching tried and tested performance skills to those taking exams and diplomas, or those who want to perform for their own pleasure and satisfaction. My building regulations apply from the very beginning of learning new pieces and ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that the end result (the performance itself) will be strong enough to withstand the pressures of the Big Bad Wolf. The House of Straw The player who builds his house of […]

Top Tips for Choosing Fingering

If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only! Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering. I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) […]

Mid-year Wrap-up and What Lies Ahead…

We’re now just over half way through 2018 and as always, it’s been a very eventful year for both the Practising the Piano blog and Online Academy. With the summer holidays soon upon us, we will be winding down briefly before resuming an extensive schedule packed with publishing of new resources and updates for the remainder of the year. Therefore, we’d like to take this opportunity to review some of the highlights from the year so far and to share some insights as to what’s in store. Online Academy Highlights It’s been almost two years since the launch of the Online Academy in September 2016 and the site has grown to over 300 articles, 1000 music excerpts, 200 videos and 100 downloads (more information on featured content and resources is available here). Some of the highlights of the year so far include: A new series of resources focussing on technique kicked-off with a comprehensive guide to playing double notes at the advanced level. This guide is comprised of several chapters featuring over 100 musical excerpts, 40 video demonstrations and downloadable worksheets. Click here to view the introduction and index. Launch of an extensive new collection of walkthroughs called From the Ground Up devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorize more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation to which detail is then added in layers with successive scores. Click here to find out more about this series or here to view a listing of available works. Two new Annotated Study Editions and online walkthroughs featuring Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Minor (Op. […]

By |July 17th, 2018|eBooks, News|0 Comments
  • The 20-Minute Practice Session The 20-Minute Practice Session

    The 20-Minute Practice Session

The 20-Minute Practice Session

First published in April, 2015 The 20-Minute Practice Session remains one of my most popular blog posts. Here it is again, slightly modified and updated – the first of this short summer series of reposts from past years. I hope you find it helpful! ***   ***   *** If we want to develop as a pianist, there’s no escaping regular, routine practice. Passion for the music and for the piano are essential ingredients – if we are not fully engrossed in what we are doing, we are not going to want to put in the necessary hours and we won’t learn. In this post, I aim to show you how to structure your precious practice time to get the best results. If your practice is feeling overwhelming or aimless, then the 20-minute approach is really going to help you! Attention Span Our attention span is the amount of time we can stay fully focussed on a particular activity without becoming distracted. Time is a precious resource, so it is in our best interests to use our time to our best advantage – aiming for maximum efficiency. It always worries me when a student claims to practise 8 hours a day. Unless they have accepted a last-minute engagement requiring frantic practice tactics, spending this long is neither wise nor necessary. A sponge can only hold so much water; if we pour more on an already saturated sponge it is going to trickle off and get wasted. Perhaps constant texting and checking your Facebook status have completely eroded your attention span? You can use this test to find out how long your focus is. If you want to significantly increase your attention span, I can recommend meditation as a very […]

Where Do We Find Musical Expression?

This week’s guest blog post features an article on finding musical expression when learning new pieces by Ken Johansen. In this post, Ken suggests practise methods using examples from various pieces featured within his From the Ground Up series to help you discover an interpretation for yourself from the inside rather than relying on external instructions. *** *** *** Where Do We Find Musical Expression? Some years ago, I took a class and several individual lessons in the Feldenkrais Method, a technique developed to improve physical functioning by imparting an awareness of how we habitually use our bodies. In this training, the instructor doesn’t issue prescriptive instructions (“keep your back straight,” “don’t let your shoulders sag,” etc.). Instead, she guides the students through simple movements and exercises that allow them to experience new sensations. Simply by being consciously aware of these sensations, the students re-program their own brains to learn new, healthier movements and habits. It immediately struck me that this kind of instruction, in which the teacher is more of a facilitator who creates conditions that allow students to make their own discoveries, rather than a master who dictates the “correct” way of doing something, was of great relevance to music teaching. So much music teaching relies on correcting mistakes (“your left hand is too loud,” “don’t accent that note”) and giving instructions (“make a diminuendo here,” “slow down there”). What if, instead of correcting mistakes, teachers could help their students to discover the logical, natural expression of a piece from the beginning? Perhaps instead of just giving students instructions about how something should sound, we could devise exercises that would help them to experience the music directly and develop their own responses to it. Why, one might ask, […]

Flexibility in Pulse

I heard Chopin’s beautiful Waltz in A minor in a class the other day. The basic feeling, tempo, balance between the hands and the pedalling were extremely good, and there were some lovely sounds. But I was struck by how straightjacketed the performance felt to me from a rhythmical perspective. When I asked if he had been using a metronome, he told me he had been practising on a digital piano with a waltz backing track. Doing this regularly had completely ironed out any sense of natural phrasing and timing, and the sort of gentle ebb-and-flow rubato this piece needs to bring it to life in performance. When I was a boy, fascinated with music and how it all worked, I once tried to synchronise the new metronome I was given for Christmas with an LP recording – just to check whether whoever was playing was doing so in time, since this was stressed as being very important by my teacher. I had a few LP vinyl records at that stage, but no matter which recording I used I was unable to get the metronome to line up with the beats from the record for more than a bar or so. Naturally I assumed it was my metronome that was faulty, and thought of asking for it to be fixed, or swapped for one that worked properly. I didn’t know at the time that no artistic performance of any piece of music could be bound to a fixed beat, rigidly applied. You’re probably thinking – sure, Romantic period music would obviously make no sense when played against a metronome but anything Baroque would synch up, wouldn’t it? Certainly so strict-looking a page of semiquavers as […]

Practising a Performance

In a recent stint of adjudication work, I was struck by those who were able to steer themselves confidently through a performance on an unfamiliar piano in front of an audience, and those who let the sudden spike in adrenaline at an erratic moment get the better of them. The result might have been a stumble, or a total derailment or playing that just felt anxious and on edge. Small slips and blemishes are a part of any performance. Our ability to recover from these (or rise above the voices in our head that can suddenly cause us to lose concentration or doubt ourselves when we play) comes down to a large extent on procedure in the practice room. Or, to put it another way, our training routine. If we always allow ourselves the luxury of stopping and correcting an error when it happens in our practice, or stop when we don’t like the sound of something, we soon establish pretty strong reflexes for stopping. It is extremely unhelpful to have to inhibit these reflexes when we are in front of an audience, an examiner or adjudicator. At that moment we become well aware that we must keep going. There are two fundamentally different types of practice that we do in our studio, by ourselves as part of our routine. Practice Mode 1 allows us to stop whenever we need. This could be when we notice a wrong note, or when we hear our pedalling isn’t quite working, or when a passage feels clumsy and out of control. We address this by using certain practice tools, experiment with different speeds, finessing our sound until we get it the way we want it. This might mean repeating […]

Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works. *** *** *** Making the Well-Known Our Own Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular. Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire. These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. […]

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