Last week’s guest post by Julie Garnham raised some interesting discussion in Facebook piano pedagogy groups (click here to read).

I feel the idea of beginning a new piece away from the piano needs to be clarified – Julie went through this process as an elected assignment on The Piano Teachers’ Course (UK), in the spirit of research. She decided to do this for a full 20 days. It is not necessary to spend this long if you want to get some of the lasting benefits of having your brain a few steps ahead of your fingers. If doing this type of preparatory work away from the piano intimidates you, just spend a day or two reading the score making as many observations as you can. Or you might want to engage your analytic skills as you learn the piece at the piano – the way we learn is very individual!

Julie has written a few words about why she undertook the assignment:

The small part of the learning and practising process I described in my article helped me overcome the dangers of dodgy thinking that might arise as a result of the brain’s natural and quick processes of ‘trying to help’ us. It does this by skimming and making decisions quickly, that’s its evolutionary task, to save our lives! In a ‘safer’ environment, (music room) we don’t want our brain to carry out such instinctive, habitual, quick, not properly informed decision-making processes that may make our piano playing hit-and-miss, so we want to retrain it.  (That’s the way I see now how things may have happened in my previous learning, when I didn’t  know sufficiently how a piece was created or perceive aurally the deeper relationships within its musical structures.) If I had had years of conservatoire training with top teachers, my skill level may have become more advanced. I have not had top teachers. I am describing a newly-found learning process firstly out of a study of recent psychological and neuroscience research and and then out of my first hand experience with my reflective consciousness of an adult.

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Many readers have written to me for some suggestions on learning a new piece, so here is Part 4 of my short series.

If you have been following the steps I suggested in Parts 1, 2 and 3 by now you will have done some background research and some comparative and critical listening on your new piece. Ideally, you will also have made a photocopy for the purposes of your analysis and to mark in the tracks you have decided on (useful whether we are memorising the piece or not).

For a recap on these first stages, follow this link to Part 1 in this series.

You will have benefitted from spending some time away from the piano getting a sense of the shape of the music, singing some of the main lines (even if slowly). After your first rough-and-ready play-through, you spend some time organising a fingering that works for you and make sure to write it in the score.

You now make a decision not to read through your piece again for a while, delaying gratification as you appreciate that repeated read-throughs ingrain errors and sloppy habits that will be hard to eliminate later on. Instead, you delay gratification and imagine the different pleasure not yet available to you – the deeper sense of satisfaction you’ll have when you’ve done all the groundwork and learned your piece thoroughly.

It is all well and good making such a decision, but you need to have a concrete plan as to what the next steps are as you knuckle down and start the actual learning at the piano.

Because I have written about all of these subjects before, this post will be more or less a list of resources with links referring you back to old posts and relevant chapters from my ebook series. I am going to spread all this over the next two posts.

Planning the Practice Session

Unless you have a clear idea of what you intend to achieve in your practice session, you will simply be entertaining yourself as you practice. It is very hard to structure your work at the piano without a practice plan.

Concentration, Mindfulness and Awareness

Real learning cannot take place without these three qualities. Concentration is moving your mind off many things and putting all of your attention onto one thing at a time.

I found meditation the best way of improving my own concentration, especially the Mindfulness of Breathing technique. Mindfulness simply means paying attention in a particular way – deliberately, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

If you find your mind wandering in your piano practice, try organising your work into 20 minute practice sessions. This works a treat, for young or old.

If you feel like you could use some help improving your concentration, this article is a good place to start.

Feedback Loop

Unless you are listening attentively to what comes out of the piano as you practise, you are not going to know how to fix things that aren’t working well. You could wait for the next lesson and your teacher will tell you, but real progress happens between lessons – in your practice! Take responsibility for your own progress and you’ll be surprised how much quicker you move ahead.

I have found the Feedback Loop to be the single most powerful practice tool for all ages and levels of pianist. When we use it, we cultivate the habits of focussing before we play and reflecting after we have played. It doesn’t matter whether we are repeating a single bar or playing through an entire recital programme, the process is the same.


Here is the process:

A. Decide what you’re going to do before you put your hands on the keyboard

B. Play

C. Reflect on whether what you did in Stage B matches what you intended to do in Stage A

If you need to repeat, set up a new Stage A by putting whatever information you need there so your mind is focussed on that before you pounce on the keyboard again.

Examples of reflections from Stage C might be:

  • I delayed the top note at the end of bar 1 because I wasn’t quite sure which note it was supposed to be
  • My LH was uneven
  • I feel tightness in my arm
  • The section towards the middle of the 2nd movement feels clumsy and uncertain – I need to organise the fingering better

I demonstrate the Feedback Loop with an elementary piece and then with an advanced piece in the chapter Using the Feedback Loop in Part 1 of my ebook series.

I discovered this excellent masterclass on YouTube recently – given by Leon Fleisher this past July at Music Academy of the West 2015 Summer Festival. I nearly fell off my seat when he described my feedback loop process in these words:

We as artists are … tri-polar. We are three people at the same time. We are Person A, person B, Person C. Person A hears in the inner ear before you play – you hear your ideal, you hear what you want it to sound like – before you put a note down. Person B is that part of you that does the actual playing, the pushing down of the keys. And Person C sits somewhere over there and listens. And if what Person C hears is not what Person A intended, Person C tells Person B what to change. That’s the process. And it goes for every note … on and on. And when it works, it’s a state of ecstasy, you can imagine. Usually it doesn’t work, and it carries frustration and unhappiness with it.

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