Practice tools

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

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 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 […]

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 […]

Seeing the Forest

This week’s guest blog post features an introduction to the From the Ground Up series by its author, Ken Johansen, following its launch last week on the Online Academy. In his post, Ken describes the “from the ground up” approach to learning pieces and the rationale behind his project. I wholeheartedly recommend this approach for anyone who wants to learn new works in a less daunting and more enjoyable way! *** *** *** A page of piano music, taken at a glance, looks a bit like a forest, the black notes forming more or less dense thickets of trees and shrubbery against the white page. Seen from afar, this forest looks fairly uniform; it’s difficult at first to distinguish its content and boundaries, or to see the variety behind the uniformity. But we’ve heard that this forest is enchanted, and we want to explore it for ourselves, so we approach it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How do we enter this musical forest, which may sometimes appear dark and impenetrable? Some pianists choose to listen to a recording first, but that is a second-hand experience. We want to walk in the woods ourselves, not listen to someone else’s account of it. A few musicians spend some time just sitting with the score, listening to it inwardly, finding its phrase and section divisions, perhaps analysing the harmony. But most pianists are too impatient for this; they want to start playing right away. If they are good sight-readers and the piece is not too difficult, this can make for an easy and pleasant stroll. But if their reading ability is mediocre, or if they are learning a piece that is at the upper limit of their technical ability (which […]

Learning New Pieces From the Ground Up

One of the most common questions my readers ask is how they can learn new pieces more effectively. As it turns out, one of the most popular posts of all time at www.practisingthepiano.com is “But It Takes Me Ages To Learn A New Piece!”. Therefore, I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new series of resources on the Online Academy this week which directly addresses how to go about learning new pieces more efficiently – it’s called From the Ground Up. Building on a similar approach and principles covered in my series Deconstructing the Score, From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Authored by Ken Johansen, co-founder of the Read Ahead sight-reading programme and professor at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, the series will feature popular works from throughout the repertoire, starting with two works by Schumann and JS Bach respectively. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions: Schumann – Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (from Kinderszenen) Bach – Little Prelude in F (from the Notebook for Wilhelm Friedrich Bach) Beethoven – Sonatina in G Grieg – Arietta (Lyric Pieces, Op. 12, No. 1) Chopin – Nocturne in E-Flat (Op. 9, No. 2) NEW – Schumann […]

Learning Away from the Piano

One of the reasons modern aircraft are so safe is the number of backup systems they have on board in case one system fails. Apparently there is a backup to extend the landing gear if the primary hydraulic system fails – flaps and flight spoilers have backup systems too. But what happens to the poor pianist when disaster strikes? If we are to perform to our best abilities in turbulent weather, such as might be generated by our mind in an exam room or recital situation, surely we need backup systems too? Even a casual performance in front of just one person (who might even be in an adjoining room) can cause system failure. While we can never guarantee a performance is going to be trouble-free, we can build in enough safety features to prevent a little slip turning into a catastrophe. It’s not so much the amount of practice we do that makes us secure – although we should never skimp on preparation time or underestimate how long it will take us to fully assimilate a new piece – but the quality, breadth and depth of it. The intelligent pianist prepares for performance by focussing on five main areas: Background Research and Developing a Personal Narrative Researching the background of a work can only enhance our appreciation of the music. Knowledge of what was going on in the composer’s life at the time the work was written feeds the imagination and enriches our performance – and all it takes is a little research. Immersing ourself in the storyline or narrative we have allowed our imagination to conjure up, focussing on an image or scene (such as dancers dancing, a moonlit evening, a colour scheme) is so much […]

Firm Foundations

A late, esteemed colleague who had amazing sight reading skills once told me he never read through more than once a new piece he was about to learn. It was just too risky for him – on a second reading he would already have been forming habits that would hinder him in the finished version, when it eventually rolled off the other end of the production line. This might be sloppy fingering, sketching (rather than etching) accompanimental figuration, or even learned-in wrong notes. Yes, practice makes permanent and habits are formed alarmingly quickly. Let’s make sure they are good habits rather than bad ones. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place! Good practice habits not only enable us to feel good about our work and about our playing, they allow a structure to emerge from rock, enabling it to withstand the forces of […]

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