Slaying the Dragon – Practising the Piano

Piano playing can never be an exact science. We will not always be able to say with absolute precision or certainty how we arrived at a particular result in our playing. We may think we know, but in the end it will be a variety of different – and possibly even contradictory – means that bring about a result. Despite fastidious practising, human error and the sheer elusiveness of the act of performance will always play a part. And this is precisely what audiences like, the buzz of the live performance! There is the possibility of something wonderful, inspirational and spontaneous happening, as much as the performer falling flat on his face.

The placebo effect can also enter into this – if you firmly believe you need to do a, b and c to achieve x, then perhaps you do! I am reminded of one of the all-time greats, Shura Cherkassky, who simply couldn’t play unless he went through certain rituals, such as always stepping onto the stage with his right foot first, then counting up to twenty-something before he started. The results were always fascinating. You can hear the audience actually laughing out loud during one of five encores (Shostakovich’s Polka from the Age of Gold) from a Wigmore Hall recital. Then there was the time during a recital in Carnegie Hall in the 1980s when I lifted my eyes to the ceiling realising I was never going to hear piano playing greater than this. Cherkassky was once asked (by a colleague of mine in an interview situation) how he practised on the day of a concert. The response was he played extremely slowly with his eyes closed, aiming to land each finger dead centre of each key. If he felt the crack of the adjacent key under his finger, he would go back to the beginning and do it all over again.

The slightest distraction from the audience, or (more usually) from our own mind can totally throw us. I once heard the most fearful memory slip from one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists (out of my utmost respect for this artist, I mention no names) who came adrift in a concerto being broadcast to the nation. This titan of the keyboard went cold and after some seconds of complete silence began flailing at the keyboard before regaining command.

The point I am slowly coming to is that, no matter how hard we try, performance is mercurial and fickle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could capture all the necessary ingredients for success, our recipe for a particlar piece, and bottle this? The original purpose of this blog was to attempt to lay down precepts for our day-to-day work at the piano – as far as is possible! I maintain that excellent practising will equip us to play to a certain level below which we will not drop, no matter how nervous we are, how bad the piano, or whether we are jetlagged or sick. If we can then get out of our own way, and rise to the occasion, magic can happen and our performance is elevated.


(photo credit: mugley via photopin cc)

In my own playing and in my teaching I am of the opinion that facing a pianistic challenge can be compared to slaying the dragon. Approach it from one angle and it will run off in another. We have to practise one way, and then the diametric opposite (fast then slow, legato then staccato, accented then smooth, raised fingers then super-close fingers, etc. –  the list goes on). If we tackle things from as many different angles as possible, we are more likely to achieve success. We will very likely sense which particular ways have been more helpful, so we can retain these and leave the others.

Remember that all the various approaches to practising are only tools though, to be used in the service of realising our vision of the music. To that end, let each time we sit and practise be a voyage of discovery.

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In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

Preview or buy Practising the Piano Part 3

Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.

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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.

Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!

Take the survey