Practice tools

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 […]

Focus Your Practice with Zigzag

I use a form of practice for myself that I call zigzag practice. It helps test and strengthen my memory by keeping me incredibly focussed, but there’s no way it will work unless I am concentrating fully. I also recommend it to my students, and I have noticed it has a multitude of uses, not least keeping eyes on the page when they are at the stage when muscle memory is taking over but when there is still plenty of guesswork going on in terms of notes, rhythms and fingerings. Rather than look at the page for direction, they seem to look at their fingers for inspiration. With zigzag practice you’ve got to look up, and I’ve noticed people enjoy it and seem to rise to the challenge. Intrigued? I’ll show you how it works with one of the pieces I selected for the Online Academy’s Essential Guide to ABRSM Examinations portfolio of pieces – Handel’s Sonatina in G, set for Grade 3. After you have a certain amount of familiarity with the piece and can play reasonably fluently hands together as well as hands separately, play one bar in one hand followed by the next bar in the other hand. If you started with the right hand and followed in bar 2 with the left, the next time you practise the phrase do it the other way around (begin with the left hand and continue with the right). Try not to interfere with the rhythmic flow and keep the pulse rock steady as you switch from one hand to the next. There are two ways of zigzagging: End on the very last note of the bar – one hand passes the beat to the next, as […]

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 […]