Slowly

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 […]

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 […]

The Three S’s (Part Two)

The next installment of “The Three S’s”, this week SLOWLY. I confess to having appeared in print many times on this subject. You can read the full text on my website – http://grahamfitch.com/articles.htm#2 (then scroll down a bit). For those who don’t want to read the article, here’s a summary: We practise slowly so that the brain can move faster than the fingers. Each note is carefully pre-heard, then played and evaluated. It won’t help only doing this once or twice, it’ll need to be done daily for some time for it to have any lasting effect. It’s human nature to do this once or twice then to want to play it at the proper speed. Try not to, try to go the distance and do it for a week or so! And yet… no amount of slow practice will equip us to play fast, so there has to be an interim process. You can speed up gradually (each time you repeat the passage it can inch towards the full speed) or  – I much prefer this –  you can build up sections by playing ever-longer soundbites at full speed. You start with two or three notes which you think of as one unit. Do a few repetitions at full speed (or close to full speed). Don’t be mechanical though – play with the intended dynamics and range of expression as though you were performing. Then, add another note or two and repeat. You’ll now have a longer soundbite. Go on adding notes until you feel like you have a section that is still within your grasp, then establish a new starting point. That starting point could be the second bar, or half way through the […]