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”.
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)
It’s always pleasing to meet people who play the piano as adults (I am of course referring to amateur pianists as opposed to professionals who play for a living). Some have played all their life; some return to the piano after an absence; and some take it up from scratch as a hobby or personal challenge.
Those of us who teach adults appreciate that the experience can be enjoyable, stimulating, challenging and occasionally frustrating, and requires a slightly different approach from teaching children and teenagers. Adults often come to piano lessons with pre-conceived ideas about playing the piano and their own abilities, ideas which may have been inculcated in them from a young age by a dogmatic teacher or pushy parent, and can be hard to shift. We all carry with us baggage from our upbringing and our past, yet it never fails to amaze me how much baggage some of us carry around from our childhood piano lessons, and it can have a detrimental effect on one’s attitude to returning to or taking up piano lessons as an adult. One of my current adult students (a retired lady in her late 60s) told me during our initial interview that her brother and sister are “proper musicians”, by which I thought she meant they were professional musicians. In fact, her definition of “proper” was that they had completed all their grade exams, and she had not, yet when this lady played some Handel for me, I could tell immediately that she had the kind of musical sensibility that would fall into my definition of a “proper” musician. Another former adult student of mine had been denied piano lessons as a child by her piano teacher mother, who apparently had not had the time, nor the inclination, to teach her. When her mother died, this woman decided to make learning the piano a way of both celebrating her mother’s memory and also proving to her late mother that she was capable of learning the instrument: the lessons, while they lasted, were less about piano music and more about the emotional hang ups this woman had carried with her from childhood. Some adults simply want someone to talk to, and the piano and music become secondary to having someone’s undivided attention and positive or kindly feedback once a week. At £45 an hour, it’s a relatively cheap form of therapy! (Unfortunately, I am a piano teacher, not a trained therapist!)
Adult learners are often fiercely self-critical, which again can be detrimental to their progress. To constantly criticise oneself or allow the toxic voice of the inner critic to rule one’s practise time and lessons sets up an unpleasant circle of negativity that can be hard to break, and as a teacher one needs to be sympathetic, positive and supportive. Other adult students have unrealistic expectations about their ability and progress and most have issues with confidence and playing in front of other people. Again, patience and gentle encouragement from teacher, along with sound advice on how to practise intelligently to make the music really secure, are crucial in helping adult learners gain confidence.
Many adult learners display a very high level of commitment, largely because they have made the decision to take up piano lessons because they want to. Nobody has told them to do it, and they are paying for the lessons themselves. They are keen for personal fulfillment or a challenge or new focus, and many are conscientious about lesson attendance and practising. Yet they can also feel frustrated if their day job or the exigencies of family life intrude on their time at the piano. One of the key roles of the teacher is to offer advice on practising to enable the adult student to practise efficiently between lessons, even if they have limited time, and to tailor lessons to what is achievable given their other commitments. Other adult students have very regular practise schedules and unsurprisingly these are the students who tend to make more noticeable and faster progress.
Confidence is nearly always a significant issue amongst adult learners, even those who play at an advanced level. The decision to take piano lessons as an adult is an act of great courage, and a good teacher of adults understands and respects this, and appreciates the fear that lurks on its flip side. It took me half and hour of gentle encouragement to persuade a new student (a London black cab driver) to actually sit at my piano at his first lesson, and I had to constantly reiterate that I would be non-judgemental and always positive in my language and approach. Feelings of inadequacy or anxiety about playing in front of a teacher often stem from childhood experiences – a demanding parent with unrealistic expectations or the perfectionist attitude of a teacher, the memory of a bungled performance or a failed exam. A good teacher will be sympathetic and will do his/her best to make the student feel comfortable, encouraging them to play through any errors and not to worry about giving a perfect performance but rather to focus on communicating the music with colour and expression. Taking adults back a few stages to easier repertoire can be helpful too: this should never be seen as an “easy option” but rather an exercise in improving confidence and learning how to make one’s music very secure so that one can play with fluency and confidence. Understanding the physiological aspects of anxiety, which are common to all of us to a greater or lesser degree, can also help adult learners manage their nerves.
