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.
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