Slowly

Practising Polyrhythms

Following a question on a Facebook page about coping with polyrhythms, I decided to republish this post from 2012. I hope it helps! I want to suggest some ways of solving a polyrhythm where one hand is playing in divisions of four while the other in divisions of three. I am going to leave out 2 against 3, as this is relatively straightforward – as long as the second note of the duplet comes precisely between the second and third note of the triplet, then bingo! I’ve decided to go with a common example that trips people up, the 4 against 3 in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (last beat of the second bar): Fitting together the two hands slowly here relies first of all on knowing precisely where each note goes in one hand in relation to the other. In a 4 against 3 group, the only place where the hands coincide is the first note of the group. To work the placements out mathematically, on a piece of graph paper draw two lines and divide the top one in 4 and the lower one in 3. You will see that the second LH triplet comes between the second and third demisemiquaver of the RH but not half way (it actually comes a third of the way between). The third LH triplet comes just before the last demisemiquaver. Do this first by tapping your hands on your knees, using the words “What Atrocious Weather” or “Pass the Goddamn Butter” to help. If you repeat this enough times, you’ll get better and better at it, and you can transfer the activity from patella to keyboard. The main thing is to feel the rhythm in […]

Efficient Practising for Busy People

This is the follow-up to last week’s post, in which I outlined the first few stages for cleaning up a piece beset by errors, stumbles, approximations and other anomalies that might have crept into the playing either as a result of overplaying, or faulty (or incomplete) learning in the first place. Actually, the process I describe is good for initial note-learning as well – it’s just a thorough method for inputting the correct information into our brains, ears and fingers in as deep and permanent a way as possible. We build our house on bedrock and not on shifting sands. Routine Maintenance Let me clarify what I mean by overplaying. While I am fascinated by all the neurological research I read in other blogs, I am not a scientist and my findings come mostly from my wonderful training and from my own experience as a pianist and teacher. One thing I know for certain is that playing a piece over and over again usually leads to sloppiness,  imprecision (as motor skills lose finesse), ennui and a certain staleness. The clue to keeping everything in tip-top condition is the use of routine maintenance procedures in the practice room. This includes slow practice (for fast pieces), fast practice (for slow pieces), working with each hand alone, practising in sections and many other practice tools I have given before. I include quarantining those areas of the piece that cause you trouble – isolate these spots and work on them daily, before during and after your scheduled practice. Don’t think that just because you have learned a piece, you can now put the cork in the bottle and avail yourself of the contents whenever you feel like it. A car enthusiast […]

By |February 21st, 2014|Practising|7 Comments

Chess or Checkers?

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now! Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way. I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity. In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice: The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up. Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more […]

By |October 11th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

The Other End of the Telescope

A respected colleague teaching at the College level used to challenge his new students in their first lesson with him by getting them to play almost impossibly slowly with the metronome. He would find the fastest note value in their piece, which was to be equal to one click of the metronome set to 60. Let’s say the fastest note value was a semiquaver (sixteenth note), this means a crotchet (quarter note) would have to be held for four seconds, and a minim (half note) for eight seconds! I’m not sure if this ploy was to stress the value of extremely slow practice speeds or whether it was an act of deliberate cruelty, but I’m sure the experience was a challenging and none-too-pleasant one for the student. Slow practice helps us to see every atom and molecule that make up the big picture. It is like looking at a painting close up – we zoom in on one area of the canvas and see every brush stroke, every little nuance. In doing so we inevitably lose sight of the bigger gestures and thus the sweep, direction and overall meaning of the music. But since we know we can simply increase our speed to our ideal tempo after a bout of slow practice we are happy to submit ourselves to this discipline, knowing it is good for brain and finger. I have written much about the various different types of slow practice we can use and I think it is fairly safe to say that all of us use a certain amount of slow practice in our work at the piano, especially for fast pieces. This is hardly revolutionary. What is hardly discussed at all, as […]

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 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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

More Thoughts on Slow Practising

I am convinced it is not possible to say too much about slow practising or to overemphasise its importance. Here are one or two random thoughts on the subject, which supplement what I have previously written. Slow practising basically expands the time distance between one note and the next, allowing us plenty of time to prepare ahead (the hand position, the precise sound we want, etc.) as well as evaluate our results immediately after. As I am always saying, we need to aim to evaluate these results in as precise terms as possible, so that we can have a definite goal if we need to repeat. SLOW YET FAST So often in slow practice it is the tempo that is slow but everything else is fast – the key speed, the recovery at the bottom of the key (the lightning-fast physical response to the key bed when effort instantly ceases, and is released), movements across the keyboard, preparation of hand positions and large leaps, and so on. We can often only think about these things and make sure they have really happened when the tempo is slow. In a scale passage where the thumb needs to pass under the hand, we can prepare the movement fast, and immediately the thumb releases its first note. We might think of the next finger as operating the starting pistol, and the thumb the athlete on the block raring to go. (Of course if the interval is a large one, we wouldn’t want to cause tension in the hand by attempting to stretch too far, and there are many occasions in piano playing where thumb preparation is not a good thing.) HELPING YOUNGSTERS TO PRACTISE SLOWLY It may seem […]

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 […]

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