To stop, or not? – Practising the Piano

We all know that in performance we’re not able to stop, not for anything. How many times in our practice do we stop because we don’t like something, or we slip, or forget? If it is always in the same places, why haven’t we diagnosed the problem and taken rigorous steps to correct it once and for all?

Each time we stop in the middle of a piece we strengthen the reflex or the habit of stopping – and if we’re preparing for a non-stop situation like a public performance we need to make sure we keep this firmly in mind when we practise.

I’m going to look at three different practice scenarios that involve the issue of whether we stop or whether we find a way of carrying on through slips. We’ll discover there are times when we really need to stop and work things out (or we’ll be ingraining errors), and other times when we must absolutely carry on.

Scenario A: It’s a routine practice session, you’re practising away and all is going fine. Then suddenly you have a slip and land on a wrong note, or forget what comes next. What do you do? You stop! That’s the process of learning and improving, right? You stop to make the correction, then repeat a few times until you’re happy and then move on.

There is no denying there is a place for this type of practice, but could there be a shadow side too? Might this type of practice come back to haunt you somewhere down the line? If you’re going to stop, you’ve got to know how to do it properly. First try and figure out what happened – where did you derail and why? Isolate the spot by approaching it from a few bars before you derailed and continuing on a few bars after. And if you can repeat this segment flawlessly three times in a row to your complete satisfaction then you can probably sign it off as a job well done and move on.

Scenario B: You’re playing a particular run and it’s never been even – you always seems to trip up before you get to the end of the passage. So you give up in the middle of it, stop and immediately have another stab at it, and then another. And another. On the 5th or 6th attempt it has improved and you’re finally happy to have got through it so you move on. Deep down you know you have not really fixed it, but you hope it’ll be OK tomorrow.

This is not good, at all. What have you actually achieved with this type of practice? Getting it “wrong” 5 times and “right” on the 6th attempt. By hacking away at the passage until it yields, all you’ve done is to patch it up. It’s a quick fix that has not got to the root of the problem – and you can be certain you’ll have to go through the same procedure the next day. No performance situation I know of is going to permit you the luxury of starting again, so why do you allow yourself to do this when you practise? Stop and think for a moment. Where precisely does the problem begin? Which note? Why? Is it fingering, hand position, a chord you’ve not really worked out? Summon your inner quality control inspector and get it sorted once and for all! You might need to slow it down a bit, or build it up by doing some chaining practice. We play how we practise, there’s no mystery about this. However, a lot of what happens in the practice room seems to be arbitrary, unconscious and unthinking – rather than preparing us for security in performance our practice might be setting up conditions that favour the exact opposite.

Scenario C: Your diploma is in a few weeks time and this is the week when you’ve scheduled complete daily run-throughs of your entire programme for yourself as part of your practice routine. You don’t feel ready to play the whole programme from start to finish but you know you need to practise the performance so you knuckle down. This is Day 1, and no sooner have you begun your Mozart Sonata when you realise the tempo you set was too slow and it feels sluggish and dull. You desperately want to stop and start over again but you know you cannot under any circumstances do this in a performance so you carry on and make the best of it. By the time you get to the second movement you’re a bit happier. However, you come completely adrift in your Scriabin Etude but manage to struggle through and recover before the end.

This is good. Very good! No performance happens by magic and had you allowed yourself to start over you would have completely sabotaged the benefit of the run-through. It’s from “mistakes” like these that we learn. This has been the maiden voyage of your programme and there are bound to be teething problems. Be thankful and happy that you made it back to port, and that you have still have plenty of time before the big day to patch up the leaks and fix the engine. After each run-through, you’ll spend some time in quiet contemplation away from the piano making a list of those spots that didn’t quite stand up to the pressure of the performance and you’ll isolate these spots and focus on them in your next session, working at them until you’re happy. You will also probably want to do some general maintenance and housekeeping to keep everything in pristine shape. Then, the process begins again – run-through, reflection and spot practice – for several days in a row until you have seasoned and weathered the programme so that it will withstand the pressures of performing in front of others.

First Stages

When we are learning a new piece, we should not be playing it through falteringly from beginning to end. In these first stages I am very much in favour of using slow practice combined with controlled stops at speed (rather than making accidental ones). I have written about the process of bar chaining in my post A Daisy Chain.

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