Piano teaching

Challenging traditional practice at the piano

There are certain habits of piano practice which are ingrained in us from an early age and which have become a form of “piano dogma”. As a young piano student we may accept these practices without question, trusting in our teacher’s seniority and assertion that these activities are “good for you”, that they will make you “a better pianist”. These include scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises (Hanon, Czerny etc), separate hands practicing, slow practice and use of the metronome. Many of these practices come from theorists, lesser musicians, traditional teaching, and exam boards, who perhaps exert far too much influence on what is “good practicing” rather than actually listening to active musicians who have formulated their own ways of doing things which reflect the realities of learning and performing music.

Scales, broken chords and arpeggios

These are generally considered an essential part of the pianist’s practice regime, still seen by many as the path to superior technique. By the time the piano student is approaching Grade 8, they will have learnt scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys, plus various permutations such as scales in major and minor thirds and sixths, octave scales and arpeggios, chromatic scales (also in thirds), dominant and diminished seventh arpeggios, and contrary motion scales and arpeggios.

Scales and arpeggios, like the technical exercises devised by Hanon et al, are generally mechanical exercises used to build greater finger dexterity, independence and velocity. Although one can practice such exercises in a musical way (fluctuating dynamics, different articulation or rhythms), in my opinion, they are fundamentally unmusical.

How often are you required to play a full four-octave arpeggio or scale in major thirds in a piece of music? Sure, we encounter many scale and arpeggio patterns within pieces but these are devices to illustrate the drama and narrative of the music or to create specific effects (a descending chromatic scale can be darkly, spookily dramatic, for example). You may have practiced octave scales in a book of exercises but the test is whether you can play them musically in the context of real repertoire.

Not scales, never. Exercises, never….. I worked on pieces. Then if that didn’t work, I’d work on individual passages.

~ Martha Argerich, in an interview with Charles Dutoit

Separate Hands Practicing

This is one of the holy grails of piano practice, that we should learn the music hands separately first and then bring the hands together. This was how I was taught as a young piano student and many, many students have the benefit of separate hands practice drummed into them from their early years to conservatoire level.

There are many occasions when separate hands practicing is very useful; but there may also be occasions when separate hands practice is less helpful. Sometimes it is necessary to hear the complete harmony of the music or to have the foundation of a bass line or melody to support the other hand.

Slow practice

Another holy grail of piano practice! Like separate hands practice, there are occasions when slowing the tempo right down can enable us to manage a tricky section, get the notes learnt and under the fingers before speeding the music up. Slow practice also allows us to hear details in the music (but only if you are actually listening while practicing and you’d be amazed how many pianists don’t listen to themselves!) But if you always practice the same passage at below tempo, the procedural (muscle) memory will find it harder to cope with playing at full tempo. In reality, tempos should be able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge).  

Practicing with the metronome

Tick tock tick tock tick tock…..The insistent tick of the metronome is one of the abiding memories of my childhood piano lessons; my teacher made me play scales to the beat of a metronome. It was pretty hellish, but I submitted anyway. As a result, my scales were fluent, accurate and even.

The metronome can be useful in helping you establish a clear pulse, but practice too much or too often with that insistent tick and your playing may become overly mechanical without the necessary nuance of tempo which adds ebb and flow to music.

I’ve observed a certain metronome addiction amongst some student and amateur pianists: nearly all exam repertoire comes with a suggested metronome speed – note suggested. Yet some people believe they will be marked down in their exam performance or play the music incorrectly if they don’t adhere to the metronome marking. It’s often worth pointing out that the metronome wasn’t invented until 1815; before that time musicians relied on an innate sense of pulse – and that’s what we should all aim for. By all means use the metronome to get a feel for the pulse in the music, but don’t become addicted to it!

While I may employ all of the above activities in my own piano practice, I have found that a “music-led” approach allows me to practice more productively and, importantly, enjoyably. The first teacher I had when I returned to the piano as an adult after a 25-year absence encouraged me to create exercises out of the music I was learning – a far more useful tool than turning to boring, mechanical exercises. There is so much beautiful out there for us to play and a Bach Prelude, for example, can offer far greater technical and artistic challenges than a book of exercises!

Don’t be afraid to look for alternatives and to experiment with practicing. Fundamentally, it’s about finding an approach that works for you as an individual, rather than a “one size fits all approach”.

You should diligently play scales and finger-practices. There are many, however, who believe they’ll achieve all, by practicing daily on technique for hours on end, up till high age. It’s like practicing every day to enumerate the alfabet faster and faster. One would think one could make better use of their valuable time.

~ Robert Schumann

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