Snapping The Shutter – Practising the Piano

Last week at Steinway Hall in London, I made a series of three new video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. At the end of the filming, we stopped to take some still photographs and it was then I realised how much photography was like practising the piano!

Out of the 30 or so snaps we took, we managed to narrow down the field quite easily to 4 that were worth keeping – the rest of them would end up being deleted. I may have grimaced at the wrong moment, or the composition of subject and background somehow missed the mark, or maybe the light wasn’t quite right. There would be something that, either on first glance or on closer examination, made me decide to keep a particular version of the portrait, or relegate it to the bin.

There would be others that, after some editing, could actually make it – if not into the pantheon then certainly a scrapbook, as a memento of the event. Usually the good ones just stood out, they had an air of rightness about them. In one particular image, which was otherwise great, the cup of tea that I put on the floor had made an unwelcome appearance in the lower left hand corner, but this could be removed with some judicious cropping. A minute or so editing on iPhoto had rescued this image.

So how is this like practising? In practising, we need to repeat something many times before we can arrive at the result we feel represents how the music should go, when it sounds good, feels good and it just grabs us. The majority of repetitions inevitably end up on the cutting room floor. From overhearing pianists practising I notice how little time gets spent on deciding WHY they reject a version of the chunk of music they are practising. I know this because no sooner have they stopped, they have started again, banging away at it with no particular aim in sight.

The Author, Steinway and Sons, London


Nobody would ever think to pick up a camera and snap without focussing the image in the viewfinder, no matter how many shots you take. Many pianists do just this every time they practise! In our practising, we will always need to refocus, to compose the image in our viewfinder anew every time. This will take a few moments of our time and our attention, and the importance of this cannot be overstated. Snapping the shutter is the easy part, over in a flash.


Unless we take our hands off and reflect a moment on how we’ve done before we start again, how can we expect the next attempt to be any better? Unless we reflect when we finish, we may miss our perfect shot, because we simply won’t have noticed it. Here are two questions we might ask of ourselves:

  • What do I like about the way I just played that part? This is a hard one, because our inclination is always to be self critical in a negative way. Don’t worry, this is human nature! However, we do need to be balanced in our view, and to keep what was good. 
  • What do I NOT like about it? Perhaps the tempo was right but the LH still wonky in the third bar. Zoom in to that LH and see exactly what is going on. Then fix it. Then go back and take another shot.
  • Why am I repeating it? If you like what you just did, why repeat it? To form a habit? Because you’ve still got another hour of practice time to fill? If you didn’t like what you just did, what exactly needs to be different about it the next time?



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