Some adult learners are keen to take grade exams as a means by which to benchmark their progress and for the thrill of a challenge; others are happy to play for pleasure and one of the nicest aspects of being an adult learner is the freedom to select whatever repertoire one wishes to play. This does, however, lead to some arriving at lessons with music which is beyond their current capabilities, and so the teacher must be adept at managing expectations without discouraging the student. Sometimes it is possible to find simplified versions of the pieces in question, or the teacher will suggest good alternative. Fundamentally, one is there to support and inspire, not to question the student’s motivation or discourage them, and getting them playing and gaining pleasure from their playing, rather than spending time on dull exercises or technical work, is at the heart of the teacher of adults’ role. It’s not about quantity of notes or notching up grade exams, but the joy of music making and the fulfillment of personal goals.
Just as with younger students, the choice of teacher is very important to the adult learner, and a teacher with whom one feels comfortable is crucial to one’s progress – and vice versa. Every student is different and a good teacher is adept at structuring lessons to suit each individual’s needs and ability. Teaching is a responsibility, at whatever level one teaches or the age of one’s students, and mutual respect creates positive interaction and conversation. Adult amateur piano students demand as much respect (if not more, given the courage it takes to embark on piano lessons as an adult) as students in conservatoire or aspiring professional musicians, and as teachers we should never patronise nor talk down to them. Many are extremely knowledgeable about the music they are learning, others are ready to soak up, sponge-like, the knowledge and experience we as teachers can impart to them. Ultimately, the relationship between teacher and adult student can be intense and long-standing, one which starts as a professional business transaction and develops into a rewarding friendship which benefits both student and teacher.
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.
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:
Unclear or confusing instructions from the teacher
Student is unable to identify specific issues or problems in their repertoire
Student is unable to judge or imagine how the music they are practicing should sound when played correctly
An inability to transfer skills and techniques learnt in practicing one piece to new repertoire
Over-reliance on teacher to tell students what to do
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.
ABRSM has announced recently that it will be removing melody-writingfrom the Grade 5 theory paper.I’m worried.
My first encounter with ‘theory for theory’s sake’ was at the age of 10, when all of a sudden my piano lessons changed; instead of sitting at the piano, we spent several weeks sat at a table in Mrs May’s front room and wrote things down. I remember the front room being very dark, and the whole experience being very strange. I passed the Grade 5 theory exam [just] and things went back to normal, thank goodness ….
I now have a steady stream of Grade 5 theory pupils of my own! Some come utterly clueless, and it is a delight to be able to switch the lights on for them. For others, it’s a question of formalising many of the things which they already vaguely know, and teaching them how to approach the…
As a piano teacher and pianist, I was rather troubled to read this article in The Guardian in which the author, Hugh Muir, admits to having been put off continuing his piano studies by the awful, nerve-wracking experience of taking, and failing, his Grade 2 piano exam.
I commend anyone who takes up the piano as an adult learner. As my own teacher regularly states, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!” (and this statement refers to all pianists, professional or amateur, adult or child). Playing the piano is a huge and complex feat of coordination and it doesn’t necessarily get “easier” as one grows more proficient, only that one develops more technical proficiency, knowledge and a personal toolkit of skills to enable one to get around the instrument and organise sound into music. But playing the piano is also enormously rewarding and enjoyable too, bringing hours of personal satisfaction and pleasure as well as known therapeutic benefits.
