This post is more philosophical than practical, but it has occurred to me as I have progressed with this blog over the past few weeks that the main underlying principle of successful piano practising can be summed up in one word: craftsmanship. With it, we have a clear frame for our work and can achieve solid results; without it, hours will be wasted with nothing tangible to show for our efforts. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, without craftsmanship you will not be channelling your energies efficiently. A serious full-time student of piano in tertiary education might practise anywhere from four to six hours a day. Let’s take the lower figure and give them Sunday off, that means twenty four practice hours to one lesson hour. With that ratio, they had better know how to work.
My favourite analogy, as my students will tell you, is that of a Swiss watchmaker. I like the idea of the watchmaker as it seems the ultimate in precision engineering, and because in the finished product, you can’t see what has gone into it – this is much like constructing a piece of music at the piano. Yet if you ask the watchmaker how he does it, he won’t hum and haw or give vague answers, he will tell you categorically and exactly. This is not always the case with a pianist, however. You may argue that’s because playing the piano is an art and the stages from learning notes to performance cannot be quantified so precisely. No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to lay down some fundamental precepts of craftsmanship, which tool we might use for a particular job. I wonder whether the reason a lot of musicians are also such passionate cooks is because cooking, like piano playing, is both a science and an art?
So how can we develop this sense of craftsmanship? If you are invited into a master craftsman’s workshop, you will see all the various tools in pristine condition, lovingly cared for. Without the tools, nothing can be achieved. So, I make a point of equipping students with the tools they will need and showing them exactly how to practise. Even though I can always hear it, I will ask how they have been practising in order to get them thinking diagnostically and creatively. I expect something a lot more sophisticated than “slowly”, I expect a list of several procedures together with the reasons why. However, “slowly” is often a good answer (one answer of several), and there is nothing I appreciate more than hearing the slow work, as part of the lesson. And I don’t mean a nod in the slow direction, I mean extremely slowly! I want to hear beautifully shaped phrases (perhaps even exaggerated), excellent control, voicing, pedalling, and so on. Since slow practising is such an important part of the practice routine, I think it should be incorporated into lessons. But there are many other ways we practise, and craftsmanship incorporates knowing what to do, and when.
Craftsmanship is more than just know-how. It is also more than the finished product. There is the element of taking satisfaction from the process itself, of loving what it is we are doing and being devoted to it.
From September, I have a few vacancies for new students. Even though I am associated with training specialist pianists (secondary and tertiary levels), I am interested in teaching anyone with a passion to play the piano. At present my studio consists of people of all ages, the youngest being 8 and the oldest 78! Please contact me at email@example.com