Technique without tears

technique |tekˈnēk|
noun
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something

Technique lies at the foundation of piano playing, and good technique can serve the beginner student right through to advanced level. However, it should never be the “be all and end all”. Rather, it should serve the music – to create when required, for example, the lightest staccato, the most cantabile melodic line, a bubbling Alberti bass, sprightly trills and tremolandos, the most fluid legato.

Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintended, have their effect on the sound you produce

– Alan Fraser, pianist & pedagogue

Pianists are often praised for having “fine technique” or “superb technique”: this can range from obvious things such as physical agility/velocity and stamina to more esoteric, “hidden” aspects such as arm weight, wrist rotation, and alignment. These days, with a tendency amongst younger pianists to place technique above all else, piano “technique” has come to mean sheer physical capability, speed and sound production (usually too loud!) without a true understanding of how a particular technique specifically relates to the music, and the effects the composer has in mind.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is staccato, of which there are different kinds:

  • Arm staccato gives equal measure to each note and is particularly useful for a crisp, short or bouncy sound. Involve the forearm and keep the wrist soft. Avoid pure wrist staccato as this pulls up the fingers and creates tension. Aim for a free drop of the arm and then bounce off the keyboard on the rebound.
  • Jeu Perlé literally “pearly playing”, this is particularly useful for semi-quaver passage work in Mozart and the like, also in Debussy, where such passages should be played quickly, lightly and clearly, and where too much obvious articulation would create dryness. It is a type of staccato playing that creates the tiniest sense of separation between each note (like the knots between the pearls in a necklace), and requires small movements and a close attack.
  • Finger staccato/flicking staccato Possibly the hardest staccato technique to perfect, this requires the fingers to flick off the keys and back towards the palm of the hand. Beware of tension in the hand and wrist when practising this technique, and employ the alignment of arm and wrists to fingers.

A pianist who has fully studied, understood and absorbed the composer’s intentions and instructions in the score, will know what kind of staccato technique to employ for a particular genre, section or passage.

When starting out with any new aspect of technique, whether teaching it or doing it for yourself, it helps to enlarge the movement and to practice it away from the piano. Don’t practice technique in isolation, but rather understand how it should be employed in your music and then make a technical exercise out of a small passage or section from that music. Doing exercises like those by Czerny or Hanon are, in my view, less worthwhile than a technical exercise you have devised yourself to practice a particular aspect of your repertoire; it is also more interesting! Above all, any technical exercise – from simple scale patterns to an intricate etude – should be played musically.


Debussy – Jardins sous la pluie (Arrau)

Mozart – Piano Sonata K311, 1st movt (Uchida)

The Three H’s of Practicing

On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As pianist and renowned teacher Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book ‘With Your Own Two Hands’, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.”

To me, this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

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Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone” or a flow state. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions.

Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality (SB)

Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come

Seymour Bernstein, ‘With Your Own Two Hands’ (Schirmer, 1981)

 

 

 

 

Encouraging evaluation, reflection and self-critique in practising

Play always as if in the presence of a master

Robert Schumann

The ability to self-critique, evaluate and reflect on one’s playing during practising and in lessons is a crucial skill for musicians, and is a component of the skillset of “deliberate practise” and self-regulation, which enables us to practise productively and deeply.

Around 95% of my teaching involves showing students, young people and adults, how to practise. Many students are “surface practisers”: that is, they play the assigned repertoire from start to finish, but do not take time to reflect on or evaluate their playing – the sounds they are making and hope to make, why a certain passage is causing difficulties etc. Students who practise like this often feel that having got to the end of the piece they have “done” their practising. As a consequence, lessons and subsequent practising sessions may feel frustrating because progress/improvement is slow.

I admit that I probably practised like this for quite a lot of the time when I was having lessons as a child and teenager, and it was only when I returned to the piano seriously as an adult, after a break of nearly 20 years, and started taking lessons with a master teacher that I learnt and understood the benefits of deep, reflective practising. It quickly became apparent that this kind of practising was far more productive: the most noticeable benefit was that I was able to learn repertoire much more quickly and, more importantly, retain it once learnt. It also made me far less reliant on guidance from my teacher, enabling me to work independently for long stretches of time between lessons, which in turn motivated me to keep going.

