Here’s a guest article from Graham Fitch writing in Pianist Magazine. Whilst its obviously written for piano players, there is plenty of great advice here for all musicians to help you make your practise sessions efficient, productive and, best of all, rewarding
With next year’s Olympic Games very much in the news at the moment, I find myself thinking of the time and energy the athletes have to commit to every day in their training regimes. Like the athletes, we pianists also have to train– playing the piano requires countless hours of dedication. We had better know what we are doing, though! Here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of your practice time.
Commitment Keep to a regular daily practice schedule come what may, even if you are tired or don’t feel like practising. It is the commitment and the regularity that matter, not the amount of time you spend. ‘Little and often’ will help you achieve far more than overdoing it one day, and then doing nothing for the next few days. You might find it more convenient to put a little time in at the beginning of the day, and again later – whatever works for you.
These might be short-term goals (what you want to achieve in this practice session, what you want to achieve by the end of the week, and so on). You may want to consider working towards an exam (ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall in the UK) or participate in a music festival. It is helpful to set deadlines to perform for other people (this could be your teacher, a friend) or even a date with a tape recorder. Listening to yourself is a real eye- and ear-opener and an extremely useful exercise once in a while.
Organisation Divide up what you have to do into compartments, such as scales and technical work, pieces, sight-reading, etc. You may find it helpful to keep a practice diary. A scale chart is also a good idea. Concentration is the key! Scientists have discovered that we learn most efficiently when the full attention of the mind is focused on the task at hand. Free your space of noise, disruption and distraction – switch off your phone!
Isolate problem areas
There are often one or two trouble spots in each piece that need special care and attention, and extra practising. Identify these and mark them in your score (I like to use a square bracket). As you master these places, you can erase the markings. I suggest starting your practice session by working on these bars in isolation, before you start 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 play these passages (TV commercial breaks are good for this!). Another thing – don’t always start your pieces from the beginning. Divide the music into sections and begin each day’s work from a different section. Otherwise, you will always know beginnings of pieces better than endings, and first movements better than last movements.
Craftsmanship Learn to practise methodically and to make progress one step at a time. Think of practising as saving or investing, and performing as spending. There has to be a balance between the two activities. Even a piece you have perfected will need constant care and attention. I like to use the analogy of a brand-new car from the showroom: when you drive it off the showroom floor, it will be gleaming and shiny, the engine finely tuned and all the tanks full. After a short time, you will need to refill it with petrol, polish its windscreen and have the engine serviced. So it is with our pieces, they require constant tinkering and maintenance. If you develop a sense of craftsmanship, you will relish this work and take enormous pride and satisfaction in it.
Fingering Write in a fingering and stick to it. Try out a few possibilities and then choose the fingering that best suits your hand, remembering that the fingerings in printed editions are just suggestions. Keep a pencil by the piano and write the fingerings in your score. If you stick to the same fingering each and every time you practise, you will eventually form muscular habits – reflexes that won’t need any conscious thought. Your fingers will go where they should, automatically!
The three S’s
If I had to recommend one formula for success, it would be this one: ‘Slowly, Separately, Sections’. Practise at a snail’s pace, if not slower, and start off in small sections that you repeat. Repetition will form habits. I like one bar plus one note, repeated at least three times. Then start from the next bar (from the note you have just ended on) and repeat that three times. As you get more familiar with the notes, you can increase the length of the sections. Practising with each hand alone is also indispensable, especially the left hand. When you work like this, you need to listen intently and constantly evaluate your results as right or wrong, even or uneven, comfortable or uncomfortable, and so on. Learn to be your own teacher.
Practising vs. playing through
Remember that ‘practice makes permanent’ – any wrong notes, bad fingerings, and stumbles you make repeatedly will soon become ingrained and will be next to impossible to correct later. Try to resist the temptation to play through your pieces until you have dug firm foundations. Wait until you have done enough of ‘The Three S’s’ and then alternate playing through your piece with returning to slow, careful practising. Have other pieces you play through – pieces you have already learned, or simpler music you can manage quite easily.
A balanced diet Choose pieces from different periods and in different styles, and also consider pieces in more popular idioms. Exploring unfamiliar territory can be very inspiring, and it is good to challenge ourselves and play music outside of our comfort zone. Playing the piano can be an isolated pursuit – teaming up with someone to play duets can be an extremely rewarding activity.
Find a teacher
Find a qualified, professional piano teacher to help and support you. Use professional bodies such as EPTA or the Incorporated Society of Musicians to locate teachers in your area. There are teachers who specialise in teaching children, others who have more experience with adults. If you are an adult beginner, or a re-starter, your teacher will appreciate the courage it takes to come for lessons.
This article appears in issue 62 of Pianist magazine, along with lots of other must-have articles for beginners and returnees to the piano. You can order issue 62 at pianistmagazine.com
We came across Pianist magazine as one of our subscribers has an interview in the current issue. We asked editor Erica Worth for permission to reproduce the above article and also to find out a little more about the magazine. She says: “Pianist magazine is the internationally renowned piano magazine for people who love to play the piano. You don’t just read Pianist, you play it too. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced pianist, you’ll find lots to interest you. Inside you’ll find interviews with top concert pianists, full-length features on current issues and how to play the piano, CD and sheet music reviews, Q&As, teaching tips, readers’ letters, concert highlights and so on – basically all that one expects from a top music magazine. The added bonus comes in the form of 40 pages of specially selected sheet music, on proper manuscript paper, for beginner, intermediate and advanced pianists. A free tutorial CD comes with every issue, so that you can get to hear the pieces before playing them. Pianist is like having a piano teacher in your own home, whenever you need!”
To find out more about Pianist in general – all that it offers in terms of piano-related articles, piano learning advice and tips, piano sheet music, history articles on the piano legends and much more, go to pianistmagazine.com