When I started this blog in 2011, I wanted to set out what I called The Practice Tools. These are universal principles for what we do when we practise, applicable to all ages and levels of ability no matter our pianistic heritage or technical approach. You could even think of these tools as techniques of learning.
Even though I do not teach many beginners nowadays, I have taught plenty in the past – and continue to do so from time to time. Based on survey results and feedback I have had, there is a desire for more material in the Online Academy geared towards beginners and elementary level players and their teachers. I am happy to report my first offerings in this direction are coming soon! In this post, I offer a few suggestions regarding practice tools for elementary level players.
Clapping and Counting Aloud
Virtually everything we do at the piano is connected to a pulse. That includes scales, exercises, studies and what we do when we practise. In my work as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK I notice that the trainee teachers do not help their pupil set the pulse before they play. It can be as simple as counting a bar or two, or clapping or snapping your fingers while speaking a few words rhythmically (…“can you hear the qua-ver beats?”). This should be done relentlessly before every activity until the pupil learns to do it for themselves. To make sure we are really feeling the rhythm, not just thinking it in our head, clapping and counting aloud is a great thing to do before we practise each phrase.
Rhythmical errors can be fixed, or preempted, by clapping and counting aloud before playing. It is not rocket science but it is often overlooked. There are several ways teacher and pupil can do this together to do it. Clap the main beats with your hands and speak the rhythm of the treble and then the bass stave. You can count the subdivisions of the beats (“one-and-two, three-and-four-and”), feeling the length of long notes by keeping your hands together for the duration, and reflecting this in your voice (“one, two, three-four“).You can use French time names, words or even nonsense syllables if you prefer. If you are able, singing the line while counting is wonderful training for the ear.
An insistence on good fingering (not necessarily the fingering that is given in the edition) is the foundation for reliable and secure performance. Once we’ve experimented a bit and settled on a fingering (which we’ve written in our score) we need to make sure we stick to this fingering each and every time we practise. After a while, we will find out fingers going to the right notes without any conscious thought whatever. All my study editions are heavily fingered, including all the one-bar and two-bar snippets I have extracted for learning and practice.
For more on fingering, follow this link to my blog post Bespoke Fingerings
Hands Separately and Together in Small Sections
This may be old-fashioned, but practising hands separately in alternation with hands together is another extremely important part of the process of learning a new piece. And not just once! Return to this process for a few days for the best results. I like one bar (plus one note) at a time, repeated three times correctly in a row. We then progress to units of two bars, then four. Do this slowly at first.
Encouraging Slow Practice
For me, slow practice is an extremely important stage in the process. I advocate it in the early stages of learning a piece – as well as later on for refinement, control, general maintenance and memory work. It is not the whole story, but it is an important part of the picture and I notice kids in particular do not always know how to do it. In order to practise slowly, we need to deliberately disobey some of the instructions on the page (an allegro marking, a metronome marking, and so on) while obeying others. This can be confusing for kids. I firmly believe slow practice has to be taught, and has to be witnessed regularly in lessons so there is some incentive for them to do it when they are at home.
For more on this subject, follow this link to my blog post Helping Youngsters Practise Slowly
Quarantining is the process of identifying mistakes that always seem to trip us up and isolating them from the rest of the piece. Quarantine becomes a designated practice activity distinct from work on that particular piece, since it embraces troublespots from other pieces too. We work on our quarantine spots before, during and after routine practice – also at odd moments throughout the day which wouldn’t normally count as practice time. In the Online Academy resources on ABRSM material, I will extract bars that are likely to cause problems and offer suggestions for practice that can start before the rest of the piece is tackled. For this to work, it is important that the pupil has some acquaintance with the piece first.
Introducing a New Piece
The way we introduce a new piece to a pupil is so important, and we can be creative here. There are a few pieces in the new ABRSM syllabus that are arrangements of folksongs, or well-known melodies (When the saints go marching in from Grade 1, The Piper o’ Dundee from Grade 2, etc.). I have taken the tune and devised a worksheet that teachers can assign a week or so before introducing the arrangement as it appears in the exam book.
Online Academy Exam Resources
I will be creating a series of resources featuring the ABRSM syllabus designer for elementary level players, young musicians and their teachers. Some articles will provide a step-by-step (or phrase-by-phrase) approach to learning a piece thoroughly and securely, building a solid foundation for performance in an exam or if you are playing a piece simply for pleasure. Other articles will offer practice exercises to help solve technical problems or tricky passages, or will provide introductory material designed to be practised before you approach the piece in the exam book. I will also be covering other topics such as scales and arpeggios with general tips and practice worksheets for each grade further down the line.
To start with, I decided to pick a few sample pieces from the early grades in the new ABRSM syllabus and offer walkthroughs with downloadable, printable worksheets that players can take with them to the piano to guide them in their practice. They are set out clearly, making it easy for teachers to give a section or two as a practice assignment for that week. The first example is JC Bach’s Aria in F from the first set of pieces in the Grade 1 syllabus which can be viewed here.
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If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources:
Practising the Piano Online Academy
Building on my blog posts and eBook series, the Online Academy takes my work to the next level with a comprehensive library of lessons, masterclasses and resources combined with insights from other leading experts. Aimed at piano teachers and pianists, it will transform the way you approach playing or teaching the piano!
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