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.

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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)

slow-practice-screen-shot

 

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.

wolfie_feedback

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

 

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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!

A helping hand

We know that practising hands separately in the earliest stages of learning a piece is very important – and goes on being important even when the music is well known. It is often worth returning to separate hands practise to make sure certain sections are secure or to highlight particular aspects of a section, such as an interior melody embedded in the left hand or the voicing of specific phrases or chords, or to test one’s memorisation.

Sometimes sharing a single stave of music between the hands offers a useful way of voicing and shaping a phrase or section. I’ve been doing this with the left hand part of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 to help me create a particular effect in the bass line – the first beat is detached and the second and third beats are marked as a drop slur, with the third beat becoming the lightest beat in the bar. By practising the drop slur with the right hand, I’ve been able to experiment with a more precise articulation of this section which has helped enormously when I play the bassline with the left hand alone.

andantino

I tried this technique recently with a student to enable her to voice the opening of Einaudi’s ‘Ombre’. After the introductory chords, a quaver figure is introduced in the left hand over descending sustained semibreves. Ultimately, one should aim to play this with the left hand alone, but in the early stages it is worth taking the quavers in the right hand. This serves two purposes: it brings focus to the long sustained notes, which form a simple melody in their own right and underpin the entire piece; and allows one to shape the quavers so they are played both evenly and musically.

ombre copy

Another way of using one hand to help the other is to play a tricky section in unison. By introducing the other hand to the picture, the weaker hand feels more supported and playing a section in unison creates a more confident sound which in turn can bring greater security to a section. I’ve been doing this with a triplet figure near the beginning of the Schubert Sonata (bars 13-15). The right hand is more secure here, and when the left hand joins in at bar 14 it can sound ragged and out of time. To remedy this, I play the whole section in unison, giving a little extra weight to the first note of each group of three. Then I cross my hands and practise it again (I was pleased that when asked to do this by my teacher, I pulled it off successfully first time, which shows that section is now well known).

Simply swapping the parts around tests brain and fingers and will demonstrate whether a passage is truly known. Try incorporating some of these techniques into your practising – you will be surprised by the results.

More on this subject here

Symmetry in Practice

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Less is More

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.

Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona’ chair and footstool

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)

Nurse's Tale

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Bars 3-4

  • 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
  • Always practise carefully and thoughtfully

An interesting article from the Bulletproof Musician blog on best practising strategies