Feeding the practise habit

If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of their game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practise and to hone one’s skills. Regular practise equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even if it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament and oiling the gears.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity is really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good gym workout or a run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing something useful.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

Breaking the routine 

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.

P is… for Piano Parents & Practising!

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Guest post by Natalie Tsaldarakis

Practising is the hardest aspect of the piano learning process to come to terms with. Not least because it is prescriptive, when really not one size fits all, and is done in the absence of the teacher who does the prescribing in the first place. With the parent left to deal with the details of organising suitable practice, it is no wonder it always raises questions. In fact, the most surprising is the two extreme categories of attitudes I have come across: the parent who thinks that it is the child’s sole responsibility to practise without any further supervision regardless of age; and the parent who eagerly tries to absorb the teacher’s comments and then attempts to teach the child himself/herself at home despite not having any further qualification other than simply paying for and attending the lessons. In the hope some of this will be useful to prevent disappointment or misunderstandings I sent out the following to the parents of my piano studio:

Golden rules of practice to live by

  1. Practice should reflect age and level. Five to ten minutes of practice at a time for a very young beginner is usually good. For those starting out regardless of age, five to ten minutes per day, moving to two sessions per day of that duration, is recommended to gradually build both concentration and engagement. As an indication forty minutes daily up to Grade 4 level, and fifty to seventy minutes thereafter would be very good in order to achieve higher passes (merit, distinction). These are at best estimates and take into account neither the challenges presented by specific repertoire choices (‘Black Eye’s from the Grade 4 ABRSM 2017-2018 syllabus comes to mind) nor the different strengths and weaknesses in the learning ability and rate of individual students.
  2. Practice should be a daily habit.
  3. Learning to play the piano is not exclusively about passing grades: it is the journey which matters more (the most!).
  4. Make sure there is easy access to a good enough instrument: poor instruments can actually destroy motivation (no-one wants to play an awful- sounding instrument).
  5. Don’t place the piano next to a TV if the family plans to watch while the student is supposed to try concentrate on practising. Certainly avoid placing the piano in noisy areas of the house.
  6. You can’t learn to play the piano if you have no idea what piano concerts sound and feel like. Attending pupils’ concerts and local competitive festival classes is a start, provided that the students listen carefully to each other, but there is no substitute for a live (professional) recital or concerto. Free concerts especially at lunchtimes will allow you to leave during intermission if children become restless. Try Charlton House on Fridays, St Alfege’s in Greenwich, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, St James Piccadilly, and Hugh Mather’s Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London. Southbank does a lot of family concerts, some of which are free. Another suggestion is Bach to Baby concerts for young families. For secondary school age children we also recommend Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall (for example the upcoming BBC Proms), as well as the conservatoires: RAM, RCM, Guildhall/ Milton Court.
  7. At young ages (4-9 years) parental involvement is directly related to success in the lessons and by extension in exams, performances/auditions/competitions. Rest assured that parents are not expected to be musically literate.
  8. Lessons need to be regular for progress to be steady.
  9. Lessons should be used for acquiring new skills, getting feedback, trying new things, asking questions. Turning up regularly with no consistent practice done in the week prior to the lesson is a rather poor way to use your time with the teacher. Supervised practice should be at home with the help of a parent or willing member of the family.
  10. Nannies are the wonderful human beings who carry the children safely and on time to and from lessons. Very rarely have we seen a nanny also being able to implement a practice regime like a parent does: ultimate authority (and source of validation) can only be a parent/guardian.
  11. Children below the age of 12-13 are mostly motivated by the love of parents: if parents take active interest in their piano playing, children will continue to thrive. Make sure that even if your work doesn’t allow much family time, you still remember to ask how practice went and what pieces they are playing, etc. Also, you can ask for a short performance once in a while when you get home if it’s not too late.
  12. If a piece sounds messy try to compliment the effort not the result. A balanced reaction, which avoids both empty praise and too much criticism, is perhaps difficult to achieve but necessary.
  13. Some children are harder to work with than others. They may be less motivated if they can’t concentrate well, if they are perfectionists, easily disappointed, not confident enough, or have a rather fixed mindset. Piano lessons address all these issues and can give them the necessary skills to succeed not only in music but as learners in general. As long as you facilitate a regular practice regime and you show your support/enthusiasm for the young pianist’s progress, we are confident the rest will fall into place.
  14. Finally: do not stress a young pianist of promise with comments about future plans of a career. It might just backfire and cause all motivation to disappear. Managing stress is itself a skill, but when it appears in the form of parents’ inordinate expectations, a child may just feel it has no control any more, yet parental love might appear to be at stake. A career and musical talent (even proven through competitions) are not the same. A career should only be (carefully) discussed with pupils who are self-motivated, usually have several wins at festivals/competitions, a grade 8 distinction (preferably a diploma), are at least 15-16 years of age and have themselves expressed eagerness to become musicians. It should never be directed at being famous and getting rich! Careers are very much dependent first and foremost on parental support, right type of exposure (performances/masterclasses/ competitions), careful planning of several aspects, as well as on personality and artistic aims (for which keeping up with repertoire, current performers, and a working knowledge of the various fields are necessary).

***

In the end it’s about making music and enjoying sharing it with others. With funding cuts affecting the provision of state education, at least parents are doing their best to offer their children invaluable experiences, skills, and memories. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Links:

Wigmore Hall

St John’s Smith Square
Southbank

St Martin in the Fields

Bach to Baby
Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale
Barbican

Guildhall School of Music: Milton Court

Royal Albert Hall

Kings Place

St Alfege’s

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Trinity Laban


Portraits of The Ivory Duo piano ensemble.Natalie Tsaldarakis is a pianist, and one half of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble which focuses on film music arrangements and new music for two pianos & piano 4-hands. Natalie is also a trustee of the Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust and runs a large piano studio in SE London with her husband, pianist Panayotis Archontides.

Currently, Natalie is a PhD student at City, University of London researching the piano pedagogue Gordon Green and the Manchester school of pianism.

 

Connect with Natalie on Twitter

 

The power of “yet”

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

 

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

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