Here is a question I received this week from a reader. Please feel free to email me your questions at graham@grahamfitch.com.

Q: I have an adult student who has just retired and now has a lot more time to practise the piano, which is her passion. Despite all this extra practice, she never seems to reach the stage where she can play any of her pieces fluently.

A. Thank you for the question, which I am sure resonates with a lot of people. I’m going to assume your pupil is fit and healthy for her age, has no learning disability and is not attempting to play pieces beyond her level. In virtually all cases like this, it is skimping over the initial learning stages that causes the problems later, or assuming that a piece (once learned) can just be played through forever after.

Practising V. Playing Through

The short-term buzz we get from playing something through at the piano when it’s not really ready pales into insignificance compared to the deep satisfaction of knowing a piece properly and thoroughly. If you go into your garden and pick too many flowers there will be none left and your garden will be bare. Let’s use another analogy – practising is like saving, and performing (or playing pieces through) is like spending. Your student’s savings account for each of her pieces may well be depleted and she is in the red. I am going to suggest a few ideas that will fill her coffers, but remember – these will need to be done regularly to keep her pieces in good playing order. And if she doesn’t touch a particular piece at all for several weeks, she can expect it to be somewhat unfocussed, erratic and bedraggled.

Structure

Many people in retirement have been used to discipline and structure throughout their lives. If piano playing were easy we could just go on autopilot, gaze out of the window and conjure up the great masterpieces from our fingertips. We all know that piano practice, although pleasurable, is challenging and requires concentration, focus and sheer hard work. Structure is key to this. Make a plan of what you want to achieve in a practice session, and consider keeping a practice diary to note things down. For more on time management in the practice room, see Organising the Practice Session in Part 1 of my book.

Here are some general thoughts about achieving fluency and reliability in our playing:

Fingering

Our ten fingers are like trusty servants. We need to tell them exactly where to go, when to go there and what they must do once they are there. A good fingering needs to be worked out, written in the score and adhered to religiously. This is the only way to build up reliable muscle memory – that state we reach where virtually no thought is required and the fingers do their job more or less automatically.

The Three S’s: Slowly, Separately, Sections

The concept I have called The Three S’s (“separately, slowly, sections”) comes from the phrase coined by British MP Sir William Curtis in 1825, The Three R’s (“reading, writing, arithmetic”). This refers to the foundations of basic skills taught in schools at the time. Similarly, my Three S’s form the basis and backbone of the toolbox we use during our practising whether we are beginners, intermediate, advanced or concert pianists. Take a small section and practise it slowly enough so that you are absolutely sure the next note you will play will be the intended note with the correct fingering and with the right sound (and not an accident). Do this separate hands before playing together, and do it very regularly and religiously – with devotion, love and care. Take pride in the work itself, do it musically with your full attention. Listen critically to the sounds you produce, be aware of the physical sensations and command the muscles to be free. Call on your inner craftsman to enjoy and relish the process. I have written about this extensively in Part 1 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano.

Bar by Bar

Even if you know a piece well, practising in bar units (one bar plus one note) repeating this two or three times before moving on to the next bar will improve fluency enormously. See my post The Weakest Link for a full description and some examples.

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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.

Click here for the full series bundle:

For more information, and the catalogue to purchase individual parts, click here.

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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.

Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!

Take the survey