A conversation between Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist) and Howard Smith
Howard Smith is a late-returner pianist and the author of Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Here he shares his anxiety about the thorny issue of ‘efficient practice’ and the burden of imposter syndrome on self-confidence in one’s practicing.
I am in the final stages of preparing for a video performance examination, four pieces performed in sequence to camera. The pieces are a mix of styles and were chosen not just because I love them but because of the challenges they offer me, specifically. I was a (very) late returner to piano with little experience as a child, and so have been choosing pieces throughout my journey that fill gaps in my modest ability. One of these pieces is ‘own choice’ and I have been trying to play it properly for a long time. Too long. All of the pieces have proved challenging (for me). And, as always, I wonder whether my practice approach is effective. Yes, I practice HS (hands separately). Yes, I practice in bars and sections. Yes, I practice slowly. Yes, I try to concentrate. All this I know, and it works to a certain degree. But the time it takes me to get a new piece under my fingers, to the point where it can be reliably performed, strikes me as excessive. I live with the continual worry that while I am attempting this grade and while my teacher believes I am more than ready, I cannot escape the conclusion that I am a fake, an imposter. I fear that I am simply using excessive practice time to make up for lack of ability. I question whether the work I did at the previous grade was somehow flawed, not preparing me properly for the next step up the ladder. It strikes me that at any grade, two or three new pieces at that grade should be tractable within the space of a term, no more. So my mind turns to the question of what constitutes efficient practice? Can I do better?
“Efficient practice” is a catch-all term for a variety of good practice habits, many of which will already be familiar to you as I am sure you use them in your regular practicing.
Well, clearly my habits are not working (for me), or at least, that’s what I feel. Can you spell out the habits which you regard as the most important and which you would be teaching your students?
I think, fundamentally, “efficient practice” is knowing what needs to be done, and how, each time you go to practice. In simple terms, this means avoiding the temptation to play the pieces from start to finish but instead to know which areas need the most work and to focus on those areas as a priority in your practicing. Some people use a practice notebook to keep track of such things; others may prefer to keep the information in the head. Whatever method you use, you should approach each practice session with a clear idea of what needs to be done and what you hope to achieve.
- If you warm up before beginning more serious practicing, then always be sure to do this as it’s an important part of your routine. Then go to the most challenging aspects of the piece/pieces – the sections which need the most work. It’s better to start with these areas when the mind and body are fresh.
- Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regularly to ensure noticeable improvement.
- Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or musically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together
- Self-critique and be mindful as you practice. Listen as you play. Did you think you played that section well? What did you like or not like about it? How can you improve it? If you felt the passage went well, try to retain a clear sense of how you achieved that so that you can reproduce it (if necessary, make notes as you go). Repetitions should be mindful, not mindless. Work through the sections that need the most work before going on to areas which are more secure.
- Add variety to your practice. As you have several works on the go, have the pieces on rotation, so that you start with a different work at each practice session. This avoids boredom (the enemy of productive practicing!).
- Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them. I think this is especially important when preparing pieces for an exam where examiners tend to be pedantic about such details.
- Take time after each practice session to reflect on and self-critique your playing – make notes if it helps. The ability to self-critique, highlighting both the positives and areas which need improvement, is a crucial skill as it fosters self-learning and builds confidence, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practice”, self-regulation and self-determination.
- Take regular breaks. 40 mins maximum is, I find, enough, before brain (in particular) and fingers start to tire. Take a break. Go for a walk. (I find walking is a good place to practice away from the piano, a chance to think about the music.)
- Remind yourself of what you like about each piece and why you selected it. When we’ve been working on pieces for a long time, it’s easy to lose sight of what attracted us to them in the first place. Penelope Roskell got me to do this as an exercise when I was working for my first diplomas (18 months on the same pieces). I wrote a few lines about what I liked about each piece and it really helped me refocus in the weeks leading up to the diploma recital.
The problem with imposter syndrome is something I am very familiar with, having struggled with it myself for a long time. I suspect you may be feeling this more strongly without regular contact with a teacher/mentor to offer support and encouragement. However, you should and can draw confidence from your previous exam success: that was not some fluke but an endorsement of your abilities. Conversely, being able to work independently, making your own judgments about your practicing and progress, is a significant aspect of one’s growing autonomy and self-determination, which I believe is crucial as a musician, whether amateur or pro.
Another way to relieve the burden of imposter syndrome is to set aside your exam pieces and treat yourself by playing previously-learnt repertoire which you know you can play well. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a “pat on the back” in this way. It’s a useful reminder that we can do it!
That’s quite a list. Thank you! It’s great advice but I cannot help feeling it is not getting to the heart of the issue I personally worry about. If I were to ‘up’ the level of discipline I bring to practice, as you suggest I may need to, I will be doing more practice, not less. Let me try and put it as clearly as I can … I certainly do some of what you suggest. I cannot believe I am so ‘inefficient’ in approach that it would result in the time I take to get basic notes under fingers. Much of your list relates to the mastery required for a thoroughly musical performance. I find I am quite good at that but only once the notes and movements are in place. One of the pieces I am working on, for example, is called Elizabeth, by Hubert Parry. It’s an elegant piece, flowing, with some challenges to bring out the melody and not chop it up with the intervening chords. There are fluid arpeggios in LH and the RH often has three note chords or transitions, split across beats. I’ve been working at this piece for months and it is only recently that I am ‘playing’ it sufficiently to focus on the artistry. Can we define a yardstick? Can you give any rule of thumb for how long it should take to get on top of a roughly G7/G8 piece before one is able focus on the more refined performance aspects?
