Piano teaching, Practising

Some elements of effective practice

Guest post by Simon Nicholls (adapted from advice to an adult pupil, already in the profession as teacher and player)

There is no such thing as a ‘note-bashing stage’. Rather, as soon as one or two notes are involved, there should be music being made; even if it’s slow-motion, dry, nothing like the finished article will be, it should be:

  • musical, with feeling for the intervals, sense of sound and its connection with the physical approach to the instrument, which should always be supple and finding an elegant way (in the sense of economical and functional, like a Bauhaus elegance) to negotiate the shape
  • with a sense of a pulse – however slow and however short the excerpt, out of two or three notes one will always be the principal one, the destination-note. In the early stages of learning a piece it is very hard to keep, as Safonov said, the mind ahead of the fingers, but this is essential.
  • It will involve time and space to think ahead of and after playing, so that before you play, say, your three notes slowly (building eventually to the whole piece in tempo the same way) you know exactly where and when those notes are and how they should sound, and are in a state to play them plastically (i.e. flexibly and mould-ably) and fluently (nothing to do with speed, one note can ‘flow’ to the next one-and-a-half seconds later). My contention is that this is at least as important in the initial stages as it is later on.
  • The advantage with this method is that the mind doesn’t get tired because it is experiencing something beautiful and varied, and the body doesn’t tire to the same degree for similar reasons. It might seem slow, but experience of preparing demanding programmes, Skryabin and Beethoven recitals, and learning the Art of Fugue while doing four full days of teaching – and at the same time getting outside difficult song accompaniments in a short space of time – has proved its efficacy. I don’t think I could have managed without the ‘Secret Doctrine’ described above. It is a ‘Secret Doctrine’, because most pupils have no inkling of it – it’s something that most of us don’t manage to convey in its essence to students – I know that is true, because of hearing what students were doing in the practice rooms. These early stages of practising are a much-misunderstood process. It’s the mind-and-body awareness, linked intimately with aural awareness, ahead of time and during the playing, the maintaining of flow and suppleness in the extract being practised and the choosing of such extracts to make this possible, which are the core of what we do, I propose.

The Clifford Curzon article in Dominic Gill’s ‘The Book of the Piano’ has something approaching this area. And when I was discussing the late great Shura Cherkassky with John Thwaites, head of piano at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and mentioned the usual things which Cherkassky said in interview – ‘I practice very slow and dry, and I make sure my fingers are in the middle of the keys’ – John, who’d heard him practising, added that it was all of it incredibly beautiful. When we hear stories of Richter, Godowsky, Rachmaninov, practising incredibly slowly but learning with bewildering speed (the same story transfers itself to each generation of pianists), or we have the privilege, as I once did, to overhear Annie Fischer practising in the next room, the question we should be asking is, What was going on inside of those great pianists’ heads while the slow practice, obviously efficacious, was proceeding?

© Simon Nicholls 2021

Simon Nicholls studied at the Royal College of Music with John Barstow and Kendall Taylor, winning many awards and prizes, and attended master classes by Paul Badura-Skoda in Germany. For ten years he taught the piano at the Yehudi Menuhin School, working with Louis Kentner and Vlado Perlemuter, and for twenty years was a professor  at the Royal College of Music,  London. He now teaches piano, accompaniment and song interpretation in Birmingham Conservatoire. He has often been a visiting artist at Dartington International Summer School, teaching improvisation, piano and chamber music.

Simon Nicholls has performed frequently at London’s major recital venues, at Snape Maltings and Dartington International Summer School, and toured and broadcast on radio and television in Britain and abroad. He has performed in the United States,  including at New York’s Lincoln Center, and he has also played in the Czech Republic (Prague Spring Festival), Eire, France, Germany, Greece, Holland and India. He has recorded for Chandos Records and Carlton Classics, and written for many musical journals.   Compositions by Simon Nicholls have been published by Faber Music and Bärenreiter.

Simon Nicholls’ interest in the music of Skryabin is long-standing. He has made many research visits to Moscow, and in October 2007 he gave a lecture and masterclass on Scriabin interpretation at the State Memorial Skryabin  Museum, Moscow. He has had articles on Skryabin published in the U.K., America and Russia.