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.

Creative approaches to practising

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

We’re jamming

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.

Sing along

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.

Practising the Piano Online Academy goes live

Those fortunate enough to have studied with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch will be very familiar with his intelligent, insightful, inspiring and highly accessible approach to piano playing. The internet allowed Graham to share his expertise and knowledge initially via his very popular and readable blog ‘Practising the Piano‘. This was followed by the hugely successful eBook series. Now Graham’s tried and tested methodologies are taken to the next level with the Practising the Piano Online Academy, a comprehensive library of lessons, video masterclasses, articles, and other material combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials are presented in an intuitive, interactive and accessible manner, and provide a comprehensive range of resources to support pianists of all levels, and piano teachers too. The result of many years of experience teaching at the highest level in specialist music schools, conservatoires and universities around the world, and privately, Graham draws on his own practice tools, strategies and techniques, which he has tested and refined in his work with students of varying ages and levels of ability, to offer a significant new online learning resource.

For those unable to see Graham personally for one-to-one lessons, the Practising the Piano Online Academy offers an extensive and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which:

  • Illustrate Graham’s methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources such as musical examples, worksheets and annotated scores which can be downloaded and printed.
  • Expand on practice tools and strategies with masterclasses and tutorials applying them to popular pieces in the repertoire, exam syllabuses and specific technical challenges.
  • Share the expertise of guest experts on subjects including applied theory, improvisation and healthy piano playing.
  • Be regularly updated, easily searchable and allow for personalisation with bookmarking and notes.
  • Be shaped by your input, responding to your questions and suggestions for new content to meet your needs.

Here are a couple of features which I feel are really valuable, especially to those pianists who are studying alone without the support of a regular teacher:

Learning Pieces section – collections of popular or favourite piano repertoire (for example, Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, Ravel’s Sonatine and Bach’s WTC, Book 1). Each work is presented as a mini-masterclass or lesson (called a “walk through”) with detailed guidance on specific technical issues, productive practising and some contextual and historical background. There are excerpts from scores and video clips to demonstrate and clarify the instructions. An additional feature for this section will eventually be links to annotated study editions, which will offer comprehensive information on how to approach the music, technically and artistically.

Technique – exercises – jail-breaking Hanon. For devotees of piano exercises, and those who are unsure about using them, this section explains and adapts Hanon’s exercises contained in The Virtuoso Pianist to make them relevant for today’s pianist and teacher. As with the “walk throughs” of pieces, these exercises are accompanied by explanatory video clips and score excerpts.

Practising. Here specific aspects of practising – slow practise, mastering polyrhythms, skeleton practise – are explained and demonstrated, with accompanying video clips and worksheets which can be downloaded to print out or saved to a tablet for use at the piano. In the Mastering Polyrhythms section, for example, the reader is not overloaded with information: instead, the subject is introduced and then explored through separate articles, allowing one to build one’s expertise gradually through intelligent, incremental practise.

Overall, the information is presented in an attractive and easy-to-read format, both on desktop computer and tablet, and the site is easy to navigate with clear menus, search functions and links, plus the ability to bookmark and save material to your personal library. The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an impressive addition to online piano study and piano teaching materials. The site is intended as a growing resource and also integrates with Graham’s blog, ebook series and forthcoming Annotated Study Editions. For more information and to sign up, visit https://informance.biz/products/practising-piano-online-academy/

Highly recommended.

At the Piano with Graham Fitch (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

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New resources for pianists, piano teachers and parents

A couple of useful new resources for pianists, teachers and the parents of piano students which have come my way recently.

818099The first, Piano Exercises, is a DVD by Mikael Pettersson, a Swedish concert pianist based in the UK. The exercises were created by Mikael to help pianists develop their technique to play without tension and with accuracy and fluency. Mikael’s approach is straightforward: the exercises are demonstrated clearly  by Mikael himself with useful close-up shots of the hands and fingers, but while the format may look simple, the exercises encourage the development of sophisticated technique including wrist and forearm rotation, lateral arm movement, speed and accuracy when coping with leaps, rapid scale patterns, and glissandi. The DVD can be used by more advanced pianists independently of a teacher, or by students with the assistance of teacher, and can then be incorporated into a regular practise regime. More information/download the exercises

51rtft-uaul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Encouraging students to practise is of course a crucial part of the piano teacher’s role, and if the students are children teachers rely on the parents to ensure practising is done between lessons. Understanding how to practise productively is important for both students and their parents who supervise the practising and a new book by Peter Walsh, an Australian pianist and piano teacher, offers practical advice for parents of piano students. In The Non-Musician’s Guide to Parenting a Piano Player, Peter covers aspects such as encouraging an interest in the piano, choosing the right instrument, choosing the right teacher and creating the right learning environment at home. In addition, the chapters on practising are particularly helpful. Many parents (and also quite a few students!) think practising is simply playing through the pieces or scales. Peter explains the purpose of practising and how parents can assist their children in practising efficiently, productively and enjoyably. This includes advice on how much time to allocate to practising, posture at the piano for children and teenagers, encouraging concentration, how practising can be subdivided into sections covering technique, revision and rehearsal and exam/performance preparation, using a simplified version of Josef Hoffman’s “practice pie-chart” to explain these aspects. This section of the book is particularly useful as it demonstrates that parents do not need to have specialist musical knowledge in order to support their children in their practising. There is also a section on preparing for exams and performance. The back of the book contains a list of FAQs and a simple glossary of musical and technical terms. The overall approach is non-specialist and accessible. Recommended.

Wolfie makes piano practise made fun

The ‘Wolfie’ piano app (named after who else but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) offers students and teachers an interactive and supportive learning tool using up-to-the-minute score-reading software plus a whole host of other features.

