There have been two interesting blog posts this week that have caught my attention, one by Dr. Noa Kageyama – 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently – and the other by Elissa Milne – 13 Mistakes Pianists Make.
The first article describes a test in which a three-bar extract from Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto was given to a group of piano students who had just one practice session (however long they wanted to take over it) to learn the passage, before playing it in a test the following day. They were then ranked from best to worst, rated not only on the basis of note and rhythm accuracy but also on tone, expressiveness and character. Their practice methods were evaluated to see which were most effective at getting the best results. Top of the list for most effective practice method was… slow practice.
How much time was spent in the practice session or how many correct run-throughs they played did not matter. What did matter was how many times they played it incorrectly, in other words the proportion of correct versus incorrect playings affected the performance.
I was most interested to note that the most successful practicers conceived the passage in terms of musical meaning (this is what I infer from Kageyama’s expression “inflection”) from the very beginning. Finger movements served a higher goal right from the start – expressivity. Results were improved by practising using pauses, stopping before an imminent mistake and correcting any errors that did happen immediately they happened.
Elissa Milne identifies 13 mistakes a pianist may make, from the obvious wrong notes and rhythms to the less obvious (but just as important) errors such as misshaping, not being fully engaged and of allowing fear into performance. We can play a note-perfect performance and it might paradoxically be full of mistakes!
I am going to take a bullet point from Dr. Kagayema’s post and discuss it a bit, because I think some very important matters arise from it.
- The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
This presupposes three things, none of which can be taken for granted:
- The practicer was able to notice they had made a mistake
- They knew the precise nature of the mistake and where it occurred
- They knew what had to be done to correct the mistake
We teachers are constantly pointing out errors, and either correcting them there and then in the lesson or giving explicit instructions for what needs to be done in the practice room if correcting the mistake is going to be a process. That is a part of our job description. Each time we do this, we are empowering our students and bringing them one step closer to being able to do this for themselves. If they take no responsibility for correcting their own mistakes by themselves, their progress is going to be awfully slow.
If I suspect a student is blithely playing through their mistakes in their practice room, I might ask them when playing the piece through in the lesson to stop every time they notice they have made a mistake and simply to put their hands in their lap. This signifies to both of us that they are aware of their error. Then they need to tell me what the mistake was, and what steps they plan to take to correct it. This sounds clear enough, right? But I am regularly surprised that they don’t actually stop (or do so very rarely) despite numerous mistakes! There are a few reasons for this:
- They have not spotted their mistake – they do not realise they have actually made one.
- They are not clear on what defines “a mistake”. Is it just wrong notes and wrong rhythms, or does wrong fingering, lumpy phrasing or wonky pedalling count?
- They are lazy.
- They are in cloud cuckoo land, or thinking about something else.
- They think the mistake was just a one-off accident – they know perfectly well it wasn’t quite right but believe it’ll be fine on the next run-through.
- They are in performance mode, and know that during a performance they must stop for nothing.
The Feedback Loop
Probably the single most important and most basic practice tool is the feedback loop. It helps us diagnose what’s good or bad, weak or strong so we can attempt to make corrections or improvements. This applies universally from beginners to advanced players to professionals. It is perfectly possible to get a beginner to use the feedback loop by asking questions in lessons rather than simply giving information. We ask questions such as, “What did you notice about your LH in that bar?”, “What character do you feel in the music here?” and “Which finger goes here?”. Such probing encourages critical listening. Before you know it, your young pupil is on the path to thinking and listening for themselves, and to using the feedback loop when they practise.
Rather than repeat myself, click here to find out how to use the feedback loop to correct errors.
When NOT to Stop for Mistakes
If performance precludes any stopping at all, and practising seems to necessitate it, how can we bring some of the ingredients of performance into our practising?
We can use the concept of practising a performance firstly for short sections (phrases even) quite early on in the learning process. So many stops happen because of accidents, but I am thinking along the lines of soundbites – a predetermined section of the music with the stops planned beforehand, and with full musical meaning (not just going through the motions).
The old adage (amended) “practice makes permanent” warns us that we had better be very careful about running through our pieces prematurely as we will simply be ingraining those habits that already exist, good as well as bad, and after a while it will be quite impossible to correct them. And yet there is a paradox here! No amount of slow or careful practice is going to establish the reflexes we need for performance, or to hone our artistic vision of the piece. My solution to this is a process where we alternate practising a performance with spot practising. Spot practising is simply homing in on very specific areas that need attention because they have not withstood the pressures of a performance.
When we practise a performance alone in a practice room, we stop under no circumstances.
The Practice Tools
It is one thing to know you have made a mistake or are struggling to play something correctly, and quite another to know how to fix it. To assist pianists in their day to day practice, I have come up with a toolbox of practice tools. The most basic of these is The Three S’s. Here are the links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts, practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.
Preview or Buy Practising the Piano Part 3
Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.
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