I recently started to teach a mature student who, after a successful career in the banking world was itching to get back to his piano playing. He brought a bunch of pieces to his first lesson that he had learned in his youth, ones he had continued to play over the years when time allowed. He explained his frustration at not being able to get through any of these pieces fluently or to his satisfaction, and really wanted my help.
When he played for me it was clear he had a firm grasp of the music, and I commended him on the high quality of his sound and his ability to shape phrases artistically. When fingers don’t go where they are supposed to, or go where they’re not supposed to, it is tempting to seek a technical solution. The root of the problem may be mechanical, or it might arise because of a lack of perception as to the requirements of a passage, or simply because of carelessness allowing approximations or sloppy habits to creep in. It was a lack of basic maintenance that was at the root of many of the stumbles. They had become ingrained like stubborn stains.
It felt safe to assume that a banker would appreciate the difference between investing and spending. I told him he had would have been engaging in the latter activity if he expected to have all his old repertoire on tap, and that if he wanted to experience tangible results from lessons he would need to invest a certain amount of time and energy between lessons engaging in practice activities that were the opposite of playing through. I could guarantee he would notice progress, as long as he did not expect dramatic results overnight.
I wanted to give him something definite to work on during the week. My first suggestion was to isolate those spots that caused him difficulty – the places where he fell apart – and to mark these in his scores (square brackets are good for this). He needed to isolate these sections, putting them in a sort of pianistic quarantine where he could give them very careful attention on a regular basis.
Regular readers of this blog will know what quarantine is and how it works, but it never hurts to go over it again.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Pull hard enough on a chain and it will snap at the point of least resistance; if there are weak links in your piece, you risk an accident or even a total breakdown when someone else is listening to you, or on an off day.
The solution is to identify where the problems occur. Make a list of these spots and put them in quarantine for a few days. Quarantine is a designated activity that you return to many times during the course of a practice session. You can attend to each of these excerpts not only before you practise the piece in question but also in between pieces and other activities at the piano. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself returning to the piano a couple of times per day just to attend to the quarantine sections and you may even find it is in these odd, unplanned moments when the greatest insights and the greatest benefits occur.
There may be just one quarantine spot in a piece or there may be several. Be sure to add at least a note or two or a bar or two before the problem area and one or two after it, so you incorporate the spot neatly into its surroundings. Analyse exactly what the problem is and where the problem starts. In addition to the square bracket, you might want to mark the score in such a way as to alert you or remind you about what you need to do (“LH jump”, “3 on G sharp”, etc.). When you are practising the excerpt, make sure to play only the notes you have decided on, and resist the sometimes overwhelming temptation to go on if you have managed it to your satisfaction. In other words, preface the excerpt with a moment of silence while you focus your mind, and another moment of silence afterwards while you reflect on your result.
For more on quarantine, follow this link to my eBook
Course of Medication
If you have an infection, you will probably be required to take a course of antibiotics. The first pill is just the start, and you won’t feel any relief until Day 3 or 4. Even after you have started to experience relief, you still need to continue the course of pills until the end to stamp out the infection and to make sure it does not recur. So it is with practising quarantine spots – doing them just once is the start of the process. Go through exactly the same procedures on Day 2, then again on Day 3 and for a couple of days after you start to notice things are improving.
There are a few blog posts that are relevant to this topic. For more information on mindful practice, follow these links: