It should be obvious to everyone who takes piano lessons that the lesson itself is only a part of what’s involved in building yourself up as a pianist. Progress depends to a very large extent on what you do between lessons. Half-hearted, occasional practice is clearly not going to have the same effect as regular, focussed work.
If we are practising sloppily and unenthusiastically we are unlikely to be making much progress or getting much satisfaction from the process of practising or playing. This is why it is so important to cultivate the nourishing qualities of dedication, commitment and the drive to achieve the highest possible quality in all that we do as we practise. But how do we develop these inner qualities?
Sam is a talented teenager who, like many people his age, does piano and violin and chess as well as loads of other stuff – all making demands on his time and energy. When he feels pressed for time, the temptation to gloss over mistakes and fumbles is sometimes too great for him. Deep down he knows this is just papering over the cracks, but how is he supposed to get everything done – and done properly – in the allotted practice time?
Among other pieces, Sam is learning Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 14. Because we were busy working on the Rondo for the past couple of weeks, the Andante had taken a back seat in lessons. It was once in good shape, but last week noticeably ragged around the edges and a bit scrappy from playing through at home with no careful attention or real practice in between the play-throughs.
When I asked Sam to play a section with just the LH by itself – slowly and without the pedal – he was quite surprised that his fingers were no longer being entirely cooperative. Position shifts had become approximate and tonal control had slipped a bit.
We needed to do a bit of dusting and polishing to bring the Andante back into shape, and Sam discovered he really enjoyed this process even though it needed quite a bit of concentration. The satisfaction came from having something tangible to aim for, getting absorbed in the activity and doing it to the best of his ability.
I reminded him how to use the feedback loop in his daily practice, and that he was perfectly capable of knowing good from bad, and right from wrong. All he needed to do was to use the practice tools and put a bit of gentle pressure on himself, and he could be his own teacher when I wasn’t around during the week.
I have been working with Sam to awaken his inner quality control inspector, which keeps him focussed and on the straight-and-narrow as he practises by himself. I’ve noticed huge improvements in his work.
The Quality Control Inspector
I recently watched a TV programme that went behind the scenes in a cake factory. They showed the whole process from delivery of the raw ingredients to the last stage when the finished product rolls off the conveyor belt and is placed into boxes for delivery to retailers.
What struck me was that quality controllers were at work at every stage of the process, not just at the end of the production line (when the guys with white coats and hairnets removed those cakes that weren’t of the required standard). Even though the particular brand is not one of Britain’s elite, they were seriously picky about what they let pass through.
Quality Every Step of the Way
When we practise, we do all sorts of things that are different from playing through, or performing. Here are some ways we might practise:
- Hands separately
- Using controlled stops
- Rhythm and accent practice
- Practising with no pedal
- Bringing out a selected line (bass, top, middle)
- Eyes closed
- Counting out loud
- With the metronome
- Practising legato passages staccato, and vice versa
- Exaggerating dynamics
- and so on…
Every single thing we practise, even if it is just a step on the way, needs to be done flawlessly.
Listen out for tone quality at all times.
Was the passage beautifully shaped, and free of bumps and lumps?
Did I manage to produce a good singing tone in the melody line?
Did I control the balance between my hands?
Did the top notes of the chords ring out above the lower notes?
When it comes to accuracy, it is surprising how easy it is to get lazy. Here our quality control inspector needs to be relentlessly demanding (don’t worry, you’ll end up respecting this).
Did I play all the right notes (and all in the right order)?
Did I play rhythmically?
Was my fingering according to plan?
Did I accidentally squish a next-door note into the passage (and hope nobody noticed)?
Go back and do it again!
Let’s say we are practising a passage using different rhythms, each and every rhythmical variant we use can be subjected to the same quality control as the finished piece.
Was the rhythm precise in all places?
Did I switch off effort on the long notes?
Work on each rhythmic variant until your quality control inspector is happy and has signed it off.
Each time we lift our hands to the keyboard, we need to have an aim and we need to have a clear sense of whether we achieved that aim. If not, how far off the mark were we, and how exactly did we fall short?
When we practise measuring distances across the keyboard using quick covers, ask yourself whether your hands arrived quickly, and dead centre of the keys.
Did I get there directly, or did I over- or undershoot?
If you were not spot-on, go back and do it until you can do it absolutely correctly three times in a row! Take pleasure in pushing yourself, and pride in having achieved it.
Keep an eagle eye for markings in the score – they are very easy to spot if you’re looking out for them.
Did I achieve a leggiero touch where marked?
Did I release my hands precisely at the rests?
If we are inventing exercises from our pieces, did I make each variant as musical and meaningful as possible?
I am not suggesting you actually do this, but imagine you are recording everything you practise for upload onto YouTube or Facebook for comments – you would want to make sure you had done the best job you could, wouldn’t you?
In case you think that teenagers aren’t capable of miraculous achievements, remember that Mendelssohn wrote his stunning Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 14 when he was 15 years old!
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