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The art of practicing: I really should be practicing well


I do apologize to Gary Graffman for filching his title as blatantly as I have, but let's face it—although the quality of one's practice may be just one factor in determining how fast and far one progresses at the piano, it's a critical one.

In the studio lessons and piano classes I teach, a large percentage of the time is devoted to how to practice effectively, mainly because the strategies and techniques for doing so are not obvious. Learning to play an instrument and grow as a musician requires complex skills that sometimes betray common sense and occasionally seem to contradict one another. Also, the lure of "eating the fruit"—the delectable music itself—distracts one from "pulling the weeds"—that which is necessary to master the required mechanics. Interestingly, the more musical the student, the less patient the student usually is in this process, at least at first.

Without guidance from a teacher, many students become frustrated during practice: How do I get my hands together in this tricky passage? How much repetition does this need? Why can't I play this today when I knew it perfectly yesterday? Why do I keep making the same mistake here? Why am I starting to play random wrong notes in a passage I've been playing perfectly for the last two weeks? Why can I play this piece well at only one tempo? How can I play this more expressively without suddenly falling apart? Why does playing this piece feel like running across a tightrope with no safety net?

Then there's the dreaded: Why does this get worse the more I practice it??

And these questions are only from the partially mindful practicers! What about those who don't even know they're passing time inefficiently at the piano—who don't know that they have to pay attention to and manage their own processes while practicing? There is indeed much ground to cover here.

In the following pages, I present some important principles that apply to practicing repertoire and more in a pianist's curriculum (but not musical literacy areas such as sightplaying and memorization). They are summaries worded in the ways that I present to my teen-aged, college, and adult students, although of course there are modifications with younger students. I sometimes call these principles "Practice Pearls" because they contain truths that have withstood the test of time in our field and are beautiful in their efficacy.

The ideas are sequenced roughly from most general to more specific, and from the most basic to less so. It's certainly not an exhaustive list, but it contains essential ideas. Please feel free to share these with your students. 

Goals of practice

Successful practice does NOT help us do something difficult—it transforms something that used to feel difficult into being easy, or close to it.

Successful practice helps achieve expression, ease, and accuracy in performance. However, during the learning process these facets usually need to be approached in the reverse order: accuracy, ease, and expression. More advanced students tend to learn these three aspects at the same time. 

General practice strategies and techniques

Continually assess your practice

Self-assessment is a vital part of effective practice. Observe what needs the most practice and tenaciously follow through with it.

Play with alert posture

Your posture should be relaxed, poised for action, and balanced in three places: the bench, the floor, and the keyboard.

Practice as often as possible

Numerous shorter practice sessions lead to more secure learning than fewer sessions of longer duration. Also, the sleep that occurs after a practice session readies the learner for the one on the following day. Therefore, try to practice as many consecutive days as possible, taking some time off each week as well. Practice days are like strikes in bowling—they're worth more when they're next to each other!

Rotate activities of varying "weights"

To keep your attention and energy high within each practice session, alternate between activities that are challenging and others that are less so (like the tempos in a Baroque suite). If a specific passage starts to show diminishing returns, wait extra time before coming back to it.

First practice in small chunks

Most pieces are learned best by practicing them in small chunks whose sizes correspond with phrases or half phrases. In many early-level books, that's one line at a time, but as your music gets more advanced, you'll need to find the phrases yourself. The most challenging spots may need chunks as small as one measure (or less), depending upon the complexity. 

Read notes first, then fingerings

When reading a new piece, be sure to decode the notes/intervals first, notated fingerings second—otherwise, you may overlook shifts or other changes of hand position.

Figure out fingerings and write in the critical ones

When first learning a piece, spend some time doing each-hand-separate practice so you can write in key fingerings which occur at shifts, thumb-passings, finger-crossings, extensions, and contractions—anything that takes you out of a five-finger position. Always use the same fingerings unless you discover better ones later; then erase the old fingerings and write in the new ones.

Get to hands-together practice right away

Don't spend any more time on each-hand-separate practice than necessary, usually only a few minutes. As soon as possible, put hands together, preferably in small chunks.

