The routine practice session may on occasion feel like panning for gold – there may well be some nuggets in there but they will reveal themselves in amongst a lot of worthless material that we need to sift through and eventually discard. This takes time and patience.
I was recently contacted at the last minute by BBC Television to appear on the 6 o’clock news for an interview about the case of the Spanish pianist who was being sued by a neighbour for practising. I was secretly glad I had teaching commitments that evening, because I may well have found myself on the side of the neighbour! All that repetition, all that stopping and starting, all those extra decibels – overhearing someone practising the piano can be torturous.
We all know the scenario – we get to the piano for our appointed practice session, yet we’re not really that organised and we don’t know where we’re going to start. We’ve got our stack of music, but there’s no way we’re going to get through all of it. Because we haven’t really got a plan, we’re just going to have to see where it takes us. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… We open a score (whatever takes our fancy) and begin to play through it, but we didn’t decide beforehand whether we are going for a committed play-through (or maybe at least to the double bar), or whether we are going to stop and make corrections. Instead, perhaps we really need to do some spot practice here and there, or some careful slow work? There isn’t really any energy or commitment behind what we’re doing and certainly no focus. Truth be told, we secretly hope we will make a mistake after a few bars – at least then we have something tangible to do and we can spend some time fixing it. Then we move on until our next mistake, and eventually we get to the end. Yet there is very little satisfaction or sense of achievement in the work because there is no structure to it.
Plan of Action
We all practise differently from one another, but there ought to be a reason for everything we do in our practice room. What is the result I intend? What musical or pianistic target am I aiming to achieve? What do I need to do to reach this goal? There’s nothing like a performance in our diary to focus the mind. I have written plenty about time management and organising the practice session in my eBook (here is the link) as well as in my blog (click here, and here). In a nutshell, we need to focus first on our areas of weakness. Any weaknesses that prevent our strengths from being used to their maximum effectiveness must be dealt with first, as priority. This might be a specific technical problem that needs addressing, a passage in a piece that we have been skimming over, or an area such as pedalling, memory, tension or sloppy fingerwork, and so on. Know the difference between practising and playing through, concentrate like mad and always listen to the sounds that are coming out from the piano.
I was thinking about those things we pianists do on autopilot to fill in time when we can’t think of anything else to do in our practice. Here is a short list (please let’s expand):
- practise slowly
- practise in different rhythms (usually dotted)
- spend half an hour going through Hanon
- repeating chunks of music over and over
Don’t get me wrong, each and every one of these is a wonderful tool in itself – if it is used well and done for a good reason! I have just stumbled across some clips of the astounding pianist György Cziffra practising, and I was especially interested that he hardly ever stops. Everything seems to be on one continuous loop, all the thinking and evaluating happening in the moment while he is playing. Perhaps he wants to keep his practising in a state of flow, feeling he will lose impetus if he keeps stopping? I was especially interested by what he was doing with the Trio section of Chopin’s Marche funèbre. Why on earth would anyone, let alone a famous virtuoso, want to practise the LH forte, staccato and in a spiky dotted rhythm when Chopin requires the exact opposite? Listen from 2:30:
I am reminded of Neuhaus’ words (page 50 in the book) on dotted rhythms:
I accept this method only when practising exercises (including those taken from some difficult bit in a piece), but in learning musical compositions this method should be used only in exceptional cases. Indeed, why practise the Fifth Prelude in the First Book of Bach’s Forty-Eight, with dots and other rhythmic mannerisms, when the main purpose is to achieve maximum equality and evenness…?
I totally hear where Neuhaus is coming from – tell a student about dotted rhythms and they’ll use it everywhere all the time, willy-nilly. They’ll do it without thinking or listening, all the time believing they are solving all their problems. And yet, there are some great pianists in the other camp who swear by this method. Practising in rhythms is great if it is done consciously and done well. Then it hit me – could it be that Cziffra is merely doodling and filling in practice time with these antics while he is thinking what he needs to do next, or is he wanting to do the exact, diametric opposite of what is in the score so he can better hear, feel and appreciate the difference when he returns to the original (later in the clip)? You decide…
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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