Thursday, 24 February 2011

12 practical ideas for piano practice

1) Practice slowly, with "emotional content"
Rachmaninoff advocated slow practice, so should you! I used to think practicing slowly was just a mechanical routine, and dreaded the shear tedium of it. Violinist Mansoon Bow advocates slow practice but with the same musical feeling as if you were playing normal speed. Remember also to practice in the correct rhythm, you may need to get out your metronome at a very slow speed.
Tiger Mother supervising piano practice of up to 2 hours a day

2) Aim for tension free practice
In the course of your practice or playing at normal speed, you feel tension, tightness in your forearm or hands, it's time to stop. Practice the passage that you had tension over again but this time slowly and in the most naturally relaxed way you can without compromising tone quality. You'll need to get creative and experiment with your movements until it feels so natural and relaxed. Also remember, it's not just your fingers, hands and arms that may have the tightness, it's also the shoulders, back and posture which might need alteration too. Suppleness in the wrist helps with pivoting and staccato. Listen to the difference in sound when you feel tense and when you are relaxed, it should be a much better sound!

3) Hands Separately - too often we're so eager to play a piece we play hands together at the detriment of our individual hands playing optimally. We also focus too much on our right hand and forget the supporting, yet equally important harmony progressions of the left hand. Again, practicing mechanically won't help, look for the harmonic progresssions and any countermelodies.

4) Voice by voice - also known as the SATB - soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. Sometimes there are surprising yet delightful countermelodies and counterpart melodies to discover!

5) Dancing fingers/hands:
Much as we gesticulate and express emotions and thoughts with our arms and hands; on the piano, feel the mood of the piece in your fingers. If it's a lively piece, make your fingers dance, in other words
your fingers take on the character of the piece.

6) Bring out the direction of the melody - listen to a recording of the piece, and make sure
you understand where the emphasis is, and where the music is going to. Remember to arrive there and not get interrupted by lag or where a problematic technical area slows you down! Crescendos and decrescendos also create a flow, shape, and direction to the music.

7) Analytic Practice
Sometimes a piece may be so challenging you'll really have to break it down and perfect the smallest of atoms and work your way up to as you construct the piece with your hands.

8) Incremental Approach in a new challenging piece with a technical obstacle, don't get frustrated, 10 minutes a day on a problematic area will yield great results by the end of the week, you'll soon find you'll improve in no time!

Practice tips  9-12 form an analytic and incremental approach.

9) Note by Note - for very tricky passages, when there are lots of accidentals, unusual harmonies or quite thick chords, use this method. You'll need this approach if you are consistently playing a succession of wrong notes in a passage. This method helps you recognise each note and will compel you to think about what fingering you will use. Remember to use the most natural and efficient fingering possible.

10) Bar by Bar - set yourself a daily target to learn x many bars every day. It's quite a good way to see how far you are progressing, and before you know it, you're ready to join the bars into a musical phrase.

Schumann Carnival Characters
11) Characterisations - Phrase by Phrase - musical phrases are like speech, different characters making different statements and interjections, think of the dual characters in Schumann's music - Eusebius and Florestan, the inward and reflective character and the latter outgoing and boisterous. In the music of Beethoven there are masculine and feminine conversations occurring all the time, think of all the unrequited love and frustrations Beethoven experienced, as he fell in love with his female students of a much higher social class.

12) Section by Section - remember also to practice how you'll end one section and start another. Afteral, they are not separate pieces in their own right! In other words, make sure you join the dots!

Hopefully these practice tips will get you started if you feel stuck or require a fresh approach to practicing.
Feel free to comment and add your ideas to this blog!