Practice tools

Inventing an Exercise from a Piece

People often ask me what sort of studies they can do to improve a particular difficulty they are experiencing in a given piece. The underlying assumption is we can just practise some studies for a while, and transfer whatever skills we gain from these across to our piece. It would be nice if it were as simple as that; an alternative and often more expedient approach is to aim to solve problems from within the piece we are studying by formulating, more or less on the spot, simple contraptions that focus on the difficulty itself. I’m especially keen on creating such exercises based on the difficulty we are trying to solve, making these as short and simple as possible so we can look down at our hands as we practise. Let me give you an example, from the middle section of Rachmaninov’s G minor Prélude, op. 23 no. 5. The LH has to find a way of moving across to the F# on the fourth semiquaver (16th note) of the first bar. There is obviously no finger connection possible at this point; because of the speed of the passage the movement has to come from the arm, the hand staying as close as possible to the keyboard (there’s no time to come up too high). For me, the optimal motion is an arm shift combined with a rotation from the D, whereby the pinky side of the hand is lifted by the forearm as we play the thumb D. We feel the untwist in the arm as the pinky lands in the F#, the result of a rotation from right to left as we connect with the key. This is difficult and cumbersome to put […]

Q-Spots Series: Ibert’s The Little White Donkey

The ten pieces that make up Jacques Ibert’s collection of impressionistic piano pieces, entitled Histoires, sound as fresh to us now as the day they were written. Actually, they were composed over the course of a decade, between 1912 and 1922 when Ibert was based in Rome. Many of the pieces drew their inspiration from the sights of Spain, Italy and Tunisia as Ibert travelled around.  We are going to look at a small section from the second piece, Le petit âne blanc (The Little White Donkey). This delightful work is suitable for the intermediate player; it needs plenty of imagination to play it with the colour and vibrancy it requires. It is not hard to hear the trotting of the donkey in the left hand, or the gentle braying in the right hand that comes later. In the key of F sharp major, the piece might pose some challenges initially, but once the notes have been learned you will find that the music lies very well under the hand.  As part of my Q-spot series, I have selected two places from The Little White Donkey that will need your careful attention for the piece to flow well as a whole: Bars 20 – downbeat 25 Bars 25-29 In my full article on the Online Academy, I give detailed step-by-step practice guides for both these quarantine spots together with a video tutorial. Let’s have a look at an especially challenging moment from the second Q-spot, from bars 27 – 29. How many players have stumbled here, uncertain as to how to improve the passage? This short extract makes an excellent exercise in double note playing, where the intermediate player can learn the same practice techniques […]

Q Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes): Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23 Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35 The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy. Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie. Before we […]

New Series on the Quarantine Spots

We’ve probably all come up against difficulties in a piece where our fingers seem to baulk – we hesitate, stumble, or approximate the notes with a mañana attitude to fixing them. Our unconscious thoughts go something like: “All I need is a few days, it’ll sort itself out eventually”, or “I’ll wait for my teacher to correct it in the lesson”, and so on. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and unless we address these problem passages thoroughly they are likely to let us down in performance. The Problem We all know that in a performance we commit to playing from the beginning of a piece to the end, with no stops or corrections. However, unless we are practising a non-stop run-through of a finished piece, we will likely need to stop regularly in our practice. And not only to make corrections, but to go through certain practice procedures that make our end result technically strong and secure. The Solution: Quarantining The concept of quarantining is firstly to identify as precisely as possible where the problem spots in our piece are, and why they might be occurring. We mark these quarantine spots (or Q-spots for short) in on our score, perhaps using a square bracket, and begin our practice session by doing some proper work on these spots using the practice tools, as opposed to just playing them through a few times. We could even devote a separate practice session to the Q-spots from all of our pieces. Rather than rummaging through our scores, it is a good plan to take photos of the bars in question and insert them into a slideshow. That way, we can practise from a tablet and […]

