practicing the piano

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 […]

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 […]

On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments

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

Preparing the Canvas

With the advent of the summer holidays, a lot of piano students will be learning new pieces. On the proceeds of lessons, we piano teachers will be sunning ourselves in the Algarve and our students beavering away with little or no supervision until September. Do we simply chuck a couple of pieces at them and hope they deliver? Before we can come up with a plan, we need to distinguish between a piece that may be in the ear already and a piece that is totally unfamiliar. In the first instance, we can get straight to the keyboard and begin work, in the second, we will need to do some groundwork. Even though I have not played Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto myself, I have a very distinct aural map of the work, familiar with it through performances and recordings over the years, and from having taught it on several occasions. I already have a very clear understanding of the piece and how it should feel and sound and can justly claim that I know it. If I decided to learn it, more than half the battle would already have been won since I would just need to get the notes into my fingers (no small task in itself, I would add). If I were learning a new piece from scratch having no prior knowledge of it, I would need to dig some foundations before I approached the work at the keyboard. The obvious first solution to this would be to listen to a bunch of recordings (so instantly available to all of us nowadays) probably while following the score. In addition – or perhaps even beforehand – I would want to scrutinise the score and […]