A Make-Up Removal Tip – Practising the Piano

Someone once said to me “As long as you are trying to do something, you are not actually doing it”, and this resonated with me.

When we first start working on a new piece, there is certainly an element of striving. We desperately want our fingers to obey our vision of  how we feel the music should go, to reproduce the ideal we have in our imagination. I would even go so far as to call this a yearning, and this is what spurs us on. But, if we have put in the slog, there has to come a time when we must let go of the reins and allow the music to take flight. OK, given that we are constantly striving for perfection, a piece will probably always feel like work in progress, but there has to be some mechanism where  in performance we let go of effort, and trust ourselves. For some this is much easier said than done. How often do we walk onto the concert platform feeling totally satisfied that we have put in enough practice hours, that we have covered all our bases (or should that be basses)?

My first year of overseas study was at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, and what happy memories I have of that short time! I made many lifelong friends and started to get to know a culture that was very different from the one I grew up in. My formal lessons were with the wonderful pianist Ann Schein, one of Artur Rubinstein’s very few protégés (I have quite a few of the maestro’s special – and rather cheaty! – fingerings for Chopin). I will never forget a recital she gave where we all spontaneously started clapping before she had quite finished Chopin’s B minor Sonata. She managed to generate such excitement in the coda that we could not contain ourselves. This goes down as some of the most beautiful as well as some of the most exciting piano playing I have heard, and I have heard the greats.

Other highlights of that year were the weekly masterclasses given by Leon Fleisher, for all piano majors. We would somehow manage to cram into his studio (room 413, I think) for two hours of remarkable insights and wisdom from this great musician. I learned as much, if not more, from listening to him work with others as I did from playing for him myself.

One magical thing (among very many) he did was to help a student who was struggling with overkill to regain a necessary sense of perspective and detachment in her performance. I remember she was quite physically contorted and was trying way too hard to be “musical” (to express what she really felt about the music). What resulted was a kind of tug-of-war, where opposing forces cancelled each other out and there was deadlock. It was as though she were suffocating herself – and the music – by a sincere desire to do it justice, not trusting that because she had put in the work, she could now let go and let the playing (and the music) speak for itself. Playing seemed inextricably linked with effort.

Mr. Fleisher’s process was beautiful, and because I am speaking from my memory of the event, this is a paraphrase. He compared our desire to be expressive (to add a rubato here, and a highlight there) with putting on make-up. While it’s fine, even necessary, to add our personal touches, we have to remember to take the make-up off. If we don’t, we slather on layer upon layer of the stuff until we can hardly recognise the original. Then things become grotesque, caricatured and distorted. What, he questioned, is so wrong with the natural beauty of a face anyway, that we feel we have to constantly tart it up?

He asked the student to play the opening of her piece again, now completely in time and without rubato but – and this was the genius of it – not mechanically or metronomically. Play it with good sound, good tonal balance, an awareness of the louds and the softs, the peaks and the troughs (i.e. musically), but not to get overly involved in the feelings and the emotions the music evokes. It seemed to me he was asking her to sit outside of herself and do the equivalent of hum it. As she did this – with great ease and a sense of relief, I sensed – there was an “aha!” smile on her face. After, she was invited to replay it, which she did freely and beautifully. Until the make-up had been stripped off, she had not realised just how much she was stretching that phrase. Each time she had played it, she felt she had to “do” that special something to it. Rather than enhance, she strangulated the moment.




Stain Removal Tips – Practising the Piano

I recently started to teach a mature student who, after a successful career in the banking world was itching to get back to his piano playing. He brought a bunch of pieces to his first lesson that he had learned in his youth, ones he had continued to play over the years when time allowed. He explained his frustration at not being able to get through any of these pieces fluently or to his satisfaction, and really wanted my help.

When he played for me it was clear he had a firm grasp of the music, and I commended him on the high quality of his sound and his ability to shape phrases artistically.  When fingers don’t go where they are supposed to, or go where they’re not supposed to, it is tempting to seek a technical solution. The root of the problem may be mechanical, or it might arise because of a lack of perception as to the requirements of a passage, or simply because of carelessness allowing approximations or sloppy habits to creep in. It was a lack of basic maintenance that was at the root of many of the stumbles. They had become ingrained like stubborn stains.

It felt safe to assume that a banker would appreciate the difference between investing and spending. I told him he had would have been engaging in the latter activity if he expected to have all his old repertoire on tap, and that if he wanted to experience tangible results from lessons he would need to invest a certain amount of time and energy between lessons engaging in practice activities that were the opposite of playing through. I could guarantee he would notice progress, as long as he did not expect dramatic results overnight.

I wanted to give him something definite to work on during the week. My first suggestion was to isolate those spots that caused him difficulty – the places where he fell apart – and to mark these in his scores (square brackets are good for this). He needed to isolate these sections, putting them in a sort of pianistic quarantine where he could give them very careful attention on a regular basis.


Regular readers of this blog will know what quarantine is and how it works, but it never hurts to go over it again.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Pull hard enough on a chain and it will snap at the point of least resistance; if there are weak links in your piece, you risk an accident or even a total breakdown when someone else is listening to you, or on an off day.

The solution is to identify where the problems occur. Make a list of these spots and put them in quarantine for a few days. Quarantine is a designated activity that you return to many times during the course of a practice session. You can attend to each of these excerpts not only before you practise the piece in question but also in between pieces and other activities at the piano. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself returning to the piano a couple of times per day just to attend to the quarantine sections and you may even find it is in these odd, unplanned moments when the greatest insights and the greatest benefits occur.

There may be just one quarantine spot in a piece or there may be several. Be sure to add at least a note or two or a bar or two before the problem area and one or two after it, so you incorporate the spot neatly into its surroundings. Analyse exactly what the problem is and where the problem starts. In addition to the square bracket, you might want to mark the score in such a way as to alert you or remind you about what you need to do (“LH jump”, “3 on G sharp”, etc.). When you are practising the excerpt, make sure to play only the notes you have decided on, and resist the sometimes overwhelming temptation to go on if you have managed it to your satisfaction. In other words, preface the excerpt with a moment of silence while you focus your mind, and another moment of silence afterwards while you reflect on your result.

For more on quarantine, follow this link to my eBook

Course of Medication

If you have an infection, you will probably be required to take a course of antibiotics. The first pill is just the start, and you won’t feel any relief until Day 3 or 4. Even after you have started to experience relief, you still need to continue the course of pills until the end to stamp out the infection and to make sure it does not recur. So it is with practising quarantine spots – doing them just once is the start of the process. Go through exactly the same procedures on Day 2, then again on Day 3 and for a couple of days after you start to notice things are improving.

There are a few blog posts that are relevant to this topic. For more information on mindful practice, follow these links:

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

The Speed of No Mistakes

Chess or Checkers?

The 20-Minute Practice Session

On Practice versus Playing Through