In a recent post, I suggested that performing (or playing through), can be compared to spending, whereas practising has its parallels with investing. Successful people in the business world will have struck a healthy balance between the two: too much of one and not enough of the other is a formula that can’t work, either way round.
The pianist will constantly need to be juggling the act of playing through pieces (either to themselves or an audience) with practising, using the tools and processes I have been outlining in this blog. The trial by fire comes when you remove yourself from your cosy practice room and play for others. I have probably told this anecdote before, about one of Neuhaus’ students who, after an unsatisfactory performance in a lesson, declared it had gone perfectly well at home. “Well, my dear, then I suggest you go home and play it” was his retort.
The romantic idea that concert pianists don’t have to practise, that the muse is forever on tap, is of course complete twaddle. Artists at the peak of their profession will have dedicated their lives to this activity and will have made numerous extremely costly sacrifices. Regular and routine practising is an absolute, a priority above all others. And the job will occupy their waking hours as much as that of any top executive.
I am often asked how much time should be spent practising, and while this is a question that does need to be addressed, it is often not possible to say specifically. It depends SO much on the individual – their concentration span, what they are working towards, and their powers of organisation. One can spend hours at the piano and achieve little, or half an hour and make great strides. In the former situation, I would say that not only can excessive practising be a waste of time and energy, but it might be positively detrimental.
THE “HOW” OF PRACTISING
I recently had a student who had to prepare a piece at very short notice for an audition who came back the next lesson complaining of pains in his arms from having suddenly doubled his usual daily practice time. To add insult to the impending injury, he had completely ignored my instruction to spend the first few days working at the piece only very slowly, but in his panic had repeatedly tried to play through the thing at tempo, thereby ingraining a slew of bad habits and much physical tension which I had to undo. Thus, we have to know – very clearly – what tools we need to use and when.
In my own practising, I am constantly asking myself two questions. “Why have I put my hands on the keyboard?” and “Why have I taken my hands off the keyboard?”. In other words, I think it is of prime importance to know what you aim to achieve, and why you are using a particular practice tool. Am I aiming for a play-through? Do I need to do some slow practice? Do I need to strengthen the memory in the left hand? Whatever your practice goals, nothing will be achieved without TOP CONCENTRATION, the full involvement of the mind in the activity. Mindless mechanical practice is largely a waste of time.
Rather than setting aside a certain amount of time for an activity, it can often be preferable to think in terms of percentages. You might want to devote 20% of your total practice time to scales if you are working towards an exam, 50% to a main piece (sonata, concerto, etc.) and so on. It all depends on your individual needs and in any case these percentages will shift from week to week.
If you are working on a large programme, you will need to organise not only your practice time very carefully (and skillfully actually) but you’ll need to set daily, weekly and monthly goals. My philosophy about this is the more structured you are, the greater the margin for spontaneity.
KEEPING A PRACTICE DIARY
It can help to write all this down in a practice diary. I like the idea of dividing the page into two columns – what you plan to practise day by day in the left column, and what you actually achieved in the right one. That way, the left column can be tweaked and adjusted according to reality, as opposed to some unobtainable ideal. Don’t just write down what you want to practise on any given day, but also – most importantly – how.