Many of you will have read the fascinating story of Andrew Garrido’s piano journey. As an 11-year old boy keen for lessons which his family could not afford, he did not even have access to a piano to start with. Undeterred, Andrew made a paper keyboard which he stuck to his desk. By clicking notes on an online keyboard, he was able to remember the sounds and “play” them back on his paper one. Apart from a short series of lessons, he made significant progress all by himself – ending up firstly at the Purcell School and now on a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Even though he now has access to pianos, Andrew states: “The irony is that I continue to do a lot of my practice away from the piano: what we call mental practice. It unlocks key areas of the mind that are less readily accessed by piano playing alone.”

Mental practice is something I wish I had done more of when I was a student. I was acting on the mistaken belief that only time spent practising at the piano would make any difference to my playing. Had I known better, I could have spent time sitting on the train visualising the pieces I was studying; this would have created pathways though my brain cells as if I were actually playing the piece – all without moving a muscle.

According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was obviously no piano on the train, he practised passages in his lap. Once we understand that effective piano practice does not necessarily involve making sounds, we might begin to appreciate that solutions to passages we suppose are problematic because of some technical deficiency or other are actually problematic because we don’t have a detailed mental map of the terrain.

Psychiatrist Srini Pillay explains:

Imagining allows us to remember and mentally rehearse our intended movements. In fact, visualizing movement changes how our brain networks are organized, creating more connections among different regions. It stimulates brain regions involved in rehearsal of movement, such as the putamen located in the forebrain, priming the brain and body for action so that we move more effectively.

First Steps

Studying a score away from the piano can be challenging if you have not done it before. Let’s start with what I hope are fairly simple exercises to develop some skills.

Close the Piano!

Here are 3 short excerpts from elementary pieces you might use as tests, to get you started. Each one a little more difficult than the one before. Of course you can find your own examples if you prefer.

Spend a few moments looking at each test away from the piano (no cheating allowed!). When you are confident you have absorbed all the information, go to the piano and play from memory with full expression, phrasing and shaping. It is always important to conceive even the most basic test in terms of musical expression, since this vital dimension gives meaning to what we are doing and keeps us more fully engaged.

Here is a suggested way of doing this:

  • Scan the test as a whole, trying to get a sense of the character and shape (notice dynamic markings, phrasing, etc.), and hearing it in your inner ear as vividly as possible.
  • Analyse the shapes and patterns. (What’s the key? Does the line move by steps or skips? Are there any large intervals? Any recurring rhythms or melodic groups? Whatever you notice is fine).
  • Using the imaginary keyboard that you see with your mind’s eye, and “play” through the test once. Remember to include all the musical details.
  • Repeat, allowing your fingers to move in the air or on the imaginary keyboard, as though playing in space. Go through the test in this way with each hand separately, singing either out loud or under your breath (using solfège or any syllables you like).
  • When you are ready to play, it would help to record your efforts, following the score as you listen back.
  1. No. 12 from Behrens’ 50 Piano Pieces for First Beginners, op. 70

2. Romanze from Türk’s Kleine Handstücke für Angehender Klavierspieler

3. No. 24 from Walter Carroll’s Musical Exercises

Did you capture the musical meaning? Were you accurate in notes and rhythms? Did you manage to play with a sensible fingering? If you succeeded in playing the test accurately, then you have proved to yourself that you can absorb music through mental comprehension and mental rehearsal alone. Consider developing this skill and using it as a practice tool to memorise music away from the piano. If you feel you don’t have time to apply it to whole pieces, perhaps use it for those places in a piece where you are not secure. When you stumble, ask yourself whether it is a technical problem or a gap in your comprehension of that passage. A little of this type of work away from the piano can often work wonders.

If you are a piano teacher, consider having a short exercises like this in your waiting room each week. Your students will have a few moments to absorb the phrase, which they play to you from memory when they come in for their lesson. 

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