During lessons, my students are now very used to being asked simple questions to encourage self-reflection and self-critique: “What did you like about your playing?” “Which areas do you feel need more attention?” “How do you think you should practise that section?” When I first instituted this practice of self-critique in lessons, most students focused on the negative aspects of their playing, highlighting mistakes or telling me that they “played it better at home”, and were reluctant to indicate areas which they felt were good or successful. Now they are used to finding positives first, giving themselves a virtual “pat on the back” for playing well. This approach is empowering for the student, because it builds confidence, which then makes analysing those aspects within the music which need more detailed attention a far more positive experience, rather than an exercise in flagging up errors, which can be dismotivating. When this activity becomes routine in lessons, so it should also be habitual when practising between lessons, from simple statements like “I really liked that passage” or “I’m pleased with the expression I brought to that section” to more detailed analysis of how to make significant improvements in the music. By working in this way, students become less reliant on a teacher’s guidance and develop independence in learning processes and confidence in their own abilities.

Schumann’s quote at the beginning of this article is particularly pertinent: there is no point in “surface” or repetitive practising without concentration, but there is every point in practising attentively and mindfully, as if your teacher (“master”) were listening. When practising alone, be your own “master” and question everything you do. Why repeat that passage? What was wrong with it and what are you trying to improve? Going through a piece and working on the most problematic or tricky areas slowly and deliberately is an effective strategy, one which is used by professional and highly advanced musicians. Accomplished performers at every level also tend to have a clear auditory “vision” of the piece in their mind as they work on it and continually assess their progress against this vision. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working like this is that one does not need to spend hours and hours at the piano: because it’s about quality rather than quantity of practise.

As one grows more adept at self-evaluation, reflection and self-critique, one is able to set clear, achievable and appropriate goals for each practise session (some people like to keep a record of these in a notebook, referring back to them and updating them as daily practising progresses) and build incrementally upon each small improvement (“marginal gain learning”).

Recording and filming practice and performance is another key tool in evaluating progress. Our music sounds different when heard away from the piano. Never listen to a recording as soon as you’ve made it: wait a few days and then listen. Be positively critical and assess what you like and dislike about your performance. And don’t just listen once: use repeated listenings to evaluate aspects such as rhythm, intonation, tone quality, expression, dynamic range. Video is helpful too, for checking posture (in particular stiff or raised shoulders), gestures and mannerisms, grimacing/smiling, and stage presence.

Most of us engage in music because we care passionately about it and love what we do. However, when evaluating our work, it is important to retain a degree of detachment, to stand back from the music and view it dispassionately, as if reviewing someone else’s performance. Thus we are able to separately ourselves, emotionally, from our music making and take errors less personally, which allows us to maintain a positive mindset and keep the habit of practising enjoyable and stimulating.

…the real pleasure of practice lies in engaging in a creative dialogue with the music, and thus getting closer to it.

– Steven Isserlis, cellist


My own teacher, Graham Fitch, advocates the use of a “feedback loop” which encourages self-evaluation and reflection. More on the Feedback Loop

feedbackloop

How teenagers practice

I suspect all piano teachers broadly agree on the importance and value of consistent and deliberate practicing for all students, and that practicing is essential for successful learning and progression. How our students practice is in no small part down to us as teachers: during lessons we will suggests areas which need special attention and offer strategies for productive practicing. But once the student gets home, it is largely down to them and their personal motivation to ensure the practicing is done and done properly.

There is much to be gained from observing and understanding how professional musicians practice, and even the most junior-level students can learn from the habits of professionals. Productive, successful practicing, such as professionals employ, requires a high level of self-regulation which enables the musician to achieve specified goals.

Self-regulation involves:

  • planning, goal-setting and motivation
  • self-instructions and observation
  • self-evaluation and reflection

In addition to these key areas, the process of practicing includes knowing the right practice strategy to fit a specific task (for example, memorisation or rapid leaps) and being flexible about that strategy if it proves unsuitable t for the specific task.

