The Pre-Practice Routine – Practising the Piano

Anyone who has ever been in a school classroom will have noticed how the behaviour changes the moment the teacher leaves the room. Presiding over the class, bringing authority, discipline and focus, as soon as teacher’s out the door things instantly degenerate into unruly chimp behaviour.

In our practice room we call forth our inner teacher to discipline our class – the ten fingers. Unless we direct them clearly they’ll end up doing what the heck they want – doodling instead of knuckling down to some serious work, or playing through pieces they already know rather than putting effort and concentration into correcting and refining sloppy passages. Getting the best results from ourselves (and from our students) comes down to practice and training.

While I am no golfer myself,  I am struck by what golfers (and tennis players) do before they hit the ball. I’ve noticed they take quite a bit of time concentrating and focussing before every single shot, presumably so that the ball has the best chance of landing where they want it to go. It led me to question why pianists in their practice rooms often seem to do the exact opposite – bringing their hands up to the keyboard with no real thought or focus as to what they want to achieve.

Having researched this subject a bit, I discover golfers use what they call a pre-shot routine. The first part of this pre-shot routine is where the decision-making happens (good shots rarely happen without 100% focus). The golfer needs to build up a mental picture for exactly what a good shot would look like – how it would fly, where it would land and how far it would roll. A vivid visualisation of what they want to do helps hugely when it comes to the execution.

If you look at this short video about the pre-shot routine, you’ll notice that in Stage 1 the golfer stands back from the ball, using an imaginary line as a boundary.

This boundary line would be the equivalent of the pianist sitting with their hands in their lap considering exactly what they want to achieve when they bring their hands to the keyboard.

  • I am going to play one bar only, at half speed, stopping on the first beat of the next bar. I will only move onto the next bar when I have got it right three times perfectly in a row.
  • I intend to stop at the end of the first phrase, spend a few moments reflecting on my result and then repeat only when I have a clear understanding of what I want to change/correct/improve.
  • The left hand needs some attention in this passage – I’m going to work hands separately for the next ten minutes.
  • I’m going to play the piece from beginning to end, stopping for nothing (when we want to practise a performance of a piece we’ve already built).

You may be thinking this is all well and good for grown-ups, but you’ll never be able to get youngsters to focus like this. I have found it is indeed possible, if good practice habits are developed in lessons and the practice itself is regularly witnessed as an integral part of the lesson.

If we are working on a phrase, I might ask the student to mark themselves out of 10 for what they just did. Invariably they give the right answer! If it’s a 7, I will ask what happened to the remaining 3 marks. With a bit more questioning, they will usually get to the root of it.

Here’s how it went in a lesson the other day:

Me: How would you score yourself for that phrase?

Student: 6 out of 10

Me: Why only 6?

Student: It was a bit stoppy

Me: Ah, you mean you lost the flow. Where exactly?

Student: Here [points to the spot on the page]

Me: Was it in both hands, or…?

Student: It was the right hand

I asked her to repeat the phrase, but before she could play it I had her sit for a moment and rehearse it in her head. We were both very happy with the result the second time – a bit of focus had obviously gone a very long way.

We as artists are … tri-polar. We are three people at the same time. We are Person A, person B, Person C. Person A hears in the inner ear before you play – you hear your ideal, you hear what you want it to sound like – before you put a note down. Person B is that part of you that does the actual playing, the pushing down of the keys. And Person C sits somewhere over there and listens. And if what Person C hears is not what Person A intended, Person C tells Person B what to change. That’s the process. And it goes for every note … on and on. (Leon Fleisher)

The Pre-Practice Routine

The pre-shot routine, or (for pianists) the pre-practice routine, will be especially helpful when we deal with repetitions. Rather than jabbing and stabbing at a passage over and over until it eventually yields (alas only temporarily, as many discover in the following practice session), draw an imaginary line between your hands and the keyboard. Your thinking takes place with your hands away from the keyboard, so that when you do go there you have a very definite purpose and intention. Don’t forget to spend a few moments afterwards reflecting on what you just played. Did your results match your intention? If so, be happy and question if you need to do another repetition. If not, go through the whole pre-practice routine again – just like any golfer would do before they hit the ball.

For more on using the feedback loop in practice, follow this link to my blog post

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