feedback loop

How to Practise when Learning New Pieces

When learning a new piece, not all practice makes perfect. We’ve all had occasion to stumble at the same learned-in mistakes that originated when we first started learning the notes, and weren’t perhaps as careful as we might have been. To establish good habits we need a thorough, mindful approach from start to finish. Here are some tips and suggestions for how to break down the process of learning and refining a new piece to avoid typical pitfalls: Prepare your mind Making time vs. instant gratification You have chosen a new piece and are excited to get stuck in to learning it. One or two read-throughs is a good idea, but take care to avoid the repeated read-through method or you risk ingraining all sorts of sloppiness. What to do away from the piano & why This is the start of a new relationship between you and your new piece. Laying the groundwork starts with some research into the origins of the piece, its raison d’etre. Listen to recordings, make notes and begin to explore the score away from the piano. By the time you start work at the piano, you will already have an idea of what you want to convey with your interpretation. Analysing the music Study the music and analyse its structure in whatever ways are meaningful to you. Look at the various sections, phrases, tempo relationships, patterns, chords, and so on before your fingers even touch those keys. Have a sense of the overall design and what you want to bring out in your performance means you can hit the ground running. Taking a logical, patient approach Learning a new piece takes time and discipline, also a certain amount of patience. […]

Tips for Learning New Pieces Faster

Do you wish that you could learn new pieces on the piano faster? Do you find that you spend hours learning a piece only to find that you don’t know it nearly as well as you hoped when you attempt to play it? Here are some of my top tips for how to learn new piano pieces more effectively: Know the score before – It helps to have some context before you begin. Do some background research, listen critically to a few recordings and do simple analysis (ask yourself questions about the form, and the character of the piece). Choose your fingering – Attempt to work out a good fingering for both hands together and write it in the score. You may find you need to adjust this as you start the learning process, so allow for any changes. However, once you’ve settled on the fingering make sure to stick with it each time you practise. Work on small sections at a time – Avoid overloading your working memory by breaking your piece down into small sections. Use mindful repetition to work on each section before moving on. A practice method I call “bar by bar plus 1” is a very effective tool for this (click here to read more about it)! Deconstruct and simplify – In addition to separate-hand practice, deconstruct the music by break it it up into separate strands and simplify it e.g. play only the bass notes, or first note of an arpeggiated pattern. Practise at the “speed of no mistakes” – Slow down difficult passages to a snail’s pace so you can play the notes, rhythms and fingerings perfectly. Do this several times, resisting the urge to play at speed […]

Don’t Play!

We tend to think of sitting at the piano and practising totally in terms of making sounds. If we’re not moving our fingers up and down, we’re not really practising, right? Following on from last week’s post on performing, I mentioned in passing the need to focus our full attention before we start to play, and to blank out the audience as much as possible. This is true whether we are performing for a teacher, an examiner or an audience – or even just for ourselves. We always need to take a few moments to prepare ourselves, to frame our performance with meaningful silence. I have found many people in such a hurry to play that they omit this crucial step. So what goes on during this time of silence, exactly? We need to conjure up the sounds, atmosphere and the feeling of the music we are about to engage with. We might hear the opening in our inner ear, imagining the tempo and the energy of the piece. We might find our tempo from some place other than the start – perhaps a bar or two later in the piece where the tempo feels inevitably right. When I play Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I find my tempo not from the theme itself but from the first variation. I imagine the semiquaver movement in the first variation, and when I play the theme I have a better sense of how I want it to move. The theme is a slightly more static version of the tempo, by the time I reach Variation 1 the semiquavers give the music a forward flow. I keep my hands in my lap until the last moment, approaching the keyboard in […]

Looping – How to Manage Repetition Rhythmically

Piano playing requires extremely sophisticated motor skills and superfine coordination. While we acquire these skills for a new piece or if we are polishing up an old one, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable. As we repeat, we refine and ingrain. When we need to repeat something, it strikes me as preferable to know why we are repeating it. Am I repeating it because it was good and I want to make it a habit, or was there something wrong that needs to be corrected? If the latter, what was not right about the first repetition that I need to do it again? Not just a vague response like “there were some wrong notes” but something more probing, along the lines of “my LH misjudged the leap at the beginning of the bar and that threw me out”, or “I sensed tension in my forearm and noticed the semiquavers became uneven”. I can hear some of you thinking that’s all very well, but young players don’t have the diagnostic skills to figure these things out by themselves during practice. I sometimes ask a younger student to give me a lesson, meaning we reverse roles and I mirror back to them what they did. I admit that sometimes I might exaggerate my point slightly, but I am amazed that most of the time they are able to hear and tell me what wasn’t right. It is absolutely possible to teach them to listen with elephant ears and to teach them by asking questions. The Feedback Loop When we use the feedback loop during practice, we deliberately stop and think before correcting a mistake. “Think ten times and play once” was Liszt’s command, and it remains a […]

