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.

P is… for Piano Parents & Practising!

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Guest post by Natalie Tsaldarakis

Practising is the hardest aspect of the piano learning process to come to terms with. Not least because it is prescriptive, when really not one size fits all, and is done in the absence of the teacher who does the prescribing in the first place. With the parent left to deal with the details of organising suitable practice, it is no wonder it always raises questions. In fact, the most surprising is the two extreme categories of attitudes I have come across: the parent who thinks that it is the child’s sole responsibility to practise without any further supervision regardless of age; and the parent who eagerly tries to absorb the teacher’s comments and then attempts to teach the child himself/herself at home despite not having any further qualification other than simply paying for and attending the lessons. In the hope some of this will be useful to prevent disappointment or misunderstandings I sent out the following to the parents of my piano studio:

Golden rules of practice to live by

  1. Practice should reflect age and level. Five to ten minutes of practice at a time for a very young beginner is usually good. For those starting out regardless of age, five to ten minutes per day, moving to two sessions per day of that duration, is recommended to gradually build both concentration and engagement. As an indication forty minutes daily up to Grade 4 level, and fifty to seventy minutes thereafter would be very good in order to achieve higher passes (merit, distinction). These are at best estimates and take into account neither the challenges presented by specific repertoire choices (‘Black Eye’s from the Grade 4 ABRSM 2017-2018 syllabus comes to mind) nor the different strengths and weaknesses in the learning ability and rate of individual students.
  2. Practice should be a daily habit.
  3. Learning to play the piano is not exclusively about passing grades: it is the journey which matters more (the most!).
  4. Make sure there is easy access to a good enough instrument: poor instruments can actually destroy motivation (no-one wants to play an awful- sounding instrument).
  5. Don’t place the piano next to a TV if the family plans to watch while the student is supposed to try concentrate on practising. Certainly avoid placing the piano in noisy areas of the house.
  6. You can’t learn to play the piano if you have no idea what piano concerts sound and feel like. Attending pupils’ concerts and local competitive festival classes is a start, provided that the students listen carefully to each other, but there is no substitute for a live (professional) recital or concerto. Free concerts especially at lunchtimes will allow you to leave during intermission if children become restless. Try Charlton House on Fridays, St Alfege’s in Greenwich, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, St James Piccadilly, and Hugh Mather’s Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale in West London. Southbank does a lot of family concerts, some of which are free. Another suggestion is Bach to Baby concerts for young families. For secondary school age children we also recommend Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Kings Place, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall (for example the upcoming BBC Proms), as well as the conservatoires: RAM, RCM, Guildhall/ Milton Court.
  7. At young ages (4-9 years) parental involvement is directly related to success in the lessons and by extension in exams, performances/auditions/competitions. Rest assured that parents are not expected to be musically literate.
  8. Lessons need to be regular for progress to be steady.
  9. Lessons should be used for acquiring new skills, getting feedback, trying new things, asking questions. Turning up regularly with no consistent practice done in the week prior to the lesson is a rather poor way to use your time with the teacher. Supervised practice should be at home with the help of a parent or willing member of the family.
  10. Nannies are the wonderful human beings who carry the children safely and on time to and from lessons. Very rarely have we seen a nanny also being able to implement a practice regime like a parent does: ultimate authority (and source of validation) can only be a parent/guardian.
  11. Children below the age of 12-13 are mostly motivated by the love of parents: if parents take active interest in their piano playing, children will continue to thrive. Make sure that even if your work doesn’t allow much family time, you still remember to ask how practice went and what pieces they are playing, etc. Also, you can ask for a short performance once in a while when you get home if it’s not too late.
  12. If a piece sounds messy try to compliment the effort not the result. A balanced reaction, which avoids both empty praise and too much criticism, is perhaps difficult to achieve but necessary.
  13. Some children are harder to work with than others. They may be less motivated if they can’t concentrate well, if they are perfectionists, easily disappointed, not confident enough, or have a rather fixed mindset. Piano lessons address all these issues and can give them the necessary skills to succeed not only in music but as learners in general. As long as you facilitate a regular practice regime and you show your support/enthusiasm for the young pianist’s progress, we are confident the rest will fall into place.
  14. Finally: do not stress a young pianist of promise with comments about future plans of a career. It might just backfire and cause all motivation to disappear. Managing stress is itself a skill, but when it appears in the form of parents’ inordinate expectations, a child may just feel it has no control any more, yet parental love might appear to be at stake. A career and musical talent (even proven through competitions) are not the same. A career should only be (carefully) discussed with pupils who are self-motivated, usually have several wins at festivals/competitions, a grade 8 distinction (preferably a diploma), are at least 15-16 years of age and have themselves expressed eagerness to become musicians. It should never be directed at being famous and getting rich! Careers are very much dependent first and foremost on parental support, right type of exposure (performances/masterclasses/ competitions), careful planning of several aspects, as well as on personality and artistic aims (for which keeping up with repertoire, current performers, and a working knowledge of the various fields are necessary).

