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)

 

 

 

 

A new kind of practice notebook

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Encouraging piano students to practice can be the bane of the piano teacher’s life and teachers regular seek new ways to encourage students to practice creatively, thoughtfully and intelligently. The practice notebook is usually the means by which the teacher records what he or she would like student to focus on in the intervening days between lessons, but I know I am not alone in wondering how many of my students (and even some parents!) actually read which I write in their notebooks from lesson to lesson.

The Music Me Piano Practice Workbook offers teacher, student and parent a new kind of practice notebook in an accessible and attractively-designed format. A spiral-bound A4 book, the practice workbook has pages in which to schedule practice and practicing goals, record practice notes, and cover aspects of technique and theory alongside practical piano study. In addition to weekly practice charts (which include sections on scales and arpeggios, sight playing, theory and general musicianship), a comprehensive reference section gives the student the opportunity to practice away from the piano and study aspects of theory (Circle of Fifths, degrees of the scale, note values, scale fingerings etc) which have a relevance in day-to-day practicing and weekly lessons.

The Music Me Piano Practice Workbook was created by Roberta Wolff, a Surrey-based piano teacher. In 2013 her students participated in the CLIC Sargent Practice-a-thon which encouraged her to think more closely about tailored individual practice schedules for her students, which would motivate and encourage them to practice every day to complete the Practice-a-thon challenge. The result is different to the standard A5 practice notebook such as the one produced by the ABRSM: it is a colourful, spaciously laid out book with charming illustrations by Claire Holgate. There is even a section where students can write their own notes about the form and style of pieces they have learnt, and plenty of blank manuscript pages to record exercises or even compose their own pieces.

ExpertLevelPerformanceStudents often don’t refer to their practice notebooks simply because the design of the notebook is rather dry and unappealing, and there simply isn’t enough space on an A5 page for the teacher to note down the key things on which the student needs to focus in their practising. The Music Me Piano practice workbook’s clear design, with its appealing Enjoyillustrations and cheerful, motivating comments at the foot of each page, will encourage students to be proactive in planning and recording practicing with the support of teacher and parents, and the format is such that students can plot progress throughout the course of a year of lessons (there is also a longer 42-page book).

What the book contains:

  • Set termly Targets.
  • Assess whether your student is on track at half term. Make weekly practice notes.
  • Make weekly practice plans.
  • Have parents check practice plans.
  • Create Scale and Arpeggio practice charts.
  • Draw Scale patterns onto keyboards to visualise scales.
  • Find Scale and Arpeggio fingering charts.
  • Log the scales which have been learnt on a blank Circle of 5ths.
  • Fill in intervals of the major and minor Scales and Arpeggios.
  • Chart the rhythmic patterns students have used.
  • Make use of manuscript paper and note pages.
  • Have students create their own Foreign Terms pages.
  • List Student’s Repertoire.
  • Support your teaching with short notes on The Art of Practice.
  • Use The Stages in Learning to structure practice.
  • Find helpful hints on using the book for teacher, pianist and parent.
  • Find fun and thought provoking images on high quality practice.

Sample pages

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For further information about the Music Me Piano Practice Workbook and to order copies, please visit http://www.musicmepiano.co.uk

Putting the X-Factor into practising

(picture credit: The XFactor/Twitter)

Saturday nights are all about the X-Factor, aren’t they? The tv talent show which, after weeks of auditions, boot camps and live performances is now reaching its finale.

I expect you know the format: each singer receives comments (often harsh) from four  “celebrity” judges, who then vote the act in or out. Usually, it’s pretty obvious why a particular act will be voted in or out: the singing was out of tune, not rhythmic, just plain or awful – or totally amazing. When the process to pick who will go through to the live performances (‘boot camp’ and ‘judges’ houses’) is complete, the general public is invited to vote who stays and who goes each week. Sometimes, the results of the public vote are very close, resulting in a “sing off”.

You can put yourself through the X-Factor process in your own practising at home, as a way of making your practising more interesting and more productive. My friend and colleague, pianist and teacher Graham Fitch (whom some of my students have worked with at masterclasses) calls this “using the feedback loop” – and what you’re doing is turning yourself into an X-Factor judge about your own playing.

How to put the X-Factor into your practising:

  • Decide who you want as your judges. It could be Gary, Louis, Tulisa, or Nicole from the real X-Factor, or judges invent yourself.
  • Before you play, make some notes about what you want to achieve. You might want to make a chart, with 2 columns: (1) What am I hoping to achieve? (2) Did I achieve my goals?
  • Play through your piece
  • After you’ve played, think carefully about how you played: what did you like about your playing? What didn’t you like? What do you think you need to do to improve your piece?

It’s a good idea to use this X-Factor method when you are ready to play your pieces through at the end of a practice session between lessons. If your teacher has made suggestions about things you should be covering in your practising, use the X-Factor method to ensure you have covered everything. And when you play through the piece at your next practice session, be an X-Factor judge to check whether you can hear an improvement in your playing.

Teacher’s note: I regularly ask my students how they practice. All too often, they reply that they simply play their pieces through from start to finish, and if the piece sounds “ok”, they move on to the next thing. This is not an effective way of practising, as mistakes or problem areas are often overlooked, or errors are simply reinforced instead of being fixed. One of the main, and ongoing, focuses of my teaching is encouraging all students, at whatever level, to practice intelligently and thoughtfully, using tried and trusted methods which I apply to my own practising.

Further reading:

Practising the Piano – an excellent and informative blog on piano practice by Graham Fitch

Music at Monkton – a blog written by the Director of Music at Monkton Coombe School. Helpful, imaginative informative articles for teachers, parents and students.

Self-evaluation and the keys to thoughtful practice – an article on effective practising I wrote for my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Should you be practising right now?

My students are very familiar with this chart, which sits on the chest of drawers next to the piano. A colleague of mine has it pinned on the door of her piano room, and I should think innumerable other music teachers and students have it somewhere to remind and inspire.

Remember – regular practice WORKS!

With students returning from the half-term break, this seems as good a time as any to reiterate the benefits of regular, focussed practising. And why? Because regular practice ensures noticeable progression in learning and attainment; it trains the muscular memory which aids accuracy; and it helps to develop note-reading skills and musical understanding.

The following chart is also helpful, showing the results one can expect to achieve (or not) depending on how much regular practice is undertaken

1 60-minute Practice per Week = 2 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 30-minute Practice per Day = 6 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 45-minute Practice per Day = 12 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 60-minute Practice per Day = 15 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 90-minute Practice per Day = 24 Months Progress in 12 Months
2 Hours Practice per Day = 36 Months Progress in 12 Months

(Source: http://vahlpiano.blogspot.com)

Students who come to their lessons unprepared (i.e. they have not practiced between lessons) can often find the lesson a frustrating experience as they have to go over last week’s work again. It can also be unrewarding for the teacher if a student persistently fails to practice. Even if you only have 10 minutes spare, do your practising and learn, with your teacher’s help, to pinpoint which aspects of your pieces need the most attention. This way you will get the most out of the time you have and you will see definite improvements. And remember, regular practising (at least five days out of seven) is far better than a lot the night before the lesson.

Having upped my practice time to around 2 hours per day, 6 days a week, in order to complete the work for my Diploma, I can confirm the benefits of regular practice. I learn new music more far quickly now, and have learnt how to practice deeply and intelligently in the time allocated. Keeping a practice diary is also a useful way of tracking your progress, and for keeping notes of what needs to be done.

Now, if you should be practising right now, stop reading this article and get to the piano!