practice tools

Top Ten Tips to Maximise your Practising

I have had a lot of requests for this article, which first appeared in Pianist Magazine last year. Here it is! With the Olympics very much in the news at the moment, I think of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to each day in their training regimes. We pianists have to train also – countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! Here are a few tips, in no particular order, that will help you get the most out of your practice time. A Teacher. Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a restarter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons. Commitment. Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. “Little and often” will help you achieve FAR more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you. Organisation. Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary, and a scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration […]

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 […]

A Sound Investment

In a recent post, I suggested that performing (or playing through), can be compared to spending, whereas practising has its parallels with investing. Successful people in the business world will have struck a healthy balance between the two: too much of one and not enough of the other is a formula that can’t work, either way round. The pianist will constantly need to be juggling the act of playing through pieces (either to themselves or an audience) with practising, using the tools and processes I have been outlining in this blog. The trial by fire comes when you remove yourself from your cosy practice room and play for others. I have probably told this anecdote before, about one of Neuhaus’ students who, after an unsatisfactory performance in a lesson, declared it had gone perfectly well at home. “Well, my dear, then I suggest you go home and play it” was his retort. The romantic idea that concert pianists don’t have to practise, that the muse is forever on tap, is of course complete twaddle. Artists at the peak of their profession will have dedicated their lives to this activity and will have made numerous extremely costly sacrifices. Regular and routine practising is an absolute, a priority above all others. And the job will occupy their waking hours as much as that of any top executive. I am often asked how much time should be spent practising, and while this is a question that does need to be addressed, it is often not possible to say specifically. It depends SO much on the individual – their concentration span, what they are working towards, and their powers of organisation. One can spend hours at the piano and […]

An Energy Saving Tip

The other day the bulb in my piano lamp blew. It was the only light I had on in the room, and because it was dark outside and I was too lazy to get up and turn the main lights on, I decided to carry on practising for a while in the pitch black. This showed me how much we all rely on the visual not only for obvious things like jumps but the eye is involved in so much of what we do, often unnecessarily and distractingly so. Years ago I recall a moment where, in recital, I closed my eyes. This was quite unpremeditated and unconscious, and yet there was a stray thought that went through my mind as I did it that this was a bit of a risky thing to do. I think I probably wanted to eliminate all other distractions and be left with just the sound so I could feel it and shape it, and live it. I certainly remember feeling very connected to the music at the time. While I am not suggesting you follow my example in public (I doubt I will repeat this myself), I do think practising in the dark, or with eyes closed, is a very good practice tool. The obvious benefit is an immediate sharpening of our senses of hearing and touch, and if we can manage jumps with our eyes closed, think how much easier they will be when we open them again. In some ways, switching off the lights is better because chances are you will doubtless cheat if you simply close your eyes! Another benefit is that you will also be making a small saving on your energy bill. Some […]

Green Fingers

Over the past few weeks in my teaching, I have found myself repeating what I consider a truism about practising, so I thought it might be worth writing about. Not only will I get it off my chest, but I will also be able to direct students here, thereby freeing up lesson time for other activities. It is simply this: The various practice tools we use for learning a piece in the first place need to be repeated very regularly in the early stages of learning, and are often the same tools we need to use on an ongoing basis for maintenance and upkeep. Slow practice is a good example of this. There are some instances where a word of instruction can cause the playing to change immediately, but there are plenty of other occasions when we need to go into training to achieve a certain intended result. This is rather like a course of medication, one pill will probably not make that much difference – it is the cumulative effect of the whole course that counts. I also think of the parallel with an activity like Olympic hammer throwing, where the act of throwing the hammer itself is over in a flash but the training regime is all-encompassing, involving other activities than just throwing the hammer. I know this not from any personal prowess in this direction, but because the PE teacher at my old school went on to achieve fame doing this and we all got a sense of what was involved. Another analogy is that of a gardener. If I am planning a new garden, I will first need to have a vision of how I want the thing to look when […]

By |November 20th, 2011|Teaching|0 Comments

Craftsmanship

This post is more philosophical than practical, but it has occurred to me as I have progressed with this blog over the past few weeks that the main underlying principle of successful piano practising can be summed up in one word: craftsmanship. With it, we have a clear frame for our work and can achieve solid results; without it, hours will be wasted with nothing tangible to show for our efforts. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, without craftsmanship you will not be channelling your energies efficiently. A serious full-time student of piano in tertiary education might practise anywhere from four to six hours a day. Let’s take the lower figure and give them Sunday off, that means twenty four practice hours to one lesson hour. With that ratio, they had better know how to work. My favourite analogy, as my students will tell you, is that of a Swiss watchmaker. I like the idea of the watchmaker as it seems the ultimate in precision engineering, and because in the finished product, you can’t see what has gone into it – this is much like constructing a piece of music at the piano. Yet if you ask the watchmaker how he does it, he won’t hum and haw or give vague answers, he will tell you categorically and exactly. This is not always the case with a pianist, however. You may argue that’s because playing the piano is an art and the stages from learning notes to performance cannot be quantified so precisely. No, they can’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to lay down some fundamental precepts of craftsmanship, which tool we might use for a particular job. I wonder whether the […]