Have you ever sat at the piano in your practice time, not feeling really sure about what you are supposed to be doing? Your mind wanders, you end up doodling or doing something half-heartedly and with no real purpose, then you get disillusioned and start looking at the clock?
When I was a student at the RCM all those eons ago, a classmate confessed that he was never quite sure how he was supposed to practise. He started at the beginning of his piece hoping he would make a mistake so it would give him something to correct. He’d then correct it and continue until the next slip. And so on, until he got to the end. OUCH!
If I might step in here and suggest a better way? This will work no matter what school of piano playing you come from – it is called the FEEDBACK LOOP. Using the feedback loop in day-to-day practising is a highly efficient way to maximise time and productivity. It forces the mind to concentrate on the activity at hand, and encourages critical listening and critical thinking. You will also discover and develop your inner teacher – it is probably the single most powerful tool we can draw on.
The feedback loop is essentially a three-part process. The first part, represented by BOX A, involves a conscious decision as to WHAT you are going to practise, as well as HOW and WHY. Here are a few examples:
- I am going to play the first bar, ending on the down beat of bar 2. I will do this very slowly, listening for complete evenness and aiming for a feeling of full control over my fingers.
- I will play the LH alone for the first section with the pedal, making sure I listen actively to every note, as well as attending to clarity and accuracy of the pedal changes.
- I will play the section from bar x to bar y, concentrating on keeping my upper arms and shoulders loose and free.
- My aim is to play the exposition section of my sonata, without stopping. I will stop precisely at the double bar line, and will not wander further, no matter how well (or otherwise) I feel I have done. Afterwards I will evaluate in what ways my performance matched my intentions (the ideal image I hold of how it should have felt and sounded), as well as in what ways it did not (bear in mind that this image will evolve over time…).
- I need to play through my whole recital programme, and afterwards I will sit and reflect on what went according to plan, and what did not. Thereafter, I will go through each of the troublespots individually until I am satisfied I have made the necessary corrections and amendments.
The adage “Think Ten Times and Play Once” is only practically useful when dealing with small or smallish sections, where you can hold the section in your short term memory, mentally rehearse before playing and then evaluate the results. A bar or a phrase prefaced with acute and repeated inner imaginings of your intended result before playing is a powerful (if not incredibly difficult) exercise in self-discipline. Few of us will manage this at all, let alone repeatedly, yet it is something worth striving towards. The biggest challenge here is spending enough time in BOX A, especially if we think that our practice must constantly be filled with sound.
For all practical purposes, executing BOX B is akin to snapping the shutter on a camera once the subject matter has been composed and focussed. Because you know you will have to account for what you do here, this compels you to listen acutely, and to concentrate on what you are doing.
BOX C is effectively a mirror for BOX A. If the results of BOX B equal BOX A, then BOX C is a resounding tick. The perfectionists among us will not readily admit to this match, even if it were so, and yet it is extremely important that we be as objective as possible in this regard. Another maxim I use in my teaching – “Never Let The Good Be The Enemy Of The Better” – carries within it the kernel of never being satisfied with one’s achievements. While this might motivate the stronger parts of ourself, it could equally demoralise. Thus, if we were happy with the result we need to admit to ourselves that we succeeded as far as was humanly possible at the time. From this vantage point, we can climb higher – without sinking lower. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that we might surpass our original intention – let’s also leave room for magic here!
To complete the loop, we will need to feed back the results of BOX C back into a new BOX A, so that our new focus, and new repetition, reflects MOST CONSCIOUSLY what we have learned from our previous endeavour. It is in this way that progress is made.
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