Practising

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 […]

On Practice versus Playing Through

I am republishing this relatively recent post (from March, 2017) because I think it is crucial to keep reminding ourselves that playing through a piece is a different activity from actual practice, and that we need to regularly maintain a piece we want to keep in our repertoire using many of the same practice tools we used when we first learned it. ***   ***   *** Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly. If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this? I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

An Interview with Nicola Cantan

A few weeks ago I had a visit from Nicola Cantan of Colourful Keys to record an interview with me for her blog. We spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting about teaching, practising and performing and I thought I would share the video with you here. You’ll notice it is audio only for the first few minutes (there was a technological glitch with Nicola’s camera) but the picture does appear after a while – so stick with it! There are several things Nicola and I discussed that I have written about in my blog, so if you would like to read more about practising then start clicking these links. Speed of No Mistakes  Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice  Quarantine  Part 1 of my ebook series Practising the Piano is all about practising – exactly what we should be doing in our practice time to get the very best results. If you have not already seen this, then do check out the free preview. Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games. Nicola’s Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress. Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers. ***   ***   *** If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources: Practising the Piano eBook Series  There are surprisingly few books […]

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 […]

Can Sight-Reading be Taught?

The Online Academy’s collaboration with the Read Ahead team is a very happy one for me, since I can heartily endorse the innovative programme they have created to help pianists develop their sight-reading skills. Today’s post is a guest post by Ken Johansen and Travis Hardaway from Read Ahead, and I shall now pass you over to them. ***   ***   *** Most piano teachers agree that fluent sight-reading is a very important skill, one that ideally all students should develop. Fluent readers are more at ease at the piano, learn music more quickly, have broader musical horizons, make music more often with others, and receive more opportunities to perform. The question is, how do we help our students to develop this fluency? We can start, first of all, by teaching them the skills that make good sight-reading possible. In reality, sight-reading is not one skill, but a set of several inter-related skills that include: scanning the score intelligently before starting, maintaining a steady pulse, keeping our eyes on the score, hearing the music in our minds, reading in groups of notes, looking ahead as we play, and simplifying the music when necessary. With the exception of the last one, these are all skills that apply not only to sight-reading, but also to learning repertoire. If we bring these elements into play at every lesson, in every piece the student learns, we will be teaching him or her not only the piece, but also the musical skills needed for fluent sight-reading. Of course, it is not enough to work on these skills solely on repertoire pieces, and only during the weekly lesson. Students must sight-read unfamiliar pieces regularly, not only at lessons, but at […]

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