We tend to think of sitting at the piano and practising totally in terms of making sounds. If we’re not moving our fingers up and down, we’re not really practising, right?

Following on from last week’s post on performing, I mentioned in passing the need to focus our full attention before we start to play, and to blank out the audience as much as possible. This is true whether we are performing for a teacher, an examiner or an audience – or even just for ourselves. We always need to take a few moments to prepare ourselves, to frame our performance with meaningful silence. I have found many people in such a hurry to play that they omit this crucial step. So what goes on during this time of silence, exactly? We need to conjure up the sounds, atmosphere and the feeling of the music we are about to engage with. We might hear the opening in our inner ear, imagining the tempo and the energy of the piece. We might find our tempo from some place other than the start – perhaps a bar or two later in the piece where the tempo feels inevitably right. When I play Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I find my tempo not from the theme itself but from the first variation. I imagine the semiquaver movement in the first variation, and when I play the theme I have a better sense of how I want it to move. The theme is a slightly more static version of the tempo, by the time I reach Variation 1 the semiquavers give the music a forward flow.

variations serieuses

I keep my hands in my lap until the last moment, approaching the keyboard in the manner of a conductor’s upbeat. The way I  engage with the instrument at the start and the finish needs to reflect the speed and energy of the music. Having the hands in position on the keyboard seems sensible, but is a bit like holding one’s breath before speaking – it’s unnatural.

Silence During Practice

Performance involves a very different mindset from practising, when we perform we don’t want to be thinking or controlling much. During practice, however, the conscious mind needs to be fully alert. We might practise a section of music with an acute awareness of one or more aspects of its requirements. Am I using my planned fingering? Am I playing accurately and rhythmically? Is this the character and sound I am after? Am I playing with physical freedom? After I play that section my conscious mind needs to step in – is what I just did a control+save or a delete? If the latter, I need to figure out why and where I went wrong before I repeat it. I also need to know precisely what I intend to do to change this. Am I repeating a phrase because I want to reinforce an intended result (to make this into a habit), or am I repeating a phrase in the hope that the right result will somehow leap out at me by magic? “Think ten times and play once” was Liszt’s motto, and between each repetition there needs to be a moment or two of reflective silence where we refocus on what we need to do to get the result we are after. If we don’t, and we play our next repetition too quickly, what comes out is going to be an accident. For more on silence during practice, see my post Using the Feedback Loop.

Quick Cover

A while back I described a foolproof way to measure distances across the keyboard, using the C sharp minor Prelude of Rachmaninov as my example. The most crucial step in this process is the very step people omit, the part where I stress in capital letters – DON’T PLAY YET!

A way to practise for accuracy in measuring the distance from one position to another involves sitting on the first position while preparing to move. Having moved, spend a moment on the surface of the keys of the new position. Here are the steps again:

  • Play the chord or the note(s) before the jump and hold this position. Like a cat ready to pounce, prepare yourself to move to the next event/chord. When you are ready, in your own good time, use an ultra-fast (yet free and loose) motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the next position. DON’T PLAY IT YET! Rest on the surface of the keys for a few seconds before doing anything.
  • Before playing, check to see that you arrived directly and dead centre of the keys, that no finger is in the cracks between the keys. What you are after here is a spot-on millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved both across the keyboard and within the hand.
  • If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the new chord. Now sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement. Notice the tempo of the music is dead slow (there is no rhythm involved in this process actually), but the motions extremely fast indeed.
  • If your measurement was not 100% accurate, or if you overshot, undershot or otherwise fumbled then the rule is you are not allowed to play the new chord! Be like the ethical angler who discovers an endangered species in his net – throw it back. First learn from your mismeasurement however, so that you can make the necessary adjustments when you try it again. Perhaps the span between the second finger and the thumb wasn’t quite wide enough, so that the second finger was too far to the left?
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Practising the Piano Part 2

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