Sadly it seems that Hugh Muir is “confusing the satisfaction of his examiners with the ability to learn and play the piano” (Mark Polishook). The article places an undue focus on the process of taking grade exams, and we hear little of his pleasure in the instrument or the joy of simply “playing” the piano. Too often, people – teachers, students, parents – conflate learning the piano with grade exams. Many students take graded music exams each year, and many students gain pride and pleasure from the visible results of their dedication to the practising and study of their chosen instrument. Passing a music exam (which, by the way, is harder than passing a school exam, since the pass mark is higher) can bring a great deal of personal satisfaction and can spur one on to greater endeavour. For many, exams are a useful benchmark of progress and can provide a focus for continued study. But for some students, an over-emphasis on taking exams means their piano studies are very narrow: if they are not given the opportunity to explore repertoire beyond the exam syllabus, by the time they reach Grade 8, students who have been on an exam treadmill will have learnt only 24 pieces (3 pieces per exam) which, in my opinion, is hardly a well-rounded musical education. And an overly strong adherence to the graded system for pieces can deter students from exploring new repertoire – a case of “I am only Grade 3 and that is Grade 5 repertoire, so I won’t be able to play it!”
Graded music exams do have their uses: the choice of repertoire in the syllabus offers students a chance to study a broad range of music from the Baroque to present-day; learning scales teaches students about keys and key-relationships, and provides important technical foundations which can be applied to pieces. But taking music grade exams and pleasing an examiner is artificial and subjective – after all, an exam is only a snapshot of that student on a particular day and may not indicate the student’s true abilities, especially if the student is nervous or under-prepared. Exams are not, and never should be, the be all and end all of musical study, and I would challenge any teacher, or student, who believes exams make musicians.
Many adult learners who had piano lessons as children carry with them the memory of taking grade exams, and for some that memory can be uncomfortable or even painful, recalling embarrassment and humiliation in the curious artificial world of the exam room, and opprobrium from teachers, parents and peers. Entering, or re-entering, the world of music exams as an adult can be very stressful, stress which can destroy one’s enjoyment of the piano (as in Hugh Muir’s case). Most adult pianists whom I come across through my association with the London Piano Meetup Group (LPMG – a social club for adult amateur pianists which I co-founded in 2013) want to play for pleasure, free of the rigour and stress of exams. And why shouldn’t they? Playing the piano is enormously pleasurable and satisfying!
For those who want to improve their playing, a sensitive, sympathetic teacher will offer guidance on repertoire and technical exercises, which can be studied without the need to submit oneself to a music exam. And for those who do wish to take a grade exam, it is worth considering the different assessment options available today. One need not go down the traditional route of three pieces, scales and arpeggios and the dreaded sight-reading and aural tests. It is these supporting tests which often cause the most anxiety for adult students, and personally I don’t see the need for an adult learner to be examined in technical work etc if their main motivation for learning the piano is to play for pleasure and personal fulfilment.
The main exams boards have cottoned on to this and the London College of Music offers several options which contain no technical work:
Recital Grades for which there are no aural tests: instead candidates perform four pieces and can either choose a fifth piece, or sight-reading or the viva voce assessment. Candidates have free choice of repertoire from a broad syllabus.
Leisure Play candidates perform a selection of pieces, which may or may not include an own-choice piece, with no other requirements.
And for those unable or reluctant to be examined in person, LCM offer the option of a Performance Award, where the candidate submits a digital recording for assessment.
Trinity College London also offers the Performance Certificate, which, like the LCM Recital and Leisure Play exams, is purely a performance assessment, with no technical work, sight-reading or aural. Meanwhile, the Associated Board’s Performance Assessment offers candidates the opportunity to have their playing assessed and receive feedback. There are no supporting tests and there is no pass or fail.
Piano groups and clubs offer performance opportunities in a non-threatening, non-competitive and friendly environment – in fact, one of the best things about joining a piano club is discovering other people who are also nervous about performing in front of others. Knowing you’re not alone in your anxieties can go a long way to allaying them, in addition to the opportunity to perform in a “safe zone” amongst friends. And for the more adventurous adult pianist, there are many piano courses available, in the UK and abroad.
In short, learning to play the piano is very much not about taking grade exams. It is about exploring the vast and wonderful literature pianists are lucky enough to choose from. It’s about the pleasure of a certain phrase or the feel of a particular chord under the fingers. It’s about making music with others, playing for friends and family, and sharing the experience of music. Above all, it is about enjoyment. I would urge Hugh Muir – and indeed anyone else who has found the exam process stressful – to consider this before abandoning the piano……
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
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.
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.
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”.