On Practice versus Playing Through

I am republishing this relatively recent post (from March, 2017) because I think it is crucial to keep reminding ourselves that playing through a piece is a different activity from actual practice, and that we need to regularly maintain a piece we want to keep in our repertoire using many of the same practice tools we used when we first learned it.

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Have you considered the differences between sitting down at the piano and playing through your pieces and the processes of practising? The first situation might feel rather like taking a pleasant drive in the countryside. If your car is in good shape (the battery charged and the tanks full of the various fluids car tanks are supposed to be full of), you won’t have to worry about anything. You will of course need to keep your eye on the road, but you’ll just be coasting along admiring the view and enjoying the time out. I find the distinction between cruising around the piano for fun and serious practice is something I need to point out, regularly.

If you are the sort of player who wants to sit at the piano and play for pleasure, you will probably notice a certain frustration after a while that your pieces don’t seem to be getting any better, or that a piece you used to be able to play well is now actually getting worse. You may well discover that on one day your playing flows beautifully and it all feels easy, but on the next day it all falls apart – as though you didn’t know the piece at all. Why is this?

I can always hear when someone has been rattling through their pieces without due regard for maintenance. Things begin to get a bit sloppy, somewhat rough around the edges and – after a while – accident-prone. The lustre has vanished and deep down we know we’re somehow dealing with our second best. If we return to our car analogy, we’ll eventually need to stick some more petrol in there, vacuum it out, wash the windows and occasionally have the vehicle serviced so it can perform at peak efficiency and reliability. I have a feeling a racing car engine may actually spend more time being tweaked and fine-tuned in the garage than when on public display hurtling round the race track. This does not mean there is anything wrong with the engine, only that it needs to be regularly and routinely maintained in order to do its job efficiently.

RollsRoycePhantomCirca maintenance practice

Most of the time piano practice is absorbing, creative and rewarding. Because it is actually work though, it does take considerable concentration and it may not always be a bed of roses. Sometimes it’s hard slog, fraught with frustration, doubt and uncertainty. I had a teacher who told me piano playing was really rather difficult in the grand scheme of things, and of course he was right! Playing the piano to a high level of proficiency takes blood, sweat and tears – the process means there is likely to be joy and elation one moment and frustration and even despair the next. So what are the hallmarks of practice (where we invest in a piece), as opposed to playing (where we spend)?

Maintenance Practice

You have put in some hard work learning a piece, you may even have learned it some years ago, but it will still need to be maintained and kept fresh. It’s a bit like housework, the amount you do depends on your attitude. If you have guests you’ll probably want to clean up a little; if you’re really not that bothered, take a leaf out of Quentin Crisp’s book:

“There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”

Instead of just running through your learned pieces, here are some examples of maintenance practice you can try:

Change the tempo

If it is a fast or even a moderate piece, practise it slowly. A variety of different speeds is a good plan, and you might want to log these with a metronome. Slow practice is great for motor control, for tidying up messy spots, for detailed listening and thinking and planning ahead. You end up being conscious of every note, every finger stroke, every pedal change.  If it’s a slow piece, practise much faster and you’ll benefit from a bird’s eye view as you see the bigger picture, rather than getting stuck in the surface detail.

Small sections

Practising one bar at a time is excellent discipline. Play one bar, stopping on the first note of the next bar. Be strict with yourself over this. Use the Feedback Loop and your inner Quality Control Inspector to sign it off before starting the next bar from the note you stopped on. If you notice the beginning of your piece is good but things taper off as you go along, try this process. Divide your piece up into sections like tracks on a CD. Play the last track, then play from the penultimate track to the end, continuing backwards like this until you reach the beginning.

Start from anywhere

Use a random number generator to help you start from any bar in your piece.

Different rhythms

For passagework, you can always practise using a variety of different rhythms. Another great way to encourage full concentration on what you’re doing and to strengthen rhythmic and motor control is to play one bar at speed and the next bar at precisely half the speed. Go back over your work and do it the other way round, then do it in units of two then four bars, etc.

Hands alone

This is such a basic thing to do, but seriously useful. I especially recommend playing your left hand by itself. It’s often the hand we don’t actively listen to when we play and you might be surprised by what is going on down there.

Play on the surface of the keys

I call this practice tool miming. It’s great for motor control, since by touching the key surfaces rhythmically and precisely we inhibit the full range of key descent. This is a good antidote to the futile and inefficient habit of key bedding, or over exertion in general. It also compels us to hear inwardly, and is an acid test for memory. Mime both hands, or one hand while playing the other. Another variation is to play on a digital piano with the sound switched off.

Play without any pedal

Pedalling adds so much colour and resonance to our sound, but over reliance on it tends to cover over a multitude of finger sins. I highly recommend practising without pedal, aiming for the highest level of tonal control and connectivity with the hands. It’ll feel all the more luxurious when your foot gets to join in again.

Count out aloud as you play

Counting the main beats of the bar (or even the subdivisions as well) is not only a great substitute for mechanical metronome practice, but the act of using the voice rhythmically and concentrating on the metrics of the music puts an added stress on the playing. When you stop doing this, you’ll find everything easier plus you’ll have freed up some bandwidth.

Change Dynamics

Exaggerate all dynamic markings or play deliberately with none. It is great practice to shrink dynamics down several notches, or do everything pianissimo, imagining the intended soundscape.

Play straight

Deliberately remove all rubato, any tempo modifiers (such as the rits and ralls we find in the score or the ones we’ve decided to add) and any tendency to take time at the ends of phrases. This is not a mechanical or unmusical process, just very austere. It’s great for when your rubato gets exaggerated as you gradually habituate to its effects.

Change the character

Deliberately playing with a different mood or character gets you out of a rut and helps you find new meaning in a piece that might have become stale. It can be very creative! For example, try a fast and lively piece slowly and seriously, just for fun.

Practising a performance

This is rather different from cruising through pieces, where you might stop and start to go over a phrase again, or experiment with phrasing, touch, pedalling etc. Practising a performance is a specific practice tool as you go into training for a performance. You practise running through your piece or your programme with no stops whatever, come what may. For details of how to do it, follow this link.

In conclusion

There are several objectives with maintenance practice:

  • to test how well you really know your piece
  • as a continuation of your never-ending journey of discovery about the expressive possibilities within a piece
  • to set yourself tasks that challenge you and keep you focussed
  • to keep you engaged mentally and creatively
  • to stop you getting bored and sounding stale

Try some of these ideas out, and I guarantee you’ll notice your practice gets much more creative and fun.

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