Thinking Aloud – Practising the Piano

The first time I listened to a recording of Glenn Gould it was late evening and I was alone in the house. I swore I could hear someone singing along from the kitchen. I even ventured there, fearing an intruder had fallen under the spell of the music and had joined in with it.

After a few minutes of unease, I finally realised my stereo system was playing tricks on me – the singing was coming from the recording and the pianist himself was the culprit.

[youtube id=”qB76jxBq_gQ” width=”600″ height=”350″]

I encourage my students to sing all the time, to feel the direction of a line and also where the high points, low points and breathing places are. When it comes to shaping a melodic line, I find the voice never lies (no matter how croaky or unappealing you think you sound). Try conducting, and even moving around the room too – use as much of yourself as possible before relegating the job to your hands.

But by doing this will I accidentally sing when I perform?

I believe most people have a built-in mechanism for switching this voice off when they are actually performing, because this is rather important. I shall assume this to be the case as I write my post today.


In addition to singing, I have found thinking aloud as I practise can be extremely beneficial.

The idea came to me years ago when I was memorising a particularly complex work – there was a section that my brain couldn’t seem to grasp despite having done a thorough harmonic analysis and found plenty of memory cues.

In frustration, I found myself slowing down the tempo and calling out the chord labels and memory cues just before I played them. This had the effect of crystallising everything. After a few days of doing this I was able to hear the sound of my own voice before I screeched out the information, so now I could shut up.

I no longer had issues with this spot and was able to play it without the need to think at all.

buddhist compliment

Here’s how your voice-over might sound:

  • Dominant 7th last inversion, tonic doubled RH
  • Ascending bass line…. diatonic…. now chromatic… cadence into G flat
  • Hold middle note and move outwards chromatically

Note: Doing this parrot-fashion won’t help, I’m afraid. The process only works if you understand the harmonic functions and can really see the patterns.


I have found calling the sequence of finger numbers out loud can help strengthen my memory as I practise. Slow the passage down and simply call out the finger number before each note (to be done hands separately, of course!). You can do the same thing with a line – if you find yourself hesitating in the same place, repeat the passage calling out the note name (or singing it) just before you play it.

Problem Solving

When I work with students I might probe a little before giving any feedback or information and ask them what qualities they are aiming to bring out from a piece.

How exactly are you practising to achieve your intended results, or how are you going to practise to solve a particular problem? After a few moments of reflection, I am often impressed how perceptive and clued up they really are when challenged in this way.

I am convinced that speaking this out makes all the difference. Forming the words focusses us much more powerfully than just having another stab at it. Reading this recent post in the Bulletproof Musician blog has reinforced this view.

So, how about asking yourself these sorts of questions before, during and after your practice session? Putting your thoughts into words can be much more powerful than just going through the motions at the piano. This is why I recommend a practice log, but I find talking out loud to myself is a very quick and effective way of complementing any written plan or reflection.

If you believe the old wives’ tale that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, think again.


Some of the best chamber music coaching I received was when the coach gave a running commentary as we played. They would call out directions and then give words of encouragement when we responded.

  • Big crescendo now!
  • Start the rallentando here – take plenty of time!
  • Less left hand, bring out the alto part…
  • Nice and warm…

When we practise, we tend to work at passages at different dynamic levels and different speeds from those marked in the score. Soft passages often benefit from deep, firm practice and strong passages from light practice where we might concentrate on looseness and freedom across the keyboard (rather than energy directed vertically downwards).

Whereas we build control into fast passages by practising them slowly and surely, slow music is often easier to comprehend when we practise it deliberately much faster.

For more on the benefits of practising slow music fast, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series (click here)

I often feel when I learn a new piece or brush up an old one I haven’t played for some time, I have the components of the music laid out in small pieces on my worktop. After I have stripped down the engine into its components, I need to find a way of reassembling everything at the correct dynamic levels and performance tempo.

Engine Laid Out, Ready To Assemble

When we put the piece back together, we need to be like the conductor who knows absolutely what dynamic level the music is at any given moment and who shows with his gestures the rises and falls of the music as well as where the tempo needs to ebb and flow.

Some of this work is best done away from the piano, in our head. When we go back to the piano, experiment with calling out loud the dynamic levels (and other relevant performance directions) as we practise!

If we notice ourself tensing up at a particular spot, we can use our inner coach for encouragement.

  • Loosen the wrist here!
  • Free the thumb…

Inner Critic

There’s no switching off the thoughts that pop into our head as we play.

Sometimes thoughts or words seem to come from our harsh inner critic:

  • Darn! That accent on the E flat was NOT nice, and not at all what I wanted!
  • Horrible! Lumpy, uneven and out of control.
  • No, no, no! Much too fast.

As we practise, listen to the words that come from our inner critic by all means (because they can spur us on to greater heights) but be careful how we couch them so our talk doesn’t become dispiriting.

Wouldn’t it be kinder and more helpful to turn around the harsh, shaming and negative chatter into more empowering and constructive statements?

  • Aim for the top G rather than the E flat before it.
  • You’ll need to do a bit more work on control there.
  • Try establishing your tempo from the second theme, it’s easier to feel it there.

A positive inner critic is not a bad thing at all – when we’re practising! Like our singing voice, leave it in the green room before we walk on stage or it could spoil our performance.

***   ***   ***


Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

Buy Practising the Piano Part 4 Now

Click on the “Buy” button below to purchase Part 4 of Practising The Piano now:

[prod_btns code=”part4bundle” title=””]

Or save a further 20% by purchasing all four parts of Practising the Piano together:

[prod_btns code=”ptpp1234bundle” title=” “]
Further information on the complete series is also available here and additional discount bundle combinations are available on the series catalogue here.