An article in Psychology of Music highlights some common “types” of teenage pianist which I am sure most of us have encountered in the course of our teaching:

The “somewhat effective” practicer: this student takes his/her own notes for practicing in lessons and has developed reasonable practice goals. When he/she practices, he/she completes the assigned tasks (sight-reading for example), and is engaged when practicing his/her pieces, to the extent that he/she is able to identify errors and inconsistencies and puts these issues right by isolating or “quarantining” the specific areas which need attention. He/She is able to reflect on what he/she has achieved and what still needs to be done, and is satisfied that he/she is making good progress. He/She may even feed this back to his/her teacher at the next lesson, discussing the strategies he/she employed during independent practicing at home, and collaborating with his/her teacher on goals for future practicing. This type of student tends to make consistent and noticeable progress

The “surface” practicer: we all know this student……! She/he’s the one who plays the assigned repertoire from start to finish, stumbling over certain notes, chords or passages, but does not stop to reflect on or fix the errors, and feels that having got to the end of the piece she/he has “done the practicing”. Her/His teacher has highlighted some areas that need specific attention – she/he skims through these, repeating errors yet hardly pausing to reflect on how they might be fixed. She/He does not plan in advance or set goals for practicing, despite clear instructions in her/his practice notebook from her/his teacher. At her/his next lesson she/he might “wing it” to get through her/his pieces when played for his teacher.

So why do teenagers find it difficult to practice effectively? In my experience, a number of factors influence the way in which teenagers practice. These include:

  1. Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
  2. Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
  3. Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
  4. An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
  5. Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
  6. Feeling overwhelmed by the task in hand or the thought of having to do 30-40 minutes practicing in one go

1 & 2. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure the student understands the assigned practicing and is clear about what needs to be done between lessons. I find it helpful during the lesson to ask the student to identify problem areas, state what they should be practicing and to then prioritise specific sections of the music. I or the student then write these things in the practice notebook, often numbering them in order of priority. By asking the student to specify the practice goals, we make him/her complicit in the activity of practicing and give him/her a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn builds confidence.

3. Play the music to the student during the lesson, or listen to recordings, YouTube clips or Spotify tracks. Make these resources available between lessons, perhaps via the teacher’s website. Ask the student to listen in an active and engaged way and to highlight certain features of the music, such as articulation, dynamics or changes in tempo. I encourage all of my students to listen to and around the repertoire they are learning – not to imitate or copy good recordings or performances but to simply hear how the music is presented and to give them ideas about how they might work towards a desired sound in the music.

4. Clearly demonstrate to students, using explicit examples within their repertoire, how we never learn technique or skills in isolation: voicing a Bach invention for example provides us with the tools to highlight different voices in Beethoven or Schubert.

5. See 1 & 2 above. To encourage students to act and think independently and to self-critique, I ask all my students, teenage or adult, to comment on their playing at lessons before I offer my own observations. Many will inevitably focus on errors initially, so I ask them to find three things which they were pleased with and to comment positively. This kind of positive critical self-feedback is a crucial factor in working independently of the teacher and encourages confidence, self-regulation and self-determination in practicing,

6. Many young people are ridiculously over-scheduled these days, not only burdened by unreasonable amounts of homework from school, but also an abundance of extra-curricular activities from sport to private language or maths lessons. Making time for piano practice in such a cramped schedule can feel like a Sisyphean task for some teenagers. In addition. teenagers are often very tired from school and from the physical changes they are undergoing as they grow up. Thus, as teachers we need to be sympathetic and to offer practical ways to enable them to practice without feeling overwhelmed. Point out that practicing need not be done in one single chunk – two sets of 20 minutes at different times of the day may well be more productive, provided the student knows how and what to practice. Encourage “little and often” rather a long practice session the day before the next lesson. Set smaller, more achievable goals – ask a student to prepare a single line of music for the next lesson, rather than a whole page. I have found this “marginal gain” approach particularly useful for those students who are time-poor. Above all, encourage the student to enjoy their music and to gain satisfaction and a sense of personal achievement from their practicing.


Further reading

Self-regulation of teenaged pianists during at-home practice

 

Creative approaches to practising

Routine or “autopilot” practising can kill one’s enjoyment and productivity at the piano. Practice can become strained or monotonous because it’s too often primarily directed by a preconceived idea and too exclusively goal- or result-oriented. This can lead to frustration and a feeling that you are not progressing as rapidly as you would like to.

Here are some suggestions on how to bring creativity and variety to your practising, to keep your interest and help you progress:

Variety is the spice of life

Vary your approach – if you always begin with scales, try something different, such a deliberately slow practise or beginning your practise session with some studies.

Change the warm up pattern

If you always warm up with scales and exercises at the piano, think about trying some simple yoga-inspired exercises away from the piano, such as arm swinging, neck roles and shoulder and wrist stretches. These simple exercises get the blood flowing to arms and fingers and allow you to focus on the task ahead away from the piano

We’re jamming

If your practise routine begins very formally (see above), try some simple improvisation or doodling on the keyboard. You don’t need any special skills to be able to do this – take the inspiration from a handful of notes from one of the pieces you are working on. Experiment with rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tone

Mix it up

If you find concentrating on one specifica area of practising difficult, mix it up and alternate between exercises or scales/arpeggios and sections from your pieces. Throw some listening into the mix, away from the piano, to hear how other pianists approach the repertoire you are working on.

Write it down

If you use a practise notebook to record what needs to be practise, try instead recording what you did in your practise, what you liked and disliked about it, what you felt you achieved. This allows you to focus on what needs to be done next and can be a useful path into your next lesson, if you see a teacher regularly.

Sing along

Singing phrases can be invaluable in helping us shape the music, find breathing space within it and observe nuances such as dynamic shading, articulation, intonation, and tone colour

Hear it live

Going to a concert to hear music you are working on can be really inspiring, and hearing music created “in the moment” of a live performance can offer ideas about how to create drama and nuance within the music.

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Stop-Start

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During a conversation in a recent lesson with one of my students, she told me that her previous teacher would stop her every time she made a mistake and ask her to correct the error before continuing. She admitted to me that she found this habit irritating and I asked her what effect it might have on her playing. “It stops you playing with flow“, she replied.

She’s right, of course. Like the person who continually interrupts when you are trying to explain something, or read a presentation, the teacher who continually stops a student to correct mistakes is interfering with the “flow” of the music. Students will also stop themselves to correct mistakes, a pattern I am trying to correct by encouraging students to “play through” their pieces when they come to play for me at their lessons. Unfortunately, such habits are hard to shift, especially when kids today exist in a school culture which insists on “right answers”, and the ticking of the correct boxes.

Music is different. It is the “flow” of music – the sense of a narrative unfolding – which makes it appealing and engaging to listen to and audiences, examiners (and teachers!) would far rather hear a complete performance with a few errors or slips than stop-start playing which seems hesitant and disjointed. My students don’t believe me when I tell them that most audiences don’t even notice minor errors and that even the finest pianists in the world make mistakes. We are all human after all! I prefer students to play right through a piece before we go back over it together to work on details. An alert student can usually highlight where errors occurred and will know how to correct them, and I encourage my students to be active listeners who can make a mental note of any slips while they are playing, knowing they can check them afterwards.

There is another good reason why stop-start playing is not recommended. Musicians, like sportspeople, use procedural memory (more commonly called “muscle memory”), part of the long-term memory which is responsible for knowing how to do things, i.e. memory of motor skills (for example, to play arpeggios or whole pieces or music). Repetitive practise trains the procedural memory and when done correctly it enables us to store a set of movements in our memory. It is this memory function that enables us to land on the right notes at the right time, to complete that scalic run accurately, or to play a series of chords, and so forth.

If we always stop at the same point/s in the music, the procedural memory remembers this and the stopping points become embedded in the memory. So when you go to play the piece, you will always stop in the same places, thus creating hesitations in the music which interrupt the flow. The avoid this I encourage students to play through, skimming over mistakes. Some find this exercise quite difficult, which is an indication of how engrained the need to correct errors can become. I also encourage students to practise in a variety of ways: to do careful, detailed practise to make problematic sections secure; and to play their pieces through without stopping (this is particularly helpful when preparing for an exam or other performance). During performances in lessons I do not stop students while they are playing: I always prefer to hear a whole piece, even if there are some errors, than a stop-start “performance”.