Chess or Checkers? – Practising the Piano

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now!

Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way.

I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity.

In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice:

The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up.

Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more time and care we take digging down into the ground – the bit that nobody’s ever going to actually see – the stronger our eventual structure will be. If we have any aspirations toward performance, we absolutely cannot do without regular and sustained slow practice. And I mean very slow, not just a grudging nod in that direction. Try to enjoy it, to relish your control of the notes at a variety of slow speeds – this is like building our house on bedrock rather than on sand. As for feeling good, all we do at the piano must feel good. There is no room for tension in fine piano playing, and no reason to get tired, strained or injured if we are using our body properly at the instrument.

Your Servants

Think of the fingers as your servants, and don’t forget to include your two feet too! If you don’t tell your servants exactly what to do, they will run amok and do what they want, causing chaos. Slow practice gives us the opportunity to send a very direct command to each finger and then assess the result. Slow everything down so there is enough time to command the correct finger to go to the right note (rhythmically!) and produce the right sound. If you have done this thoroughly from the start, you will get to a stage where everything works on autopilot – you won’t need to think about which finger goes where and you can enjoy fabulous results.

I was giving a class recently and needed to get this little girl to slow down. I showed her a very slow practice speed and gave her a challenge – “Let’s see if you can do it even slower than that!”. She did, and managed to stick to this very slow tempo. When I asked her how this felt to her, she said something most interesting: “It’s like chess, but not checkers!”. Checkers, or draughts, is that game where you hop over your opponent’s pieces. It doesn’t take too long to finish a game and is nowhere near as demanding or time-consuming as chess, where you need to think long and hard about your next move to make sure it is the right one. When it comes to slow practice, it is only the tempo that is slow – quick thinking, total concentration and intense listening are all key to its effectiveness.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources:

Practising the Piano eBook Series 

There are surprisingly few books that deal with the art of practising. This multimedia eBook series contains hundreds of videos, audio clips, music examples and downloadable worksheets to show you exactly what need to do in order to get the most out of your practice time. Click here for more information.

Practising the Piano Online Academy

Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work 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, it will transform the way you approach playing or teaching the piano!

Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or on one of the options below to subscribe:

  • Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
  • Annual subscription – Save on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription which gives you access to all articles and updates for £119.99 per year (click here to sign-up for this option)

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions:

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