***

In the end it’s about making music and enjoying sharing it with others. With funding cuts affecting the provision of state education, at least parents are doing their best to offer their children invaluable experiences, skills, and memories. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Links:

Wigmore Hall

St John’s Smith Square
Southbank

St Martin in the Fields

Bach to Baby
Concerts at St Mary’s Perivale
Barbican

Guildhall School of Music: Milton Court

Royal Albert Hall

Kings Place

St Alfege’s

Royal Academy of Music

Royal College of Music

Trinity Laban


Portraits of The Ivory Duo piano ensemble.Natalie Tsaldarakis is a pianist, and one half of the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble which focuses on film music arrangements and new music for two pianos & piano 4-hands. Natalie is also a trustee of the Cornelius Cardew Concerts Trust and runs a large piano studio in SE London with her husband, pianist Panayotis Archontides.

Currently, Natalie is a PhD student at City, University of London researching the piano pedagogue Gordon Green and the Manchester school of pianism.

 

Connect with Natalie on Twitter

 

The power of “yet”

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

 

The Perfectionism Trap

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“Practise makes perfect” – that oft-quoted phrase beloved of instrumental teachers the world over…. It’s a neat little mantra, but one that can have serious and potentially long-lasting negative effects if taken too literally.

Musicians have to practise. Repetitive, committed and quality practise trains the procedural memory (what musicians and sportspeople call “muscle memory”) and leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the motor and aural components of the music. Practising in this way leads to mastery and enables us to go deeply into our music so that we become intimate with its myriad details, large and small. Meanwhile, setting ourselves high standards is fundamental to our improvement and continued growth as musicians.

But perfectionism is a human construct, an ideal as opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. No matter how hard you practise the fine motor skills involved in playing a musical instrument there is still no guarantee that you will never make a mistake. Go to a concert by the greatest virtuosos in the world and you will hear errors, if you listen carefully. As human beings we are all fallible, and despite our best efforts, we are subject to things outside our control, no matter how long we spend in the practise room.

Unfortunately, the desire for perfection surrounds us in modern society, and the need to achieve perfectionism is inculcated in us from a very young age. “Getting it right” is drilled into children from the moment they enter the formal education system, where they are continually assessed and tested, where correct answers are rewarded with stickers and other symbols of approval and mistakes are regarded as “wrong”.

As musicians, if we carry the unrealistic ideal of perfectionism into our practise rooms we can easily grow frustrated with our playing if it is not note-perfect. This can lead to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment and anxiety about practising and performing. It can put undue pressure on the musician, leading to issues with self-esteem, performance anxiety, and even chronic injury, such as RSI and tendonitis. And the striving for this unrealistic goal can destroy our love of the music we play and rob us of joy, expression, communication and freedom in our music making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music.

The “practise makes perfect“, and alongside it the “practise until you never make a mistake” mantras encourage unhealthy working habits which lead to mindless, mechanical practising, which in turn can cause us to overlook crucial details in the music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook. It prevents us from engaging in challenging experiences and reduces playfulness, creativity, innovation, spontaneity and the assimilation of knowledge – all pretty crucial activities for a musician. If you’re always focused on your own “perfect” performance, you can’t focus on learning a task. Because by making mistakes we learn.

A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing: a misplaced chord or run of notes may indicate an awkward or incorrect fingering scheme – something which can be easily rectified. All errors and slips should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and progress. Repetitive practising should be more sensibly reassigned the mantra “practise makes permanent” – and it is the permanence, an intimate in-depth knowledge of the music, that comes from intelligent practising which ensures that in performance we won’t be derailed by slips or errors, and that we can continue to perform “in the moment” with creativity, freedom and vibrant expression.

People frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence, on the other hand, is realistic, achievable and positive. Excellence involves enjoying what you are doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned and achieved, it develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that 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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Practising the Piano Online Academy

Fans of acclaimed teacher and performer Graham Fitch’s insightful, instructive and highly readable blog Practising the Piano and eBook series, his regular contributions to ‘Pianist’ magazine, his YouTube videos on piano technique, and his inspiring and supportive workshops and courses will be excited to learn of his latest initiative for pianists, the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

  
The Ultimate Online Resource for Pianists and Teachers 

The aim of the project is create the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. Building on Graham’s hugely successful eBook series and blog, this will take his tried and tested methodologies to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, these materials will be presented in an intuitive, interactive manner and will transform the way you approach teaching and playing the piano. The crowdfunding goal is £10,000 and funds raised will be used directly for creating additional content and resources.

Graham tells us more about the project:

I’m passionate about teaching and playing the piano. The art of practising is a special area of interest to me and is rarely taught specifically enough. Our practice time at the piano is just as significant to the end product as the hours of training undertaken by professional athletes, but this time can so easily be wasted unless we have the know-how. Effective practice is essential to mastering the piano and it’s for this reason that I have spent decades researching and experimenting in the art of practising to find the optimal approaches.

I’ve developed a methodology comprising practice tools, strategies and techniques which I’ve tested and refined in my work with students of varying ages and levels of ability. I would love to see as many people as possible benefit from my work but obviously not everyone can get to me for one-to-one lessons. Therefore I’ve embarked upon a number of initiatives to make my work more widely accessible including my blog and eBook series. These provide a conceptual introduction to my approach and I am now planning to build on this foundation with the Practising the Piano Online Academy.

  • My blog (www.practisingthepiano.com) which is regularly updated and contains hundreds of articles on subjects relating to piano playing
  • A Multimedia eBook series which combines text, video, audio and numerous musical examples to introduce my methodology and approach
  • A print version of my eBook series which is currently being developed due to popular demand

 


The Practising the Piano Online Academy will build on these solid, tried and tested foundations and will take Graham’s work to the next level.

The Practising the Piano Online Academy is an extensive, searchable, and regularly updated library of lessons, articles and resources which will:

  • Illustrate my methodologies and approach in more depth with multimedia content, interactive features and resources including 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.

  

What will it do for you?

Whether you are a budding student, keen amateur, passionate piano teacher or a professional musician, the Practising the Piano Online Academy will provide you with the knowledge and resources at your finger-tips to:

  • Get the best possible results from your time spent practising the piano.
  • Avoid injury and overcome technical difficulties with panache.
  • Learn new pieces quickly and master trouble spots or challenging areas within the repertoire.
  • Deliver performances or achieve examination results which reflect your full potential.
  • Inspire your students and enhance their enjoyment of the piano.

How can you be involved?

We’ve already started creating content for this project and are now seeking the further support of pianists and teachers via our crowdfunding campaign to help us make this resource as good as it can possibly be. A number of great rewards ranging from discounted subscriptions through to opportunities to sponsor lessons and obtain a one-to-one consultations with me are on offer. Supporters will also have an opportunity to shape the Online Academy by suggesting and voting for topics and content they would like to see featured.

To show your support for the project and to read about it in more detail, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-practising-the-piano-online-academy#/


Development of the Practising the Piano Online Academy is already underway with Informance (see below), with an expected launch in July 2016.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog http://www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world.
 
ABOUT INFORMANCE
Informance ™ is a publishing imprint which creates rich, interactive digital publications aimed at musicians. By combining state of the art technology with expert insight, Informance enables musicians to reach their full potential in the most effective and enjoyable manner. It offers a modern way to engage with the timeless art of music making.
Informance is published by Erudition (www.eruditiondigital.co.uk), a next generation digital publishing company which partners with publishers and content owners to create purposebuilt digital publications from new or existing content.

Practising isn’t just about playing…..

“Practice only on the days you eat” (Dr Suzuki)

I’ve adapted this text from an American website which is encouraging students to do a ‘100 Days of Practice challenge’.

  • Playing the piano requires development of muscular coordination and mental concentration, skills that are best acquired by consistent and careful daily practice.
  • Designated practice time each day develops routine to help budding musicians succeed at developing their craft.

It’s a simple idea: play every day. Also, going to concerts, playing for friends and family, attending recitals all count as a music day. If you are ill and don’t feel like playing, listen to some music. ClassicFM and Radio 3 both have varied programmes with lots of interesting music – not just classical either! It’s all useful. Otherwise, play every day. All time spent at the piano is useful, even if you are not practising set pieces.

Some of my students have used this YouTube tutorial to learn ‘Someone Like’ You by Adele. Try it – it’s a lovely piece and great for co-ordination!