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.
I’m sure I am not alone in having several students who are currently immersed in revision and study sessions ahead of their GCSE and A-level exams which commence next month. Some young people cope well with the pressure of revision and exams, but sometimes even the most confident or well-organised students find that something has to give – and that something might be piano practise or even regular piano lessons. In such instances, it is especially important to be kind and sympathetic to students, and I believe they must not feel pressurised to complete their piano practise if they are busy with revision or tired from exams. This may seem counter-intuitive: shouldn’t I be encouraging them to keep up regular practise? Of course, but I also appreciate the need to cut them some slack during this crucial period in their educational lives.
Instead, I’ve suggested that piano practise should be regarded as a pleasant break from revision and exams, that it should be enjoyable and stress-free, and that I don’t mind in the least if students arrive at lessons and tell me they haven’t practised. My students know that I am not the kind of teacher who gets cross if they haven’t practised and they are comfortable about telling me how much they have or haven’t done. And we can always find other things to do in lessons, such as playing duets, listening to and talking about music, exploring what goes on inside my grand piano, or simply doodling on the keyboard.
For students who have grade exams in the summer, I have made sure that the bulk of their learning is already done. Pieces now simply need to be kept going, gently finessed; ditto technical work. And sight-reading and aural can be practised in a relaxed way in lessons, or by using apps or listening to the radio or looking music up on YouTube at home.
Students often find it helpful for their teacher to give them a practise schedule to enable them to focus on what needs to be done and how to do it if they have limited time available. Even 10 minutes of focused practising is useful, and during lessons I encourage students to identify what needs attention and how to prioritise their practising. Above all, I encourage my students to enjoy the piano and their music, and I hope that by being kind to my students, they appreciate that I care about them and I understand what their priorities are at the moment.
One of my students, Harrison, arrived for his lesson last week and confessed he had not had much time to practise. He told me he had “loads of homework!” and extra-curricular activities every day after school, apart from Thursday, the day of his piano lesson (“this is my only day off!” he sighed). In addition to homework and sports activities, he also has to fit in choir rehearsals and trumpet practise.
This is not an uncommon scenario for many of the young people whom I teach: all my students have now moved up to senior school, and many are finding the volume of work and activities associated with school quite burdensome. Fitting in piano practise amongst homework, after-school clubs and sport can be hard, especially if students feel obligated to practise for a set amount of time every day.
I am an advocate of regular and consistent practising, and making time to practise every day is an important habit, one which I instil in my students from the first lesson, and one which I observe myself (usually practising daily from 8am and notching up 2-3 hours over the course of the day). Practising at the same time each day can be helpful in developing good practise habits and routine, but sometimes this simply isn’t possible. Some students also find the prospect of having to practise for a set period of time daunting, especially in the early weeks of learning.
I suggested to my student Harrison that he could develop ways of practising a little at a time, aiming for thoughtful, quality practise, rather than simply note-bashing, or “going through the motions”. The phrase “less is more” seemed appropriate to this conversation and I told Harrison that it was often associated with the German modernist architect and designer Mies van der Rohe, used to describe his designs which combine functionality with simplicity and beauty. We both agreed this was a rather useful phrase to describe focused practising and Harrison declared that “less is more” would be his “motto” for his practising over the forthcoming weeks.
The idea of the pianist pounding away at the piano for hours on end to ensure he/she never plays a wrong note has less currency these days as musicians and teachers realise that quality rather than quantity leads to music which is learnt properly and carefully. After about three hours, the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in, one’s concentration will start to flag and one will be feeling physically and mentally tired. At this point, one stops doing meaningful work and it’s probably time to stop for a break.
At the other end of the scale, it’s amazing what can be achieved in as little as 10 minutes – if one knows what one should be practising.
When Harrison came for his lesson this week, I asked him how he had got on with the “less is more” approach and he told me that he had “more enthusiasm” for his practising – and when he played, it was clear the new approach was paying off.
Of course it is important when taking this approach to know exactly what one should be practising. Playing the piece from start to finish, in an unfocused and unthinking way, means mistakes will remain as mistakes and the opening of the piece will always tend to sound better than the rest of it. I will use the piece Harrison is working on as an example of how we are taking the “less is more” approach to practising:
Nurse’s Tale (Aleksandr Grechaninov, Trinity Grade 3 piano)
Bars 1-2 (and 5-6)
RH – Practise melody (minus the thumb on D), taking note of the slurs
LH – Practise the chord change, taking note of the slurs
RH – Practise the semiquavers, taking careful note of the slurs and fingering
LH – Note change to treble clef, and practise the octave jump
Since these bars take only moments to play, a great deal can be achieved in just 10 minutes work. And, as Harrison himself noted, bars 16 – end are an exact repeat of bars 5-8.
I will be repeating this exercise with other students. At each lesson, the student and I will decide which sections of a piece/s need this kind of attention and we will note down what needs to be done in practising at home. Gradually, I hope students will become better at identifying themselves what they should be focusing on in their practising. I also hope that students will find their practising more rewarding and enjoyable as they see noticeable improvements in their learning and playing. (At the other end of the spectrum, I am applying a similar approach to my learning of Ravel’s Sonatine, a tricky piece, not least for the “hand choreography” required.)
Here are some quick tips for effective “less is more” practising:
Know which areas need the most attention – keep a note in a practise notebook
Always start with the most difficult areas when your mind and fingers are fresh
Practise for a set amount of time (set a stopwatch if that helps)
Don’t deviate from the set task
At the end of the set time, move onto the next area which needs attention
Write notes on what you have achieved and think about what you need to do in your next practise session