Say it Play it

Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)

Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing.  A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.

This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.

Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.

In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.

Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.

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Effective practising for a performance diploma

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of juggling and time-mamagement, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regularly to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stagecraft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here