For Successful Piano Practice
1) THOU SHALT NOT KID THY SELF.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius gives his son Laertes the advice to above all else to be true to himself. Honesty with one’s self is a lifelong process. In the world of music practice it can begin with the simple step of writing down how much you practice. Even if you never total the time or even give it a second look, you have established a measure from which to judge your efforts.
Goal setting is critical for any endeavor. If the requirement is to have a piece up to tempo by a certain date, you can break down the steps necessary for the accomplishment. If these intermediary steps are not met, you must be honest with yourself that the larger goal is in danger and likely not to be met unless additional effort is made. If a secure memory is the goal and little has been committed to memory a week before the deadline, don’t kid yourself, a secure memory is not likely to be the outcome.
We will bear the complete responsibility for our success or failure for the vast majority of our life. While as a student, it is easy to be dependent upon your teachers to order and plan your work and goals. However, you are a student for only a short time and will have to order and plan your work for decades after your student years.
2) THOU SHALT KNOW AND LOVE THY BEAT.
The most important thing in music is rhythm, the most important thing to rhythm is the beat, and the most important thing to the beat is its steadiness.
I can play a familiar melody such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, and make it completely unrecognizable by radically changing the rhythm. However, it is still easily recognizable if it is played in a serial tone row, (maintaining the melodic shape while using large leaps and wild chromaticism) but keep the original rhythmic patterns.
There are two components to a secure sense of rhythm. First you must KNOW where in the score the beat falls. The beat can be any note value assigned the primary rhythmic motive function. You must understand where in the score these beats occur.
The next part is the “Loving”. You must have a physical sense of the beat. There is no guessing allowed in the beat. Clap your hands, stomp your feet, jump up and down, tap a foot, tap a toe, count out loud; do something to physically feel the presence of the beat or pulse.
Now put these together. Know where you belong in the score as these beats you feel come by. No matter what, you must be where you belong! If your playing is controlled by a steady, known beat, with a thorough understanding as to where you belong in the score with the beat, you will have a secure rhythm. Failure will make your playing rhythmically unintelligible.
3) THOU SHALT NOT LOOK AT THY HANDS.
Cognitive scientists will tell us that interrupting the visual flow if information is a significant determent to learning. Looking from the score to your hands and back to the score breaks up the information flow into your memory, creating a garbled mess. It is critical for the mastery of playing, that the fingers and arms learn to judge distances without the aid of the eyes. Make the mistakes and learn from them, but do not let the eyes become the crutch of the hands.
4) THOU SHALT USE BOTH HANDS AT ALL TIMES.
As a young piano student my piano teacher insisted I learn each hand individually before I put them together. I found this very frustrating because I never felt the work I did with my hands individually did anything to prepare me for playing with both hands simultaneously. As I got older and more experienced I came to realize where the notion of practicing hands separately came from. This led me to more firmly believe practicing hands separately is largely a waste of time.
Learning to play one hand at a time, with the other completely uninvolved, does not prepare you to play both hands simultaneously. All that is accomplished is the illusion that the music has been learned. However the two-handed co-ordination needed to actually play doesn’t develop without two handed work.
Now some single hand study can be useful for working out specific technical problems or developing an understanding of a complex figuration. However the time should be limited and the opposite hand introduced immediately.
5) THOU SHALT PRACTICE EVERY DAY.
While this might be self evident to those of us who have made daily practice a life time discipline, we shouldn’t assume everybody shares our understanding of its importance.
In the studio of a client of mine there is a poster showing the difference in how long it takes to do 100 hours of practice. At 5 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week, it takes 4 years to practice 100 hours, but 30 minutes a day it only takes 9 months to do the same work. Cognitive scientists can also demonstrate the greater learning efficiency which occurs to more substantial study periods done on a very regular basis.
The 30 minute per day practicing student will actually accomplish 5 or 6 times as much learning with the same total time invested as the 30 minute per week student. Athletic coaches figured this out long time ago, hence the daily practices most school athletic teams employ.
6) THOU SHALT CONCENTRATE AT ALL TIMES.
