slow practice

Get It Right from the Start

It’s the start of a new school  year! With it comes new challenges, new examination syllabi and many wonderful pieces to learn. Whether you do it for pleasure or an exam, here are seven tried and tested steps to help you lay a solid foundation when starting a new piece. 1. Familiarise yourself Get to know the piece better before you start: Reading up on the piece beforehand will give you context Tune your ear by listening to several recordings of the piece  Analyse the piece by considering its form and character 2. Select your fingering Organise and condition your fingers at the start: Note down your chosen fingering for both hands in the score Adjust as learning progresses until you find the perfect fingering Once you’ve found your fingering sweet spot, stick to it! 3. Divide & conquer Avoid overloading your working memory by: Separating the piece into smaller, more manageable sections Exercising mindful repetition using the bar by bar plus 1 method Learning one section at a time before you move onto the next! 4. Take it slow! Learning a piece correctly is more important than developing speed: Start slowly to get your notes, rhythms and fingerings right Give yourself enough time to think and plan in between notes Patiently repeat small sections of music as often as you need it 5. Start in different places Avoid developing weak spots and superficial learning of the work by: Exercising tracking to test and strengthen your memory Working backwards through sections of your piece Starting with any Quarantine spots identified early on 6. Separate hands & strands Simplify the process by deconstructing the piece: Tackle separate-hand activities Break your piece into simple strands Isolate notes […]

Laying Solid Foundations in a New Piece

Have you had the experience of learning a new piece one day and coming back to it the next day to find it hasn’t stuck at all? If you approach a new piece using the repeated read-through method, you’ll probably find at the end of a practice session you have managed to get it sounding better than it did at the start of the session. But how frustrating when you come back to it the next day it feels like it hasn’t stuck at all! Fortunately, there are much better ways to go about learning a new piece such as using my Three S’s: Slowly, Separately and Sections to build solid foundations for consistent progress. In the following video, I demonstrate The Three S’s in action using Petzhold’s Minuet in G minor (BWV Anh. 115) from the Anna Magdalene Notebook. Working in units of one bar (plus one note) and with each hand alone, we find as many patterns as we can as we practise. By patiently repeating a small unit of music – enough to hold in our working memory – at the speed of no mistakes and with our mind fully engaged, we are digging firm foundations for security later on. Practice like this takes a fair deal of discipline, but the rewards are significant. Remember: “Practice makes permanent, and only perfect practice makes perfect!” For more detailed information on the process, follow this link to my blog post, A Daisy Chain Further Information & Resources The Practice Tools Lecture Series (click here to view the series index) Q-Spots Series (click here to view a blog post on this series) Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 1: Practice Strategies and Approaches (click […]

Introduction to the Practice Tools

I’m pleased to announce my new course, Introducing the Practice Tools, which is taking place on Saturday, 13th of July 2019 at the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in central London.  Aimed at teachers and pianists at an intermediate level or above, this one-day course is based on my eBook Series and blog. It will introduce highly effective strategies which will assist you and your students in getting the most out of time spent practising the piano. The course will be delivered in an innovative, interactive format with introductory presentations followed by breakout sessions. Each participant will have their own private digital piano with headphones to test out a particular practice skill. There will be plenty of opportunity for feedback with question and answer sessions forming the backbone of the day. The following topics will be covered: Introduction: An overview of the practice tools Using the feedback loop: How to plan and focus your practice session for maximum benefit in every area. Slow practice: How to use ultra-slow speeds for learning notes, correcting errors and finessing sound, and when not to use it! Gaining speed: We explore two methods of taking a piece from the slow stages to performance speed, developing fluency and accuracy as well as ease and grace. Repetition in practice: We form habits by repetition, but only perfect practice makes perfect. In this session we learn how to manage repetition in our practice mindfully and creatively to achieve tangible, lasting results. Preparatory materials for breakout sessions will be provided in advance and all participants will receive handouts and complimentary online access to my video lecture series on the Practice Tools (valued at £20). Please note that participants will not be required to play in front of […]

Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice

First published on October 16, 2014, Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice came about in response to students who were trying to run before they could walk. I needed to find a way to get them to practise slowly enough and at the same time enjoy the process. ***   ***   *** If you’re serious about playing the piano, there’s no getting away from slow practice. It is a cornerstone of our work from the beginner stages right through to the advanced level, and a practice tool also used by professional pianists and seasoned virtuosos all the time. In this post, I aim to help you not only realise the importance of careful, accurate slow work but also to enjoy it fully! I have noticed some folk think they should be beyond slow practice – that’s only something beginners do. Far from it! In Abram Chasins’ wonderful book Speaking of Pianists, the author describes a time he showed up for a lesson with Rachmaninov and overhead him practising – but so slowly that he didn’t recognise the piece at first. I know I have used this quotation before, but I am going to use it again because it speaks volumes about how a great pianist used ultra-slow practice for a work he was maintaining (not learning) to keep it spick and span: Rachmaninov was a dedicated and driven perfectionist. He worked incessantly, with infinite patience. Once I had an appointment to spend an afternoon with him in Hollywood. Arriving at the designated hour of twelve, I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached the cottage. I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising Chopin’s etude in thirds, but at such a […]

The Three Little Pigs

First published in May, 2016, The Three Little Pigs reminds us of the importance of solid preparation as we learn our pieces, and is the second in this short summer series of reposts from past years. ***   ***   *** We all know the story of The Three Little Pigs, in which each pig builds a home. One takes hardly any time building his out of straw, so he can spend more time playing and relaxing. The second pig builds his home out of sticks, which takes slightly longer, but he too values his down time. The third pig chooses to build his home out of bricks, which requires a great deal more time and effort, but he values taking the time to build a home properly. When the Big Bad Wolf pays a visit, needless to say only the third pig’s house of bricks stands up to the wolf’s huffing and puffing. Comply with Building Regulations The first two piggies used substandard and unsuitable materials, while the third piggy had checked wind load and used approved and recognised methods of construction. In the UK, Building Regulations are minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building. They are developed by the Government and approved by Parliament. In my piano studio, I take pride in teaching tried and tested performance skills to those taking exams and diplomas, or those who want to perform for their own pleasure and satisfaction. My building regulations apply from the very beginning of learning new pieces and ensure, as much as is humanly possible, that the end result (the performance itself) will be strong enough to withstand the pressures of the Big Bad Wolf. The House of Straw The player who builds his house of […]

On Pedalling, Slow Practice and Practical Theory

I’ve recently run a survey to find out what repertoire you would like to see me feature in blog articles, annotated study editions and in the Online Academy which I’m currently working on. This survey was a follow-on from an open-ended survey I ran in January which covered both repertoire and topics. My team has analysed the responses and we would like to take the opportunity now to let you know what the most popular topics were. The first question asked what specific areas of technique you would like me to address, and the most popular requests were: Pedalling Ornaments Learning complex, irregular rhythms The next question asked which specific areas of practising you would like to see covered in more detail, and the most popular responses were: Slow practice Quarantining Memorisation I also asked about other topics not currently covered on our blog or within our eBook series, and the following have come up: Practical theory and harmony Injury prevention and healthy playing Improvisation and playing by ear Many thanks to everyone who responded, your feedback is very much appreciated and I will be incorporating it into the content for the Online Academy. I have already taken a number of your suggestions on board, and I am busy working on materials that feature them. Here are some of things I am working on right now: Various articles on The Practice Tools, with video demonstrations and cross references to the repertoire you have chosen. Have you ever wondered how you are going to fill in the gaps in your understanding of theory and harmony? You know you need to know more, and you would be willing to take a course but you just can’t seem to find the right one. I am addressing this […]

Helping Youngsters Practise Slowly

I’ve written quite a bit about slow practice, probably because getting students to practise slowly enough and focus on the right things in the process is an ongoing challenge. To get the best value out of this type of practice, we must really live the slow tempo and make the music sound and feel good, whatever speed we choose. Understanding that slow practice ends up making our playing more secure gives us a reason to do it. For suggestions on the benefits of slow practice, follow this link to my blog post Enjoying Ultra-Slow Practice Celebrated violinist Itzhak Perlman encourages his younger fans to practise slowly in such a lovely and effective way, by adding the words “practise slowly!” after his autograph: When kids ask me for an autograph, I always sign my name and then write, ‘Practise slowly!’ That’s my message to them. If you practise slowly, you forget slowly. If you practise very quickly, maybe it will work for a day or two and then it will go away, because it has not been absorbed by your brain. It’s like putting a sponge in the water. If you let it stay there it retains a lot of water. It may seem obvious to adults that a passage can be slowed down to a snail’s pace when the composer has used note values usually associated with speed (quavers, semiquavers, etc.). Given that quavers (eighth notes) are often taught to the beginner as “running notes”, is it surprising that it is not always easy to get the concept of slow practice across? In order to practise slowly, we need to deliberately disobey some of the instructions on the page (an allegro indication, or a metronome marking, for example) while obeying others (notes, rhythms, […]

