Two activities happen every time we sit at our piano: playing is one, practicing is another. It is easy to say we should practice more and in better ways. What is the point of practicing piano efficiently if we never play for the simple pleasure. We all love to sit at the piano and wander about for as long as we can, perhaps forgetting our sorrows or engaging in deep daydreaming. It’s perfectly fine to just play! However, if you are reading this you are probably looking for advice on effective practice.
- Firstly, if you feel your practice routine is not as effective as you wish it to be, welcome to the club: we all belong. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
- Secondly, if playing is different from practicing, we might have to put our daydreaming on standby for a bit and actually fix things. Let’s look into it, shall we?
My piano professor back in Italy used to tell me: “If, after a practice session, your piece is better in one aspect only, I had been practicing piano efficiently.” In other words, it takes one whole practice session to figure out what exactly is the one change that will make your piece better in one aspect.
Fixing a performance artwork is inherently different from fixing a car engine or solving a math problem. Our perspective on the ‘matter’ at hand constantly changes. Our intellectual and emotional involvement develops with our exposure and understanding of the music. So, the real challenge is figuring out exactly what to do. That way, the fix is meaningful, lasting and in line with our current perspective.
PRACTICING EFFICIENTLY IS ‘SEARCHING’
Remember practicing piano efficiently is akin to searching. Once you have found the issue, the fix usually takes less time. Correcting the problem is simply practical. Finding what you need to fix is much harder, since it requires you to evaluate your performance in detail. You’ll need to be dispassionate about things in order to isolate the problem or a set of problems. In order to make a series of possible diagnoses, you may have to experiment a little. Then, check which diagnosis actually applies. Finally, you’ll have to decide on one or more different approaches to resolving the problem. Whilst no correction has been made yet, your time at the piano has been much more effective than had you just played the same way over and over again.
The hard part of piano practice is figuring out the exact approach that results in real progress. A good coach will teach you how to determine which one of the thousands of possibilities to try to help you resolve an issue.
REAL LIFE EXAMPLES
A few weeks ago, an advanced jazz student and I were discussing why his timing was often off, despite his intense practice discipline with the metronome. It took us a while to discover that the problem was not keeping the tempo but relating to the beat of the piece. In this case, the exact point of progress presented itself after some searching, many attempts and various exercises around the beat. Finally, we changed the diagnosis, given that the previous cure (the metronome) wasn’t helping.
Another time, a different student was getting understandably frustrated as she felt she couldn’t play her classical piece. It required lots of jumps and changes of position, some faster others smoothly. She’d spent weeks learning the score accurately. She would play it from beginning to end to the point where she knew the entire piece by heart. Despite this, she was unable to play it in a flowing and enjoyable tempo.
Her choice of practice was preventing her from reaching fluency. To master quick tempos and jumps you must forget the score and look at the keyboard! Memory needs to take over. To memorize a piece of music, you must stop playing from beginning to end and work chuck by chunk. New level, new diagnosis, new cure …
THE TAKE AWAY
The lesson we take from all this is that progress comes when the next step to take is clear and right in front of us. You need to invest some energy into figuring out exactly why you are not improving. Simply repeating the piece over and over again won’t make much difference.
Hint: it is often the case that we ought to take a step back and review things we think we know well but we actually don’t, in order to move on to the next level.
So, after you have done some playing today, instead of listing all the reasons why it is nowhere near satisfactory, why not put playing in standby and try some fixing? Which exercise or practice do you need right now in order that your music gets better.