Technical facility is only developed with repetition, sometimes massive amounts of repetition. And here lies the problem. It is very easy to let the mind wander far afield as we slug through the 20th or 30th repetition of some passage. On a certain level mechanical facility is only arrived at when conscious control has faded far into the back ground. A certain degree of “mindlessness” is our goal. But this is not a time for day dreaming, but rather a stepping back and becoming mindful of a higher level of activity. As mastery is achieved incrementally, you become aware of a larger context. You fit the details into the larger context of the phrase or series of phrases.
7) THOU SHALT NOT SAY “CAN’T”.
This is the most destructive word which can ever be uttered! It is forbidden in my studio for it is a lie. Unless you are missing a finger or a hand, you most certainly can, you just need some help and time. “Can’t” means I quit and accept failure; it is a statement of finality.
Another word which will get my ire is: “try”. In the words of the great philosopher Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try.” “Try” implies “I expect to fail.” What a self-fulfilling prophesy! It is much better to say: “I will do this!” and then determine what must be done to succeed. If you decide that the cost of “doing” is too great then you can decide to “do not”. The use of these simple words changes our focus from anticipated success to expected failure.
While this does not guarantee success it certainly increases the chances of success and it makes us much more uplifting and encouraging people to be around.
8) THOU SHALT PRACTICE THY SCALES.
These are the building blocks of all technique. Certainly in the “common practice era” scales were the basic building blocks of music however; the sequential finger work found in diatonic scales is most certainly applicable to more modern sequential patterns. Scales are actually very hard to play well and need the special attention they receive. I have known several adult players who had reasonably developed techniques, yet had never spent much time specifically on scales. This was very evident in their scale playing and other passage work. Smooth flowing scale passage involves a very high degree of technical mastery which is very hard to achieve without specific and extensive effort.
It doesn’t take hours of daily effort (though that is not a bad idea when one is younger and occasionally when one is older) but a lot can be accomplished by even 10 or 15 minutes every day, right at the beginning of the day. Plan out a technical regime of scales, arpeggios, chords, and etc. in all keys for the month, you will find that your progress becomes accumulative. The effort in learning D major will improve the performance incrementally of all other keys. After a couple of years of this effort you will find yourself with a great mastery of the basic building blocks of Western music.
9) THOU SHALT NOT WIGGLE THY BOTTOM ON THY BENCH.
Though there are some artists who regularly bounced around on their benches, I don’t think this is a mannerism suitable for most players. Your playing levers (arms, wrists, hands, and fingers) need a stable fulcrum in order to operate with maximum efficiency. Moving around reduces the stability of the primary fulcrum (the torso) and can be spatially disorienting. I think the best models for our students are not the young stars who emote and gyrate as they play but rather the really old timers who sit with great repose and make the least extraneous effort.
10) THOU SHALT EXHAUST THE PAGE OF ALL ITS DETAILS.
Did you see that “p”? What does “senza sordino” mean? Did you see that accent? Some scores are full of performance instructions and others have no obvious markings. The details can include the obvious dynamic and expressive markings and also the much more subtle harmonic and melodic “markings”. Work to understand every word and symbol a composer uses and also look for the stuff “between the lines.” Every composer has a harmonic vocabulary which is unique to them. Harmony shows the ebb and flow of emotional tension. In order to understand the form and function of phrases you must start with the harmony; which chords contain the greatest emotional tension and where does that tension get released?
I work in two areas; Christian hymnody and solo classical piano music. My first hymn recording project was going to be a Christmas present for my parents of 50 hymns from the Presbyterian 1955 Hymnbook. But there are over 600 hymns in it and I just couldn’t figure out which ones not to record… so I did them all! This led to more hymnals being recorded and more waiting impatiently in line. As of this writing I have recorded over 1900 hymns. I have recorded the Presbyterian 1955 Hymnbook, Episcopal 1940 Hymnal, Broadman 1940 Hymnal, and am about 3/4’s complete with the Lutheran 1941 Hymnal.
Here are the lists of hymns and solo music I have recorded so far: