I would like to share a very helpful tip for when you need to begin somewhere other than the start of a section or phrase during practice.
You’ve identified the need for greater security, and are practising bar by bar. The rule is to play from the first note of a bar and stop on the first note of the next bar, resisting the temptation to carry on past this point. This is great for control, and also for memory work. It does take a fair amount of discipline and concentration though.
Having played the bar, we stop, remove our hands from the keyboard and reflect on our results
Were the notes all correct?
Did I play rhythmically, with flow, dynamics, organisation and shaping?
Did it feel and sound good?
If not, you’ll need to repeat the bar until your inner quality control inspector gives it the green light before moving on to the next bar.
But let’s say you get to a bar that starts with a tied note – how do you accommodate that?
If you leave that note out you create a problem, because you are not accounting for the finger whose job it is to be resting in that particular key at the precise moment you play the other notes. Playing the note where the tie originates is certainly an option, but my preference is to put the key down silently ahead of time so the finger is in its place the moment we start.
In the third bar of this example from the D minor Fugue from Bach’s WTC (Book 1), first put down the Bb with your RH 5th finger silently (a useful skill in itself) and you’ll be ready to play the bar.
Another useful tip is to make sure you have written in the finger numbers at the start of each bar, so when you begin from there you’ll know exactly which fingers to use.
I first published this post on top tips in October, 2015. I am republishing it now, with a couple of updates.
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The first of an occasional series of tips – these are quick and easy to read, and I hope they will be useful in your practice.
Top Tips #1: Start Anywhere!
When you have thoroughly learned a piece and you’re getting it ready for a performance or an exam, it’s a great idea to be easily able to start from anywhere in the piece.
Left to your own devices you would probably start in a comfortable place, such as the beginning of a phrase or section. That’s fine, but for a challenge use a random number generator to decide for you where to start.
1. Figure out the number of bars in your piece – let’s say it’s 87 bars long
2. In the Min field, enter 1. In the Max field, enter 87
3. Press the Generate button
4. Play from the bar that comes up – not the bar before or after for convenience but the bar specified, even if it is in the middle of a phrase
There are many ways to do this – make a decision beforehand how far you’re going to play on from the bar you started at. It could be 1 bar, or 4 bars – whatever!
If you have divided your piece into sections, you can use the random number generator for that too.
For details of this approach, click here.
If the bar you land on has tied notes, depress the key(s) silently before you begin. Here’s why…
Last week I launched a free email course on how to start learning a new piece and lay solid foundations from the outset (click here to find out more). The following is a summary of some of the tips and practice tools from my course which will help you get started on the right track:
One (or two) read-throughs is enough to get the gist of the piece – aim for a rough sketch at this stage, leaving out surface detail you cannot manage.
Taking the time to practise hands separately is incredibly valuable, not only in the note learning stage but regularly thereafter.
Practising separately doesn’t only apply to hands alone, but also to strands. It can be useful to deconstruct a score and play voices separately and then together in different combinations.
Working on a piece in small sections at the Speed of No Mistakes ensures accuracy from the start and helps you avoid embedding careless errors that may be hard to fix later.
By identifying and marking tricky spots in a piece upfront, you can begin each practice session with a step-by-step sequence of activities designed to solve the problems.
Dividing the piece into manageable, meaningful sections helps us structure our practice and ensure that all parts of the piece are equally solid and secure.
If you would like a more detailed explanation of these tips and tools, plus examples and other resources then please do sign up for my email course! The course is entirely free, featuring seven video lessons ranging from three to twelve minutes in length. The videos are accompanied by downloads, notes and exercises to help you follow and implement each stage of the process.
In my work with amateur pianists, I have found there are certain themes that recur that require consideration. Structuring the practising is at the top of the list as tangible progress is not going to happen without a thorough understanding of what we need to do day by day to learn and finesse our repertoire. In this post I list a few tips and suggestions which I hope will help you on your piano journey!
Differentiate between practising and playing a piece through
It seems many players are unaware of two very distinct practice states:
Playing through (or practising a performance)
Playing a piece through is like spending; practising is like saving, or investing. If you only play through you will embed errors and soon notice the piece doesn’t really improve. In fact it might even get worse, with inaccuracies and sloppy moments creeping in. Professional players are very aware that to keep a piece in good shape, it needs constant practice – working slowly and painstakingly on details, chipping away at awkward corners in a variety of different ways, and so on. We never stop working on accuracy and finesse, just as the gardener will always find jobs that need attention.