Leave out rhythm while learning the basics in each passage—play in rhythm only after other basics are secure

The quickest way to learn most passages is to practice them with no rhythm, instead mastering the basics first: notes and fingering, rests, articulation, and shifts. That's because you can't play in rhythm unless you know the notes! Trying to do so, especially with non-advanced players, prematurely leads to recurring tension, inaccuracy, and lack of control, sometimes weeks after the poor practice took place (see the Parson quotation).

Use verticals at first to simplify two-handed demands

An easy way to sneak up on intricate two-handed playing is to practice just the verticals—notes struck at the same time in both hands. Practice them legato with ample pausing, then fill in the rest of the notes with pausing as needed. Finally, play slowly in rhythm. This technique is also helpful during maintenance practice with advanced players to solidify rhythm in fast passages.

Practice no faster than "thinking tempo"

Practice at a speed no faster than what permits you to think about what you're doing, and pay close attention to the results. "Thinking tempo" can surprisingly vary from day to day, so stay in touch with now—accept what it's telling you.

Establish many starting and stopping points

The more starting and stopping places you have in a piece, the more secure your learning will be. Those spots should correspond with the various sub-structures of the music—phrases, sections, etc. 

Use practice repetitions mindfully

When doing successful repetitions of passages, pause between repetitions long enough to first self-assess, and then reset your concentration (see the Bolton quotation).

Don't inadvertently change tempos between repetitions (usually faster)—only do so when you've decided you're ready, and then make the tempo change on purpose.

Do lots of successful repetitions of small chunks to deepen mastery. However, vary something (such as tempo or dynamics—but not fingering) after two or three repetitions to keep your attention sharp and your skill agile.

Practice new passages at mezzo-forte

Wimpy tone yields wimpy learning! Practice new pieces with a comfortably loud sound (mf) before putting in actual dynamics of the piece. The decisive motions and sound of mf help your body retain the feel of the passages and thus builds stronger rhythm, as well as self-confidence.

Don't look at your hands while playing in a five-finger position

Instead, learn by feel and you'll progress faster and more securely. It will also help your note-reading since you won't lose your place on the page.

Pre-count before playing anything in rhythm

Before playing any passage in rhythm, first internally feel a measure or two of beats before starting—better yet, count it out loud (pre-counting). With more advanced players, just a few beats will suffice.

Use backward practice at a slower tempo to expand mastered chunks

When confronted with a difficult passage, it's usually best to learn the last chunk in the passage first, then expand the size of that chunk by starting earlier by a measure or two ("backward practice").

When going from small-chunk to larger-chunk practice, slow down the tempo slightly so that the ease of the passage remains the same.

In backward practice, it's common to make a few mistakes the first time you expand a chunk (apparently, the brain has to re-organize the learning). Accept it, re-practice it several times, and mastery will result.

Be mindful of the kind of progress to expect before practicing

The goal of some types of practice is quick mastery—such as notes and other basics. The goal for other aspects is long-term improvement—balance, voicing, artistry in agogics, and so on. Set your expectations accordingly. 

Practice techniques to learn and solidify specific skills

Make rests physical

A good way to be accurate and expressive with rests is to say or do something when you "play" the rest: sniff, or say "rest!," or grunt. The more physical you make rests, the better. As you get more advanced, the music will inspire you to discover more subtle ways to do this.

Be mindful of the component skills in shifting

The easiest way to master shifts in a new piece is to silently practice touching all the various hand positions ("blocking the moves").

When practicing large shifts, look at the target key a few beats before you need to shift—this fosters immediate and recurring accuracy.

When playing after a shift, be sure your hand is already in position and is relaxed on the keys ("touch-first"). If you try to play without such preparation—just as you arrive at the key (as a more advanced player does in some passages)—you won't be reliably accurate.

Use legato-for-staccato practice to solidify accuracy

If a piece is mainly staccato, learn it first all legato—this will help your hands retain the feel of the intervals more securely. It's also helpful to return to this technique close to a performance as part of maintenance practice, even with advanced players.

Be mindful about physically how you play staccato

When doing slow staccato, allow your hand to rest on the keys between notes; when doing fast staccatos, it's easier to bounce between notes. This becomes less ironclad as you get more advanced.

Use pausing or freezing practice to master various skills

When trying to play legato in one hand, staccato in the other (mixed articulation), you may need to "freeze" (pause on purpose) right after the first one so you can experience how it feels to sustain a note in one hand and not the other. Then gradually reduce the pause time to zero.