By |September 6th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

Getting Students To Use The Practice Tools

Following the launch of my ebook series last week, I had an email from a reader who tells me she is enjoying reading about the practice tools. She is excited to start using them herself, but is a bit dubious that she is going to get her students to practise like this. This seems like an excellent point, and one I thought I would address here today. I’ll start by sharing a personal story about my gardening skills – or rather total lack of them. I once had a property with a beautiful garden, designed and laid out by its previous owner with great love and attention to detail. Along with the house came a shed full of garden implements – shears, secateurs, and other gizmos – everything you would ever need. One bright Sunday morning, I decided to do a spot of gardening and got all these things out from the shed. I stood there scratching my head, uncertain as to what needed to be lopped from where, where I needed to dig, what was a weed – it all looked fine to me. So, I promptly put the tools back in the shed and called in the professionals, who looked after the plot beautifully from then on. This showed me there’s no point having tools unless you know how to use them, when to use them, and for what. Probably the single most important and most basic practice tool is the feedback loop. It helps us diagnose what’s good or bad, weak or strong so we can attempt to correct or improve it. This applies universally from beginners to advanced to professionals. It is perfectly possible to get a beginner to use the […]

By |February 3rd, 2013|Teaching|4 Comments

Using The Feedback Loop

Have you ever sat at the piano in your practice time, not feeling really sure about what you are supposed to be doing? Your mind wanders, you end up doodling or doing something half-heartedly and with no real purpose, then you get disillusioned and start looking at the clock? When I was a student at the RCM all those eons ago, a classmate confessed that he was never quite sure how he was supposed to practise. He started at the beginning of his piece hoping he would make a mistake so it would give him something to correct. He’d then correct it and continue until the next slip. And so on, until he got to the end. OUCH! If I might step in here and suggest a better way? This will work no matter what school of piano playing you come from – it is called the FEEDBACK LOOP. Using the feedback loop in day-to-day practising is a highly efficient way to maximise time and productivity. It forces the mind to concentrate on the activity at hand, and encourages critical listening and critical thinking. You will also discover and develop your inner teacher – it is probably the single most powerful tool we can draw on. BOX A The feedback loop is essentially a three-part process. The first part, represented by BOX A, involves a conscious decision as to WHAT you are going to practise, as well as HOW and WHY. Here are a few examples: I am going to play the first bar, ending on the down beat of bar 2. I will do this very slowly, listening for complete evenness and aiming for a feeling of full control over my fingers. I will […]

Practice Makes Permanent

We all know that “practice makes permanent” and that if we try to learn a piece by constant repetition via repeated complete up-to-speed readings, we are going to regret it eventually. What we gain in instant gratification we lose in the ability to ever really get a grip on the piece, because a mistake, an unhelpful fingering or any other sort of sloppiness repeated often enough to become ingrained, is like one of those stubborn stains that refuses to come out – ever! The attitude seems to be: “Yes, I know it is wrong, but I’ll fix it later”, and this might seem reasonable if you are an amateur who, after a long day at the office, wants to come back home and relax at the piano. Yet I would offer an alternative. How can something be all that satisfying when you know, in your heart of hearts, that you are compromising not only the music but also yourself? The deepest form of satisfaction comes, surely, from a job well done, from seeing an investment mature (I always think of practising as investing, and playing as spending). I contend that there is an ENORMOUS amount of satisfaction to be had from playing a piece, or (preferably) a section of a piece through at a quarter of the speed. And I do mean a quarter, not just a bit slower. Provided you know how the piece is supposed to sound, you’ll find an ultra-slow practice tempo gives you exponentially increased control of everything, and if done regularly you will hear and feel fantastic results. This is also a bit like a meditation, and even if you have been using your brain during the working day, you […]

Top Ten Tips for Trouble Spots

It is possible to hack away at a trouble spot for several minutes, constantly repeating it and beating it into submission, and then be able to manage it, more or less. I am sure a statistician would be able to come up with the odds for this being so. Apart from being incredibly unskillful, it is a waste of time because the following day you will most likely be back to square one. Practising like this is like building your house on sand – some days all will be well, but on others, the whole thing just collapses. In performance we can’t take multiple stabs at something, it has to be right first time and this fact needs to be reflected in our practice. Think about it – if we never practised errors, we’d probably never play any! I would have to go further – it has not only to be right but also to feel easy. There is no such thing as a Difficult Piece.  A piece is either impossible – or it is easy. The process whereby it migrates from one category to the other is known as practicing.  (Louis Kentner) Trouble spots are like bad apples or unruly kids in a class. Left unattended, they ruin the good ones. Identify the trouble spots in the piece, those places that trip you up and cause you to stumble and fall (and affect subsequent parts of the piece you know perfectly well) and isolate them. They will usually consist of small parts, perhaps a bar, or even a couple of notes that derail you (but may of course be longer). Put them in the equivalent of pianistic detention for a few days and give […]