A Technical Problem? – Practising the Piano

My new teaching term began this week with a new student, a young lady preparing for an advanced ABRSM exam. She told me she was having technical problems with some of the minor scales beginning on black notes, and needed some help.

When I asked her to play Eb harmonic minor, it was clear to me the problems she was experiencing were not technical in any mechanical sense but rooted in a lack of perception about the patterns of black and white notes that make up this particular scale. I asked her to play the scale in one hand using just one finger – something she struggled to do. After the shape and structure of the scale had become clear in her mind and she could play it fluently with one finger, I invited her to try the scale again with both hands together. She was most surprised to discover she could now play it easily. Clearly not a technical problem, then!

I have noticed a tendency among pianists to address issues such as this by immediately going into elaborate technical detail, when this might not be the correct diagnosis at all. In order for the fingers to cooperate, they need to be given very clear commands from our brain as to exactly where they are supposed to go, and what they must do when they get there. If we are woolly-minded about the patterns in a piece of music or the type of sound (mood, character, etc.) we are after, how can we expect any kind of fluent or meaningful result?

As the young lady left at the end of the lesson, she asked me the best way to practise her scales during the week. My answer was to firstly visualise them on the keyboard each of us carries with us at all times – the one in our imagination – before moving to the piano. If she could first work out the pattern of whole tones and semitones, she could then picture the shape of the scale on the imaginary keyboard and visualise herself playing it. As well as setting time aside for this purpose, she could do this work on the train, in a queue, indeed in any idle moment. Getting used to visualising regularly away from the piano is the best possible preparation for practice at the instrument. How many hours are wasted, how many bad habits formed in practising something we cannot first imagine?

In this short video a gymnast visualises every stage of a somersault she is required to perform, rehearsing the entire sequence in her brain while standing still and concentrating.

“Scientists have discovered there is a region of the brain that is activated when we imagine a body movement. When Rebecca rehearses the move in her mind, she is creating pathways through her brain cells as if she were actually doing the somersault – all without moving a muscle. It means that when she does perform it for real she should find it easier because the pathways in her brain are already in place.” (The Human Mind, BBC TV Series by Prof. Robert Winston)

Even though the science behind this may be relatively new, influential musicians have been teaching this model for generations. Liszt advised his students to “think ten times and play once”, implying that the mind is the seat of piano technique and not the fingers. Mental rehearsal should come first, contact with the piano second. In order to embrace this idea, we need to fully appreciate two things:

  • Practising away from the piano when it is vivid and detailed can be highly productive – far from a waste of time (remember – we are creating pathways through our brain cells as if we were actually playing the passage in question)
  • Physical contact with our instrument without mindfulness, focus and concentration may be counterproductive – actually a waste of time and energy (we end up making lots of mistakes we’ll need to correct later)

According to his memoirs, Artur Rubinstein learned César Franck’s Symphonic Variations on a train on his way to the concert. As there was no piano on the train, he made use of his photographic memory and practised passages in his lap. Once we understand that great piano practice does not necessarily involve making sounds, we might begin to appreciate that solutions to passages we suppose are problematic because of some technical deficiency or other are actually problematic because we don’t have a detailed mental map of the terrain.

Sit away from the piano, with the score and then without, seeing and inwardly hearing (to the best of your ability) the passage in question. Don’t just do this once, but rehearse it several times. Imagine you are watching a video of yourself playing the passage not only perfectly but effortlessly. Because this is a movie you can run it in slow motion as well as full speed; you can also rewind any part of the clip that isn’t crystal clear and rerun it until you can see it vividly.

For more on visualisation, follow this link to a chapter from Part 4 (Volume 2) of my ebook series, Visualisation Techniques for Mental Rehearsal and Performance Anxiety 

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