The Practice Tools Workshop

This past Saturday, I embarked on a brand new venture – an interactive workshop on The Practice Tools, using technology to maximum advantage. Sponsored by Casio Music UK, we hired a large conference room at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in London, which was set up with 15 Casio CDP-S100 digital pianos – and a Grand Hybrid GP-500 on the stage. Delegates were easily able to get to this central location and arrived not only from the UK but also from Europe to take part in the day. We met at 9:30 for welcome tea and coffee and started with an introduction to Casio’s range of pianos by Chris Stanbury, and then moved on to our introductory session – a demonstration of how to use The Feedback Loop as the basis for all we do in piano practice.  There followed four sessions, aimed at the intermediate to advanced player as well as piano teachers. Each 60-minute session was divided up into three segments – a presentation from me on a particular topic, a breakout session where each delegate was able to plug their headphones (provided by Casio) into their own piano and try out the practice techniques I had just demonstrated, then a Q&A session where people could ask questions or give feedback. I provided practice worksheets for each topic, but the practice during the breakout session was not restricted to the repertoire extracts I had suggested – people brought their own music and practised what they wanted. There were many benefits to this format.  People got to try out very specific practice tools immediately after an explanation and demonstration, so that they could experiment with them while they were still fresh in the memory […]

The Practice Tools Lecture Series

I am very pleased to announce a new video lecture series on the practice tools available now on the Online Academy. The Practice Tools What are the practice tools? There are some instances where in a lesson a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go through a process in our practice room to achieve a certain intended result – learning notes, finessing and polishing, and correcting sloppiness. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the garden to look when it is finished. Then I will need to prepare the soil, which will probably involve a bit of spade work and some hard graft. Now, the real gardener will tell you that all this is part and parcel of it, taking pleasure in all the stages from start to finish. There is a certain amount of patience needed to delay gratification and not to skimp on the first stages. If I don’t fertilise my soil, aerate it, add worms to it or whatever else gardeners must do, I can’t expect my plants and flowers to blossom, grow and withstand the frosts and hardships of winter. So when I outline a specific practising activity, I also underscore the importance of doing this type of work daily with full concentration, resisting the overwhelming temptation to finish off the practice session by playing the piece at […]

Introduction to the Practice Tools

I’m pleased to announce my new course, Introducing the Practice Tools, which is taking place on Saturday, 13th of July 2019 at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in central London.  Aimed at teachers and pianists at an intermediate level or above, this one-day course is based on my eBook Series and blog. It will introduce highly effective strategies which will assist you and your students in getting the most out of time spent practising the piano. The course will be delivered in an innovative, interactive format with introductory presentations followed by breakout sessions. Each participant will have their own private digital piano with headphones to test out a particular practice skill. There will be plenty of opportunity for feedback with question and answer sessions forming the backbone of the day. The following topics will be covered: Introduction: An overview of the practice tools Using the feedback loop: How to plan and focus your practice session for maximum benefit in every area. Slow practice: How to use ultra-slow speeds for learning notes, correcting errors and finessing sound, and when not to use it! Gaining speed: We explore two methods of taking a piece from the slow stages to performance speed, developing fluency and accuracy as well as ease and grace. Repetition in practice: We form habits by repetition, but only perfect practice makes perfect. In this session we learn how to manage repetition in our practice mindfully and creatively to achieve tangible, lasting results. Preparatory materials for breakout sessions will be provided in advance and all participants will receive handouts and complimentary online access to my video lecture series on the Practice Tools (valued at £20). Please note that participants will not be required to play in front of […]

Hands Separately Practice – Useful or Not?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could assimilate a new score by reading the piece through a few times, perhaps stopping to sort out some fingering here and there, and unravelling the odd problematic spot as you go. A few practices and you’ve got it. You’ll probably find you can learn like this with music that is well below your current standard, but if you’re approaching a more complex piece that is not so readable you’re going to need to break it down to learn it properly. If you are planning to play the piece from memory, it’s absolutely essential to learn it extremely thoroughly from the very start – a process that takes time, commitment and patience. I have come up with an easy-to-remember term for the most basic practice strategies we use when breaking a piece down – “The Three S’s” (slowly, separately and sections). We first work at the speed of no mistakes – slowly enough to give us ample thinking and planning time between one note and the next, avoiding to the best of our ability ingraining any wrong notes, faulty rhythms or fingerings we won’t end up using. We absorb the music by repeating and finessing small sections until our mind and ear have fully digested what is going on, and until the physical movements we use at the keyboard have become automated (meaning we don’t have to think consciously about which finger goes where). Because it is often simply not possible to play both hands together reliably and accurately at the start of the learning process, we practise each hand separately out of sheer necessity. Even though most piano teachers seem to advocate separate-hand practice, there are some who believe it is not helpful beyond the elementary level. […]

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 […]

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