Somewhat reluctantly, I have just sold on my Virgil Practice Clavier, having watched it gather dust and take up space for the past few years. For those of you too young to remember Joseph Cooper’s dummy keyboard on the BBC2 panel show “Face The Music”, a Virgil is a practice piano with adjustable sprung and weighted keys, and the only sounds it is capable of producing are clicks as the keys go down, and/or clicks as the keys come up (you can select the up-click, the down-click, both clicks or neither). If you turn the spring to its maximum, you get a key resistance that would challenge even Popeye on spinach day, or you can set it to an effortless “light” (and with all degrees in between). The clicks are supposed to indicate rhythmic accuracy, or (if you have both up and down clicks switched on) how precise your legato is (if the up-click and the next down-click coincide, then you will have made a textbook key connection). Panelists on the show would have to guess what piece was being played just from the rhythm of the clicks (the audience at home helped along by a soundtrack that would fade in after a while).

Silent Practice No. 1

Due to force of circumstance, I once had to learn a substantial recital programme of music for cello and piano (including the Chopin Sonata) on one of these devices. I was staying somewhere with no piano, and this portable contraption could be moved into my room easily by two people. To my surprise, I found the work very congenial! I was able to hear in my head the sounds my fingers would have been making, and in some ways this made me listen more. I was never troubled by hearing any wrong notes, and I wasn’t preoccupied with tone, balance and sound in the way that most of us pianists are most of the time. I could imagine the perfect sound in my inner ear and never have this disturbed. I had the odd moment on an antique and much-battered Broadwood in the local church once or twice a week so I could actually hear the fruits of my labour, then it was off to France to rehearse and play the concerts. Everything came out better than I anticipated, and I am convinced the Virgil helped make a virtue of a necessity.

Silent Practice No. 2

Some years later, on my monthly trips to New York, I would get up some time before my host and because it was too early to make any noise, I discovered I could put in a couple of hours of really profitable practice on the surface of the keyboard. I didn’t realise how useful this was until it was OK to make sounds and I discovered my hands were incredibly loose and well warmed up, and my fingers very much in control. More so, actually, than if I had spent those two hours practising normally. In my post on practising softly, I discuss the greater control needed to send the key down slowly from the surface to the key bed, observing that it is much more skillful to play pianissimo than fortissimo. To cause a key not to speak at all is actually quite difficult, because you have to inhibit the full range of the keystroke with every single note you touch. As in the dummy keyboard work, you can hear the music internally and you become very sensitive to the feeling of the fingers on the keyboard and the lightness of the arm. If a finger should be veering off course from dead centre of the key to the cracks in between the keys, you feel this more acutely too. Practising like this takes an awful lot of self control, and you have learn to delay gratification, but I commend it to you next time you want to practise in the middle of the night.

Silent Practice No. 3

When I was a student, I had teachers who extolled the virtues of silent practice, the sort where you sit with the score and study the structure, the harmonies, and so on, in your head. In those years I was reluctant to consider this a part of my practising – I’d do it, but on the train. Now, I think it is completely indispensable. Without a thorough understanding of the composer’s structure and message, how are the fingers supposed to know what to do? The mind has to be one step ahead of the hand, always. I’ve discussed this in depth in a previous post (along with Gina Bachauer’s quote) so I won’t bang on about it again here, but the good news for those still not sold on the idea is that scientists now know that inwardly hearing a score, and imagining the fingers executing their tasks actually starts the process of forming neural pathways.

For the sake of completion, here are two more practising suggestions that seem to belong here:

Silent Practice No. 4

Miming: The act of deliberately preventing keys from speaking either by touching the surface of the key or by depressing it partially. This can be done for ear- or finger training purposes. Some examples:

  • Play one hand as written while miming the other. This is beneficial in a different way from merely playing the one hand alone because you are using nearly all the muscles and reflexes of the two-handed version (i.e. it is not so far off the whole neurological picture). This will reveal all the warts, blemishes and inaccuracies that might be being covered up when both hands are sounding their notes. This is especially good when you really want to hear how controlled the LH actually is, since it is the hand we are not usually listening to actively. Expect a few surprises when you try this for the first time!
  • Play the top part in a chord stream while miming the lower notes, or play the melody line while miming the accompaniment. This develops independence of the fingers better than anything else. It is useful to play the top first by itself (with no muscular reference to anything else) before adding the mime, aiming to achieve exactly the same sound (this is not easy).
  • Mime one selected voice in a fugue while playing the others (extraordinarily challenging).

Silent Practice No. 5

Playing on the fallboard: the act of leaving greasy fingerprints all over the fallboard in a good cause.

If I am trying to get across a particular choreography to a student who is self conscious about temporarily sacrificing note accuracy during the process of learning these unfamiliar movements, I will close the piano and have them get the general gist of it in a situation where you can’t play any wrong notes – on the fallboard (a table would do too). The fine motor skills involved in achieving the precise version on the keyboard are not called for here, which allows the grosser motions to be practised first.