According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he made use of his photographic memory and practised passages in his lap. I doubt that many pianists would either be capable of such a feat, or willing to trust this process under such pressure, but it does show how much can be achieved away from the instrument.
Nowadays, musicians are learning a lot from the field of sports psychology. Have you wondered what happens when elite professional golfers or tennis players prepare to take a shot? They are running an imaginary movie of the shot in their head, seeing exactly the intended outcome in vivid detail. Only after this mental rehearsal do they hit the ball.
Except for the primary motor and sensory areas of the brain, many of the other regions of the cortex normally active during actual playing are also active during virtual practice, or visualisation. According to scientific research, there is also activity in premotor and supplementary motor areas. Many studies have shown that the combination of mental rehearsal and physical practice achieves better results than physical practice alone. Mental rehearsal allows us to imagine an ideal sound or the perfect performance in the future. This may include imagining exactly how we want to phrase a passage, or shape and colour a whole work. We can imagine doing this in our practice room, and imagine ourselves doing this (perfectly!) in performance.
When we imagine ourselves playing, we can allow our muscles to make minuscule movements in the air or even in our lap. They are so small as to be virtually invisible and we might not even realise we are doing it. However, allowing this kinaesthetic sense into the picture helps us connect our body to our brain as we read the score. It is one way of doing it.
Another way is just to use your brain and discover all that you can see on the printed page. Identify individual chords, notice the patterns and direction in melodic lines, feel some of the rhythms. Get your analytic brain working and don’t worry about being too formal or academic with this – whatever you notice is fine.
Improve Your Sight Reading
I have long been an avid fan of using visualisation as a practice technique, but I had never thought about its usefulness in improving sight reading skills. Last week, a friend told me how regularly reading through scores away from the piano has really helped his reading. When I ponder this, of course it must work! When we scan a page of music we have not seen before we take in all sorts of information about the shapes and textures, and form an impression of how it might sound. If we are experienced musicians we will be able to hear the music inwardly, capturing its essence. If we are not quite at that level, we will still be able to get some impression of what is going on even if this is not quite so vivid. And this is very valuable in itself, even if you don’t end up taking the score to the piano. Next time you have a journey, why not take along a score or open up something from The Petrucci Library? Rather than dry test pieces, which are often not that inspiring, why not consider making a passing acquaintance with real pieces of music by great composers that were written specifically for educational purposes? Anything with the title Album for the Young is worth looking at, since the pieces will be short (and usually very sweet). Composers who wrote albums for the young include Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Cornelius Gurlitt and (for a contemporary twist) Lowell Liebermann (click here).
City Lit Course
While I’m on the subject of sight reading, one of my adult students told me about an excellent course run by the City Lit here in London. The Art of Accompaniment is for pianists, instrumentalists and singers, and will give you the opportunity to make music with others. You explore a selection of accompanying repertoire including songs and pieces for different instruments. You will broaden your knowledge of the art of accompaniment and improve your ensemble playing skills. The only way to get good at sight-reading is to read at sight constantly, and the best results come when you’re thrown in the deep end and have no choice but to battle through and keep going to the bitter end. My student says this course has beefed up his sight reading dramatically.
Further to last week’s post on fixing mistakes, we can absolutely use visualisation to aid and abet this process. Before you replay the passage you stumbled over, take some time out and mentally rehearse it. Close your eyes and visualise your hands moving across the keyboard, reaching their intended destinations perfectly in every way. Hear the sounds you are making in your inner ear, and hear them vividly. Imagine yourself executing the task effortlessly with an air of being fully in command.
You can do this slowly and then up to speed. Go over the passage a few times in this way until you have nailed it, and only then try it again at the piano. If you have a particularly stubborn mistake that is ingrained, you might consider taking a quick photo of the offending passage and studying it several times a day when you would otherwise be killing time – on the bus, in the queue at the Post Office, etc.
Needless to say, visualisation techniques come into their own when memorising a score. You can find details of this in my post Tools for Memorisation.
For those with my ebook, follow this link for much more on how to practise away from the piano.
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
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