When practicing subito piano, put in a one- or two-beat pause before the change to avoid tension and to keep the dynamic contrast as clean and wide as possible. Then gradually reduce the pause time to almost zero (some situations are more expressive if the piano note is slightly delayed).

Master a piece at several distinctly different tempos, including slow motion

If you find that you have to play a passage fast in order to perform it, then you really don't know it! Mastery at several contrasting tempos (especially slower) makes your playing more secure.

After you know a fast piece well, you should occasionally also do a slow-motion run-through with exaggerated expression. This keeps it accurate and allows you to polish your gestures. 

Occasionally "pull the camera back" on slow movements. Practice them fast to more clearly perceive the overall picture

This helps you hear the overall structure of the music and the continuity of the melodic lines with more clarity.

Use various practice techniques to play with better balance

To practice playing one hand softer than the other, use any or all of the following:

• Play the softer hand with a repetitive two-measure "introduction" before bringing in the louder hand.

• Pretend that one arm feels very light (but still make well-defined finger motions in that hand).

• Exaggerate the shaping in the louder hand—this sometimes inspires the softer hand to stay out of the way.

Use "ghosting" at first: the softer hand plays silently on the key tops while the louder hand plays normally.

Feel the beats you don't get to play on with more vigor!

To be rhythmically accurate with, say, dotted quarter notes or downbeat rests, loudly speak the beat number that you don't get to play on. Grunting, breathing, or clicking will accomplish the same thing.

First practice scales in one direction only

The physical technique of securely playing scales is different going away from the body than it is going towards it, so first learn scales unidirectionally: up with several successful repetitions, then down the same way. Don't link them until each is easy and accurate.

Make ritardandos convincing before fermatas

Always do a ritard leading into a fermata even if none is notated. Don't slow down and then coast—slow down progressively until you come to a stop (this becomes more nuanced as you get more advanced).

How long should you hold a fermata? As long as it takes for the sense of the beat to become vague and almost go away. To do this, stop feeling the beat internally and experience how the previous beats take time to "evaporate"—this varies with mood, tempo, and dynamics. 

First treat cut time as common time

A piece in cut time (2/2) doesn't need to be counted any differently. Just count and learn it in 4/4. Then when your tempo gets fast, just feel fewer beats per measure.

Use leggiero in fast soft passages

Fast soft passagework, even if marked legato, should be played leggiero (lightly)—with active fingers that aim only partway down the key-drop.

Leggiero touch cannot effectively be practiced slowly. Leggiero passages should be practiced legato when slow, then leggiero at a moderately fast tempo. (Advanced players can practice it slowly with "scratch staccato," but this technique can be risky if overdone, and can lead to tendinitis).

Be mindful of breathing

Breathe with your wrists between slurred groups. If the tempo is fast, the breaths will need to start sooner and be smaller but they still need to be there for ease and control.

"Empty" your hands between chords

When practicing consecutive chords, relax your hands between chords—don't keep them fixated (locked). This helps with ease and accuracy.

Be aware of when a fast tempo does not permit touch-first when shifting

In more advanced music, faster tempos sometimes don't allow enough time to "prepare" shifts. In that case, still look at the target key first, then throw your hand into position, playing upon arrival. If moving to a chord, don't lock your hand into the finger position ahead of time—instead gradually form it while throwing—some people describe this as a "grabbing" feeling.

Use a small amount of each-hand-separate practice again after a piece has been learned

As part of maintenance practice, each-hand-separate practice in select spots can bolster control and memory of what used to be the most challenging spots, but it should be followed immediately by hands-together practice again of the same passage.

Many of these principles appear to apply just to early-level students. In fact, they become part of the DNA of advanced pianists as well. Savvy players know that when a complex skill is not being executed well, it is usually due to something basic that is being overlooked. Elementary-level students who are taught how to practice effectively from the very first lesson are truly blessed. They not only make progress as quickly as their natural abilities allow (providing an enjoyable journey), but they also acquire tools they will use and reuse in creative ways as they advance and tackle more sophisticated musical situations. Fundamental principles of practice never lose their luster—they remain the cornerstone of significant growth at the piano for as long as one strives for greater expression and fluency. 

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The art of practicing: Broad principles
Keyboard Kids' Companion: July/August 2017


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