Slow Practice: The Sequel

I am very glad last week’s post on enjoying slow practice seemed to have interested quite a lot of readers. While practising a fast or fast-ish piece very slowly is wonderful for control and precision – the majority of the world’s finest pianists swear by this technique – it is only one piece of the puzzle and not the whole story. More about this in a moment. Before I leave the subject of slow practice itself, I fully appreciate and respect that many people find great benefit in practising with the metronome. Here are two exercises I would suggest: Exercise No. 1 Take a piece you are working on at the moment. Any piece, or a section of a piece will do (provided the intended tempo itself is not too slow). Play a few bars and find out what tempo you are playing at – not what you think the tempo should be, but what your actual tempo is. Let’s say you are playing at  = 120. Now, with the metronome still beating, play at precisely half that speed,  = 120. Stick to this strictly. Lastly, play it again, but now at a quarter speed. The first time you do this, it will probably be extremely difficult to stick to the slow speed. Persevere and you will feel enormous benefits. You can of course do this exercise without the metronome, feeling the changes of speed using your inner conductor. I have recently experimented with alternating one bar at full speed with the following bar at half speed, then back to full speed, then half, and so on. Make sure to go back and do it the other way round afterwards. This way of practising certainly keeps you […]

Q&A: How Do I Get A 12-Year Old To Practise Slowly?

A reader sent me in the following question, which feels more like a plea! I have been teaching a 12-year old boy for a couple of years now. He has a flair for piano and is quite talented but his playing is always so messy and out of control. I’ve told him he needs to practise slowly and I can get him to do it in the lesson (sort of) but he lacks the discipline at home. I get the feeling he would rather be out playing football. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for this question. There is no doubt that slow, mindful practice is an essential ingredient in our practising, no matter how old we are or what level we’re at. The first step is to get your pupil to appreciate this. You can philosophise, demonstrate and remonstrate all you like but unless he sees the value in practising slowly, he’s not going to do it. Simple! Help him to realise that there are even greater rewards to be had from delaying gratification – remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? – and that even great pianists practise slowly! Seeing as he is into sports, you might want to help him summon up his inner coach by imagining his ten fingers (and his right foot!) are the players in the football team he is managing. He is in charge of every movement they make, every position they need to adopt. He calls the shots, and without his leadership he doesn’t have a team. My best suggestion would be to give him something concrete to do regarding slow practice. If it is a fast piece, you can decide together on the eventual performance tempo and give him a series […]

By |December 7th, 2012|Teaching|3 Comments

A Supplement to Slow Practice

A few weeks ago, I gave some suggestions for practising Mozart’s Rondo alla turca and I would like to apply this principle to another piece, which really couldn’t be more contrasting in style and effect. I have just been working with a student who this week made a start on Tchaikovsky’s fabulous Dumka. He was struggling with this spot: The reason for the struggle was because he had not realised there would need to be an additional process after practising hands together slowly note for note, that no amount of slow practice alone is going to enable a reliable, let alone virtuosic performance of this extract. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a diehard fan of slow practising I am, but there are supplementary ways of working that do the job better at a certain stage in our learning of a piece. Why plod through something in this way for weeks on end when we might need a more energy-efficient and artistically satisfying way of doing it? I asked him to play the left hand melodic line (the tune at the top of the bass stave), or the theme in all its heroic, brassy glory. I wasn’t interested in a spelling-out of the notes, but a vivid, up-to-speed characterisation of the theme. We worked on this until the shapings and timings were just right, and the character could stand proud on the stage (albeit deprived of fellow cast members and scenery) and deliver his lines from memory (the register dictates that this is a “he”). Then we connected the theme to its lower bass notes, and found a way of making this physically comfortable by pivoting on the E flats in the first […]