Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

There are many parallels between piano playing and string playing, and a lot we pianists can learn from violinists about phrasing, timing, tone and much more besides. One of the great violinists of our age is undoubtedly Itzhak Perlman, who has spoken a fair bit about practising. The violin, that is. But I think you’ll find you can apply the same ideas to your piano practice, and I am delighted to be able to share some of the maestro’s pearls of wisdom here today. As it happens these ideas, which come from experience and the great lineage he has come from, are almost identical to the ones I have inherited from my rich pianistic legacy.

What’s the deal about practising? How long should one practise?

Lots of people think the more you practise the better this is. Perlman advocates no more than 4 or 5 hours a day (and those are psychotherapist’s hours, 50 minutes with a 10 minute break). You won’t absorb anything after this, and you can cause yourself little physical problems if you persist. Think of a sponge, which can only absorb a certain amount of water. If you pour more water onto a saturated sponge the water will trickle off and become wasted.

On Slow Practice

Perlman stresses the need for slow practice, in small sections. Also, your practice has to be mindful, not mindless. Have an agenda, and know what you want to achieve. Don’t repeat anything without hearing what you’re doing, because whatever you practise you embed. It’s also important to have patience.

If something sounds great on Monday, and it doesn not sound so good on Tuesday, don’t give up! It means that it’s not yet there. Keep practising slowly again and again, and by Wednesday it will be slightly better and by Thursday even better. Patience is very, very important.

For slow practice to be beneficial it means you have to do it patiently and with full concentration, pausing in between each repetition so you can reflect on what you just did.

Follow this link to my post on practising using the Three S’s – Slowly, Separately, Sections

On Repetition

If you have a problem with accuracy, repetition is obviously very important in practice. It’s how you do it that matters, though.

If something is not accurate, just keep repeating it but you’ve got to do it slowly. There’s a rule: If you learn something slowly you forget it slowly; if you learn something very quickly you forget it immediately. Because the brain has to have time to absorb, so the slower we do it the better it is. Try to do repetition in very small increments – one or two bars at a time.

To read more on repetition, follow this link to my blog post How to Manage Repetition in Practice

On Performance Anxiety

If you suffer from performance anxiety, rest assured that even seasoned performers might suffer from it too, despite outward appearances. Naturally, when a professional performer walks on the stage they beam a smile and exude confidence. It’s all part of the act, since the audience needs to know the performer is in charge. It’s knowing how you yourself respond to anxiety that’s important.

You can’t get rid of nerves really, the only thing you can do about ever is to be familiar with nerves. So that when you’re nervous when you play then you know actually what happens to you personally. Sometimes you might think you’re going to get nervous and it might not happen, and sometimes you say “I’m never going to get nervous” and all of a sudden on stage you start to get the jitters. Don’t be surprised, just be familiar with what happens to you.

For more on performance anxiety, and practising for a performance in general, follow this link to Part 4 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano.