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 is the key! Scientists have discovered that we learn most efficiently when the full attention of the mind is present on the task at hand. Free your space of noise, disruption and distraction, remembering to switch off your phone.
- Craftsmanship. Learn to practise methodically and to make progress one step at a time. Think of practising as saving or investing, and performing as spending. There has to be a balance between the two activities. Even a piece you have perfected will need constant care and attention. I like to use the analogy of a brand new car from the showroom: when you drive it off, it will be gleaming and shiny, the engine finely tuned and all the tanks full. After a short time, you will need to refill with petrol, polish your windscreen and have the engine serviced. So it is with our pieces, they require constant tinkering. If you develop a sense of craftsmanship, you will relish this work and take enormous pride and satisfaction in it.
- Fingering. Write in a fingering and stick to it. Try out a few possibilities and then choose the fingering that best suits your hand, remembering that the fingerings in printed editions are just suggestions. Keep a pencil by the piano and write the fingerings in your score. If you stick to the same fingering each and every time you practise, you will eventually form muscular habits – reflexes that won’t need any conscious thought. Your fingers will go where they should, automatically!
- The Three S’s. If I had to recommend one formula for success, it would be this one: “Slowly, Separately, Sections”. Practise at a snail’s pace, if not slower, and start off in small sections which you repeat. Repetition will form habits. I like one bar plus one note, repeated at least three times. Then start from the next bar (from the note you have just ended on) and repeat that three times. As you get more familiar with the notes, you can increase the length of the sections. Practising with each hand alone is also indispensable, especially the left hand. When you work like this, you need to listen intently and constantly evaluate your results as right or wrong, even or uneven, comfortable or uncomfortable, and so on. Learn to be your own teacher.
- Practising v. Playing Through. Remember that “practice makes permanent” – any wrong notes, bad fingerings, and stumbles you make repeatedly will soon become ingrained and will be next to impossible to correct later. Try to resist the temptation to play through your pieces until you have dug firm foundations. Wait until you have done enough of “The Three S’s” and then alternate playing through your piece with returning to slow, careful practising. Have other pieces you play through – pieces you have already learned, or simpler music you can manage quite easily.
- Isolate Problem Areas. There are often one or two troublespots in each piece that need special care and attention, and extra practising. Identify these and mark them in your score (I like to use a square bracket). As you master these places, you can erase the markings. I suggest starting your practice session by working on these bars in isolation, before you start from the beginning. Go back to them at various points in your practice session, maybe even making a special trip to the piano just to play these passages (TV commercial breaks are good for this!). Another thing – don’t always start your pieces from the beginning. Divide the music into sections and begin each day’s work from a different section. Otherwise, you will always know beginnings of pieces better than endings, and first movements better than last movements.
- Set Goals. These might be short-term goals (what you want to achieve in this practice session, what you want to achieve by the end of the week, and so on). You may want to consider working towards an exam (ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall in the UK) or participate in a music festival. It is helpful to set deadlines to perform for other people (this could be your teacher, a friend) or even a date with a tape recorder. Listening to yourself is a real eye- and ear-opener and an extremely useful exercise, once in a while.
- A Balanced Diet. Choose pieces from different periods and in different styles, also consider pieces in more popular idioms. Exploring unfamiliar territory can be very inspiring, and it is good to challenge ourselves and play music outside of our comfort zone. Playing the piano can be an isolated pursuit – teaming up with someone to play duets can be an extremely rewarding activity.