Some years ago I belonged to a gym. I went regularly – 3 or 4 times a week – and followed the same sequence of exercises every time: rowing, cycling, cross-trainer, weight-training. After a while, it occurred to me that my fitness wasn’t really improving as I was just “going through the motions”, following the same routine of exercise every day.
Practising can be like this sometimes if we’re not careful. It’s easy and reassuring to stick with the same routine – beginning with scales or technical exercises, then working on pieces in the same order every time we practise. Studies on peak performance, which apply as much to musicians as to athletes, show that in order to improve, we need to apply some kind of challenge and then follow it. Following the same old routine without challenge leads to complacency, boredom and stagnation. (Conversely, over-burdening ourselves with too many challenges or stresses can lead to injury, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and burnout, so it is important to factor periods of rest into one’s practising regime as well.)
If you always practise in the same way or feel your practising is stuck in a rut, try adding some “challenges” to your regime
- If you always begin with scales or technical exercises, maybe try some basic warm up exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging and shoulder raises. These get the blood flowing to the fingers in the same way as scales and arpeggios, and by doing them away from the piano, you can also think about what you need to practise when you go to the piano
- Start at a different place from usual in your pieces. Use a random number generator (available as an app) to select a bar number as a starting point (Graham Fitch advocates this in practising).
- Vary the speed – slow practise is highly beneficial, allowing us to listen closely as we play and consider all the details of the score. Equally, challenging oneself to play a passage or piece at tempo encourages us to “play through” without stopping to correct errors.
- Add something new – try improvising on a handful of notes, chord sequence or passage in the piece.
- Reverse the hands – playing the LH part with the RH and vice versa helps us get to know each line of music really well and can also highlight sections which need extra work
- Practise away from the piano: this can include memory work, studying the score, listening to recordings (with or without the score) or “listening around” to other music by the same composer or music from the same period.
- Take frequent breaks: long periods of time at the piano can lead to fatigue and injury. Regular breaks allow brain and body to “reset”, ready for the next practise session.