Developed by music tech company Tonara, who first launched an interactive score-reading app back in 2011, the team behind Wolfie appreciate that piano practise can, at times, be lonely, dull, repetitive and disheartening. Teachers expect their students to practise between lessons as regular practising is proven to bring noticeable progress, and there can be nothing more dismotivating for student and teacher to have to sit through a lesson going over all the same things as last week. Through interactive, colourful features, Wolfie makes practising fun, young piano students feel supported and inspired, and teachers can set targets and track the progress of their students (this feature is available with the full, paid version). Children today generally love technology and many are very comfortable with using a tablet or smartphone. Wolfie taps into knowledge: the app looks like a game, but it also offers an intelligent learning environment for children of all ages. In effect, it provides a bridge between the old-fashioned paper music score and 21st-century tech. Download the app here here

The most significant feature in the app is the ‘Magic Cursor’, which follows music being played by students in real-time on the score itself (in effect, the app “listens” to the student playing, via the iPad’s microphone; this also provides the option to record oneself playing). The magic cursor (whose colour can be customised according to your preference) enables students to really focus on the music, encouraging notational and rhythmic accuracy, and improving sight-reading skills. The magic cursor works with any level of music (though it is less consistent in more advanced music) and because it “listens” to the music as it is being played, it is sensitive to tempo changes. As the magic cursor tracks one’s progress through the score, it also turns the pages, avoiding the need for additional devices, such as bluetooth page turning foot-pedal. There is also the option to listen to the piece being played (in a rather expressionless MIDI format, but useful nonetheless), and a synchronized recording feature allows the user to simply touch the relevant note in the score to advance playback to tricky passages. For those who prefer a visual cue, integration with YouTube allows you to see and hear the music via a selection of videos, including performances by famous pianists such as Daniel Barenboim.

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Alongside this, users can make recordings of themselves playing, which can be shared with teacher and others. The app also gives instant feedback to the player on fluency, pitch, rhythm and tempo, with cheerful emoticons and motivational statements, and awards badges for time spent practising, dedication and completeness. There is also an option to “challenge a friend” by issuing an email invitation to download the app and join in the fun. The attractive, easy-to-use layout of the app makes it enjoyable to use, and if practising is fun, children will more readily engage with it.

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From a teacher’s point of view, the app offers positive reinforcements to encourage students to practice more, and teachers can track their students progress via the app (by adding students to their account).

The app has its own music store from which a wide variety of music can be downloaded and played, all using the magic cursor and other features within the app, including an adjustable metronome. There are popular classics, exercises, pop songs, jazz standards and film soundtracks, and all the scores are organised by level from ‘First Steps’ to ‘The Master’. Once downloaded into the app, scores can be annotated. You can also upload your own scores (in PDF format), though these will not work with the magic cursor.

In addition to all of this, there are helpful guides and a video tutorial on how to use the app. I’ve really enjoyed using Wolfie myself, and also with some of my students, who gave it a very positive endorsement and deemed it “a lot of fun”!

Wolfie for Piano is available to both teachers and students in one-, three, nine- and twelve-month subscriptions beginning at as little as £3.75/month. A free trial version allows potential users to try the app before committing to purchase. Requires iOS 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPad.

For more information, visit www.wolfiepiano.com

 

(This is a sponsored post)

You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing

The desire for perfection surrounds us in our modern society. “Getting it right” and “being perfect” are inculcated in children from the moment they enter the formal school system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded are “wrong”.

Many piano students carry this need to be perfect with them when they come to the piano and can easily grow frustrated with their playing if it is not note-perfect. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable – because we are all human and we make mistakes. And by making mistakes, we learn. People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is achievable and positive.

I encourage all my piano students to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for excellence (within their own capabilities), for expression, musical colour, vibrancy and a sense of “ownership” in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part. Many students say to me “the examiner will mark me down if I play wrong notes”. In fact, examiners are looking for playing which displays musicianship and musicality, expression and communication. Of course an accurate performance is desirable, but it is not the be all and end all.

I go to many concerts and hear many pianists, amongst them some of the finest on the international piano circuit. I have heard memory lapses, smeared scales, muffed chords, but I have also heard a wealth of exciting, memorable and truly amazing performances. I have also heard note-perfect performances which lack personality, with no discernible connection between audience and performer, are over-thought, or just plain dull.

How to be amazing:

  • Know your pieces well (the result of careful, thoughtful practising). This is also good insurance against performance anxiety
  • Think about the special character of each of your pieces. What images or stories does the music suggest? “Tell the story” of the music to your audience using dynamics, articulation, clearly defined phrasing, and a vibrant sound
  • Play with confidence and poise (this makes your audience feel confidence too). If performing before an audience, even if only at home to family and friends, don’t scurry shyly to the piano and never pre-empt your performance with negative comments such as “I played this so much better at home” etc.
  • Before you play, take a few moments to prepare yourself. Don’t rush into the opening bars of the piece. Instead hear the music in your head, imagine your hands playing the notes. Remind yourself what the piece is about, for you, and think about how you wish to communicate this with your audience.
  • Banish negative self-talk while you are playing and remain focused on the music. If you feel your concentration slipping, take a deep breath in and exhale slowly to pull your focus back to the music.
  • Gain pleasure from your music and enjoy playing it, to yourself and to others. Music was written to be shared!

People go to concerts to be transported away from the every day. They enjoy the emotions which music inspires in them, and the sense of communication between performer, the music and listener.

Be amazing – at home when you’re practising, in front of others when you’re performing, but above all, enjoy your music!