Efficient Practising for Busy People

This is the follow-up to last week’s post, in which I outlined the first few stages for cleaning up a piece beset by errors, stumbles, approximations and other anomalies that might have crept into the playing either as a result of overplaying, or faulty (or incomplete) learning in the first place. Actually, the process I describe is good for initial note-learning as well – it’s just a thorough method for inputting the correct information into our brains, ears and fingers in as deep and permanent a way as possible. We build our house on bedrock and not on shifting sands.

Routine Maintenance

Let me clarify what I mean by overplaying. While I am fascinated by all the neurological research I read in other blogs, I am not a scientist and my findings come mostly from my wonderful training and from my own experience as a pianist and teacher. One thing I know for certain is that playing a piece over and over again usually leads to sloppiness,  imprecision (as motor skills lose finesse), ennui and a certain staleness. The clue to keeping everything in tip-top condition is the use of routine maintenance procedures in the practice room. This includes slow practice (for fast pieces), fast practice (for slow pieces), working with each hand alone, practising in sections and many other practice tools I have given before. I include quarantining those areas of the piece that cause you trouble – isolate these spots and work on them daily, before during and after your scheduled practice. Don’t think that just because you have learned a piece, you can now put the cork in the bottle and avail yourself of the contents whenever you feel like it. A car enthusiast will spend as much time tinkering with the engine as they will driving their prized vehicle, and a keen gardener never stops pulling out weeds, trimming borders or snipping with their secateurs. Playing a piece of music at the piano is mystical and magical, there are so many elements that need to come together to make it happen – divine inspiration being pretty low on the list.

Our Inner Craftsman

The satisfaction we get from routine maintenance or learning new pieces from scratch has to come from delaying visceral gratification and developing our inner craftsman. It’s the journey that matters as much as reaching the destination. In order to trust this process, we had better have an idea of the process from the start. Personally, I get a great deal of satisfaction from slow practice and from refining small sections. You’ll have noticed from last week’s stages that practising like this just once is not going to make that much difference – it’s a bit like taking one pill from a course of prescription medication. Carefully going over the slow practice the next day, and again the day after that is where the rewards lie. Do whatever you need to do to resist the almost overwhelming temptation to try it out at speed – perhaps think of a dose of slow practice like a coat of paint that needs to dry before you can put on the next coat. Invest in this, learn to enjoy it and return to it regularly.

The Sight Reading Approach to Learning

Unless you’re a crack sight reader and can deliver polished performances at sight, I recommend one preliminary read-through only before the disciplined, organised work begins. A mañana attitude to proper learning of a piece, while giving us a limited amount of instant pleasure is actually the shoddiest possible of foundations if we have any aspirations to perform it at any point in the future. If we allow ourselves repeated buskings where we guess at those passages we don’t have the patience to work out thoroughly, or gloss over others where our random fingering is clearly not working, we can expect a shoddy end result – no matter how much time we put in later. By then it is often too late, and we can expect to reap what we have sown, no matter how lofty our vision of the music or how talented we are. Just think how much time, energy and money has been spent today propping up The Leaning Tower of Pisa compared with how much it cost to erect it in the first place!

The “One Bar at a Time” Approach

So what happens after Stage 4 from last week’s post? There will come a time when we’ll need to return to our intended speed, but I recommend doing this in small sections. Perhaps a phrase at a time, or even a bar at a time. If we have been working at half or quarter speeds, we can gradually speed things up until we reach (and even deliberately exceed) our performance tempo goal. Or we can practise little bits fast, gradually adding more notes or more bars until we have a longer section. I’m going to repeat a chunk from a previous post (The Weakest Link) to show you what I suggest.

Even though we don’t usually tend to hear music in this way, most pieces are divided up into bar units. For our practical purposes, let’s take each bar as one link. If we are concerned about our ability to string each of these bars together into one long chain without breaking down, there is a great way we can practise to test this as well as to reinforce and strengthen the links.  Here is the process:

  • Play from the beginning of the bar and stop just over the next bar line, on the first note or beat of the next bar.

You can do this up to speed, slowly or very slowly. You have the option of going through your piece in this way with each hand separately.

  • Leave a silence before starting from the note you stopped on and then play the next whole bar, ending on the first note or beat of the following bar.

The silence can be of arbitrary length, or (if you prefer) leave one whole bar’s worth of silence.

  • Continue until you reach the end of the piece, or your designated section for that day’s practice.

If you stumble over any bar, it is important to be able to play it flawlessly and fluently before moving on. If you want to be really secure, you could consider repeating each bar three times anyway. In that case, make a rule to play each bar three times correctly in a row.

So why have I entitled this post “Efficient Practising for Busy People”? This seems like a lot of concentrated work, right? Well, yes it is! If you’re a busy person, you are usually an organised person and this mindset is necessary for efficient practising if you want to see real results. The paradox is that, by incorporating some of these ideas into your practice time, you’ll actually reach your target much quicker than aimless meanderings at the piano. Have a couple of pieces you play, select others that you actively work on.