Structure your practice
The first thing I would recommend is to identify your problem areas. There are often one or two troublespots in each piece that need special care and attention, and extra practising. Identify these and begin your practice session by working on these bars rather than always starting from the beginning. Go back to them at various points in your practice session, maybe even making a special trip to the piano just to work on these passages.
Another thing – don’t always start your pieces from the beginning. Divide the music into sections and begin each day’s practice from a different section. Otherwise, you will always know beginnings of pieces better than endings.
Many amateur pianists want to come to the piano at the end of a working day and just play, without having to engage in slow practice, or working in small sections with each hand separately, and so on. That’s too much like hard work, right? Well, it depends on whether you want to improve. For any progress to be made, there first has to be focus and attention on a clear plan. There is a delicate balance between the visceral enjoyment of playing pieces through, and the satisfaction we can get from the craft of practising, using some of our time to go through certain tried and tested processes that will help us play better. Include a variety of different activities in your practice session, including improvisation if that floats your boat, as well as working on old pieces. It’s a good idea to keep a practice diary so you can plan and reflect.
Include some pieces in your repertoire that are easier than your current level
Don’t fall into the trap of learning only large-scale works that stretch you to your limits (or beyond). Sure, it’s great to tackle the G minor Ballade, but also include pieces that are well within your grasp. This short piece, Mignon from Schumann’s Album for the Young, for example, is exquisite. The notes are simple enough to give satisfaction from one or two readings, yet you can finesse the piece by working on sound and rhythmic flexibility, and create a thing of genuine beauty.
Develop musicianly skills
The greater your knowledge of theory and harmony, the more you will understand how the music you play is put together, and the faster you will absorb new pieces. Without a basic grounding in theory, you may well find it takes you ages to learn a piece, leading to frustration and disappointment. Fortunately there are some excellent resources available to you. Have a look at some of the many online music theory courses that are available, or explore community colleges in your area. In London, check out the City Lit website, and also Morley College.
Sight-reading and quick studies
We get better at sight-reading when we continually do it, so sharpen up your reading skills by constantly reading through new pieces. Playing duets or ensemble music is another way to do this, plus it’s great fun.
Keep old pieces alive
Try to devote some practice time each week to maintain old pieces, and I don’t mean just playing them through. We use the same practice tools for maintenance practice as we used to learn the notes in the first instance, and many famous pianists describe how they relearn from scratch pieces they have not played for a while. Don’t expect to return to a piece you played a few months ago and sail through it – it’s going to need some work.
Play for others
Nurture your piano playing by sharing it with others in a safe and supportive environment. There are many piano meet-up groups and piano clubs where you get the chance to play for like-minded people. It’s fine to be anxious – most people do get nervous, but after a while you will probably find you can control this and learn to enjoy performing. You will get lots of ideas for pieces you might want to play, and many groups have a social element, such as a trip down to the local pub afterwards.
Regular lessons with a teacher who is skilled at helping amateur pianists up their game is a very wise investment. Make sure you shop around until you find a teacher who can give you solid instruction in a kind, respectful and supportive way. If you feel you are receiving only negative criticism, leave that teacher and move on.
Attend piano courses
There are many piano courses throughout the UK and beyond that cater to the amateur pianist, where you will find excellent tuition, camaraderie and (in some cases) creature comforts. If you would like to attend one of my own piano courses, you can find me at the Summer School for Pianists at Stowe, Jackdaws, Finchcocks, and Blonay in Switzerland.
Setting goals can be very helpful if you want more structure and focus in your practice. A graded exam or a diploma helps you bring together a programme of pieces and sometimes other skills (depending on the board you choose to go with), which offers a sense sense of achievement that can be helpful in your personal development.
Consider working towards an exam or diploma
In the UK, you could consider entering some adult classes (often non-competitive) in a festival. You get the opportunity to play your chosen piece or programme on a good piano in front of a professional adjudicator and an audience, getting feedback on your playing. A search on the The British and International Federation of Festivals’ website will give you details of festivals in and around your area.
Do you run a piano-themed group or event?
We’re in the process of building an online directory of resources for amateur pianists, including a listing of opportunities to play for and listen to others. If you run or organise piano-themed groups or events then we’d love to include your group in our listing! Please click here to tell us a bit more about your group.
Are you looking for opportunities to share your playing?
Click here to sign-up to our mailing list and receive a free video on dealing with performance anxiety by Graham Fitch in addition to several other resources that will help you deliver performances that are fulfilling to both you and your listeners!