I’ll start with your first point about “doing more practice not less” and will say something that may seem counter-intuitive to my earlier comments about efficient practicing…… Efficient practicing is not necessarily about doing more, but rather doing it smarter. Quality not quantity. And knowing each time you go to practice what needs to be done as a priority. By practicing smarter, you can achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time. For example, when I was preparing for my first Diploma, on the days when I was working in London and/or teaching, I would try and ensure that I got some time in at the piano, if only to, for example, run through a troublesome chord progression in the Debussy (Sarabande). Incremental gains like this can go to build a secure whole.
There is an anxiety in practicing like this – and I encountered this a lot with my students, especially the teenagers and adults – that one will “forget” the other parts of the music if one does not practice them every day. This is not the case if you have already done the groundwork, which I am sure you have.
As for “mastery”, I believe we should practice in as meticulous a way as possible from the outset, regardless of our ability level, and that attention to artistry and musicality should go hand in hand with ensuring technical security. To me, it doesn’t matter if a passage is inaccurate if you are also able to bring dynamic nuance, colour and good quality of sound to that passage. I also think that practicing in this way is a lot more interesting!
It’s hard to say how long it should take to get a Grade 7-8 piece comfortably under the fingers and Parkinson’s Law has relevance here, to an extent! But I would say c.8 weeks of consistent work is about right, based on my teaching experience.
OK, then that’s a good benchmark to aim for, I accept. Each of the G7 pieces I have been working on have taken me considerably longer than that, which is disappointing given that, as a retired software engineer, I have all the time in the world to practice! I often feel that I am using excessive time to hardwire a piece into my muscle memory and to over-memorise the music as a substitute for what I see other pianists do; play by sight. I hear stories of children that spend a year, or more, on just three pieces, obtain a great mark, but are not really at that grade at all. I feel this keenly in myself. Let’s talk about sight reading. I have always found sight-reading terribly difficult and I know I should spend more time sight-reading. Yet I cannot escape the conclusion that something more is holding me back. The absorption of new music – no matter how I go about it – simply takes too long. This is why, at times, I find myself shunning the sheet music and just improvising at the keyboard, to feel the joy of the physical act and to avoid the stultifying feeling of turning myself into an automaton, a performing engine working from a rigid set of instructions. I cannot say that my improvisation creates very compelling music, but it’s a welcome break from ‘sheet’ music.
My impression, from having worked with you on several occasions on various repertoire, is that you take a very conscientious approach to your music study. I suspect that you may be over-doing some aspects of your learning (you cite over-memorisation for example), which takes up practice time. Your comment about children only learning 3 pieces per grade, and not exploring grade-equivalent repertoire around their exam pieces, is important, and you correctly identify the need to broaden one’s repertoire to develop and progress as a musician. This is something I believe you are doing, alongside your exam preparation; even if you are not necessarily playing any additional pieces at present, you have a broad musical base and a curiosity about repertoire which has value for every new piece you learn.
Turning to sight-reading….. Like every other aspect of our musical study and development, sight reading is something that needs to be practiced regularly. I am fortunate in that I have always been a good sight-reader (but a poor memoriser!). In spite of this, I practice sight-reading every week to keep the skillset alert.
Graham Fitch has a very useful practice tool to improve one’s sight-reading – the quick study. This is exactly what it says on the tin – see Graham’s article here Developing Sight Reading Skills – Practising the Piano
I would recommend being very relaxed about sight-reading so that it doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather an enjoyable aspect of your practice regime. Select repertoire which is at least two grades below your current standard and try not to be too picky about the pieces. (I often just open a book of music and play whatever is on the page.) When the music is in front of you, don’t immediately sweat the small stuff but look at the overall shape of the music on the page. Look for recurring patterns (scales, broken chords etc), accidentals, dynamics etc. Quickly take in as much information about time and key signatures, tempo, marks of expression etc. If you get into the habit of preparing for a sight-reading exercise in the same way each time, the process becomes easier and more efficient. When you begin to play, simply play through the entire piece. Don’t stop to correct mistakes, but rather try and keep the music flowing and skim over the errors. I think the inclusion of sight-reading in exam syllabuses is very useful but it strikes me there is an over-emphasis on “getting it right”. The purpose of sight-reading is to give yourself a sense of the overall shape and sound of the music before the detailed learning process begins.
Oh my, we are covering a lot of ground. There is no doubt that sight-reading is a weakness for me. But I need to unpack that term. What actually is sight-reading? Clearly, if I were an experienced reader I would be able to readily get on top of new work. Perhaps my struggle with ‘efficient practice’ is a struggle with ‘sight reading’ in disguise? I am unsure. What I do know is that unless something changes I find it hard to see how I will progress beyond where I am. Clearly, the grade beyond is a big step up. The question hanging in my mind is, to really say you have arrived at a grade, how many pieces at that grade do you think you need to have tackled to the ground to a reasonable standard? Not three! LOL. This has been a great conversation. Thank you, Frances.
We could go on and on – it’s such a wide-ranging subject and your final question, how many pieces does one need to be able to play to say one has reached a specific grade is one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions! We know from countless articles about graded music exams that many students reach Grade 8 having only learnt 24 pieces. That to me does not signify musicianship or a fully rounded musical personality (and it often the fault of teachers or pushy parents that kids in particular end up like this). Explore beyond your exam pieces – the repertoire doesn’t necessarily have to be the same grade level – and don’t learn stuff because you think you “should”. The greatest pleasure of being an adult amateur is the freedom to choose what we want to play, what interests us and what makes playing enjoyable and stimulating.
If you would like advice on practicing, preparing for an exam or diploma, selecting repertoire or indeed any other piano playing aspects, please feel free to contact me