I recently gave a consultation lesson to a diploma candidate, who told me at the end it was the most illuminating lesson he had ever had. I couldn’t think why, so I asked him. He said he had never played his pieces through from beginning to end without stopping. Apparently, his teacher stopped him every time there was a mistake, or something that needed to be corrected, improved or tweaked. It used to take ages to get through a piece this way, and what made matters worse was he took this approach home into his practice. Every time something didn’t go according to plan (real or imagined) there was this Pavlovian response to take his hands off the keyboard. All I did was to allow him to replicate the conditions of his diploma (or indeed any performance) by committing to a start-to-finish, come-what-may, warts-and-all performance. Hardly rocket science.
I explained that if he doesn’t practise performing for himself and then in front of others he will never know what it feels like. Effectively, he won’t ever have practised his exam.
Practising is a complex and often indefinable art. On the one hand if we don’t stop to attend to repeated uncontrolled or inexpressive playing, won’t we be ingraining it all? On the other hand stopping, especially in the same old places we’re not happy with, sets up unhelpful reflexes that can be hard to eliminate later.
With new pieces in Stage 1 of the learning process, I advocate controlled stops (this is a subject for another post).
With pieces that are ready to play through, we make a decision before we start practising whether we are going to stop. If we decide we will stop, then where exactly?
- Immediately when we derail or when something doesn’t feel or sound right
- Some time afterwards (at the end of the phrase or section)
The second instance is far preferable. Continuing past a stumble ensures we programme ourselves to play through a mistake and come through the other side of it – exactly what we need to do in a performance. Of course we do need to remember what went wrong and where, and attend to this just as soon as we’ve reached our designated pit stop.
The closer we get to the performance, the more we need to practise playing through not only individual pieces from beginning to end but indeed our whole programme. Even if we don’t feel like it or are not happy during the process, we need to soldier on. We will notice significant improvements in stamina and concentration after a few days of this, provided we reflect on our performance afterwards and engage in spot practising.
I have written about the process of practising a performance following by spot practice before, please follow this link to my blog post To Stop or Not to Stop?
Ways to Play Through
With all these suggestions, aim to play through with no stops.
This is the most obvious way to play through – with the full range of dynamics, colour and emotional involvement. In other words, the way we’re going to do it on the day. I hardly need to add that recording some of these run-throughs aids and abets the reflection process afterwards, and focusses subsequent spot practice.
2. Chilled and Understated
Under tempo (for fast pieces) with the louder dynamics suggested. Go a step further and play through softly and lightly.
I wrote a detailed post on this – follow this link to Two Playing States
3. No Pedal
It’s brilliant practice to go through a whole piece with no pedal, or only those pedals absolutely necessary for joins.
Not in small sections but a whole movement or work played well under tempo is marvellous for control and detailed listening. It’s also great to test and boost memory.
4. Fast (Slow Pieces)
Playing a slow piece or a slow movement fast has surprising benefits.
Follow this link to my blog post Practising Fast.
5. In Your Head
Silent practice away from the piano is incredibly valuable. Do it with the score and without (if you are playing from memory).
5. Other Types of Silent Practice
You can do this by playing on the surface of the keyboard without sounding the notes, on the fallboard, or on a digital piano with the sound switched off.
Follow this link to my blog post Silent Practice: The Art of Inner Listening
6. With Distractions
One of my diploma candidates was half way through her first piece when the cleaner entered the examination room and began to sweep the floor. She was able to carry on, but this would certainly have flustered most of us. To enhance the ability to concentrate despite distractions, ask someone in the household to deliberately try to distract you while you are practising (make sure to explain this won’t be a regular occurrence, only when you request this). Some distinguished colleagues I know like to practise with the radio or the television on (on occasion, of course!).
Multiple Back-to-Back Run-Throughs
My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, recounted a personal story concerning Sviatoslav Richter’s way of preparing a performance. Apparently he would practise playing through a piece ten times in a row without stopping. The last note led straight back to the first, with no break in concentration.
Ten times is possibly excessive for most of us, but I do suggest some back-to-back run-throughs. Some may be full-on but others may be deliberately cool and understated, like a singer who saves their voice by marking their way through an aria mezza voce.
If you have two practice sessions daily, do some run-throughs in the morning. Afterwards, sit with the score and a piece of paper to make notes on what needs to be done, then devote your afternoon session to going over the spots. After a week of this type of work, your programme will feel easy, short and firmly within your grasp on every level. Remember to look after your body and do plenty of stretching before and after, and don’t go too crazy.