Resources: Practice Tips


PIANO PRACTICE PRINCIPLES:

  1. Listen! Everything else in practicing depends on you listening to yourself.
  2. Do it right from the very first. Always aim for perfection in notes, sound, and musical expression. YOU CAN DO IT! If you work to get it right from the very first, it’s easy. Once you’ve practiced it a hundred times the wrong way, though, it’s very difficult to play it perfect. Remember: doing it one time right is better than doing it a thousand times wrong.

Psychologists say: A stimulus enters long-term memory (that is, it is “learned”) after it has been attentively observed 7 times. But if an “incorrect” stimulus is first learned, it then takes an average of 35 (!) repetitions to learn the “corrected” stimulus. Learning it right the first time is five times easier than re-learning after learning it incorrectly.

  1. Try to understand the music. Apply the things you have learned in your theory classes and everything you know about music to the pieces you play. Look for the key, scales, chords, patterns, repeated sections, the form, phrases, accompaniment patterns, rhythmic patterns–everything you can find. If you understand the music, you will learn it faster, remember it better, and play it more musically. Keep a pencil by the piano and write these things in the music as you find them.

Psychologists who study learning say: Analyzing the meaning of something helps you remember it longer.

  1. Write things down. It helps you remember things better if you write them down. When you see it a day, two days, and a week later, it refreshes your memory and helps make it a part of your permanent memory. If you write things down, this process will happen automatically. If you don’t write them down, you probably won’t think of them again, and you will forget them.

Things you should write down:

  • Things your teacher says. We pay hundreds of dollars for piano lessons, yet the minute we walk out the piano teacher’s door, we forget 90% of what the piano teacher has said. It’s just like throwing away 90% of the money we pay for piano lessons. The piano teacher tries to write things down for you but just can’t write down everything. You should go home, play through your pieces, and right there in the music or in a notebook write down everything you can remember about your lesson. This doesn’t have to be complete sentences—just notes and phrases that you understand and which will jog your memory. If you do this, you will be amazed at how much more you remember and how much less the piano teacher has to repeat the same thing.
  • Things you figure out about the music. If you figure out a piece is in the key of D major, write down: “D major.” If you find an F major chord, write it down. If you figure out the piece is in ABA form, write it down. Figuring these things out once and then forgetting them does no good.
  • Interpretation. Circle all the dynamics and tempo markings. Write in how you want to play the piece. For instance, draw crescendos and decrescendos to show how you’re going to play a particular phrase.

Psychologists who study long-term memory say: The key to making a particular stimulus a permanent part of your long-term memory is to review it repeatedly over a long period of time. Memories that are not reviewed in this way become gradually weaker with time. Writing things down allows you to review them over a period of time and so make them part of your long-term, permanent memory.

  1. Be your own teacher. Don’t wait for your teacher to tell you every thing to do; figure it out for yourself. Often you can figure out the problem and solve it just as well as the teacher can, so why wait?

In the end, you teach yourself how to play the piano, with some help from others.

  1. Look at practicing as problem solving. Don’t look at practicing as putting in a certain amount of time at the piano, or as repeating your pieces a certain number of times. Look at practicing as finding and solving problems in your pieces.

There are three steps in this process:

Identify the problem. Know what that piece should sound like, and recognize the difference between the way it should sound and the way it does sound.

Figure out what causes the problem. Is the problem caused by weak technique? Bad fingering? An awkward stretch or jump in the music? An unclear mental picture of the music in your mind? Whatever it is, you have to figure out the cause of the problem before you can fix it.

Fix the problem. This might mean using some of the practice methods outlined below, changing the fingering, analyzing the music so you understand it better, or (as a last resort!) just practicing the spot over and over until it is comfortable to play. Problems you can’t solve yourself, ask your teacher or fellow students.

  1. Remember three important questions. How do you know when a passage is good? How do you know that it is, technically and musically, the best it can be?

Asking yourself the following three questions is a good start. If answer “yes” to all three questions, you can have confidence you are on the right track. If there is a problem with one or more of the three elements, you need to do some problem solving.

  1. Does it SOUND right? Does it have the right notes, the right rhythms, the right dynamics and phrasing, the right tempo, the right articulation, the right voicing?
  2. Does it FEEL right? Are you as relaxed as possible to play this passage, or do you feel excess tension in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, or anywhere else? In general, do your movements feel smooth and flowing or sharp and jerky? Do you even have an awareness of how your hands, arm, and body feel, or have you blocked these feelings out altogether?
  3. Does it LOOK right? Can you see any evidence of excess tension? Does the choreography of your movements—hands, fingers, arms, head, and entire body—seem to match the requirements of the passage?

Looking at what you are doing is often a great help in creating a greater awareness of your muscular sensations and feelings. The muscular sensations are often very subtle; your eyes can help you tune into what you are feeling. Observing yourself in a mirror or via videotape is often very helpful.

Students often pay attention to sound only. On the piano, it is very possible to get a perfectly correct and even a beautiful and musical sound, while at the same time misusing your body in quite a terrible way. You may be able to play like this for a year or even ten years—but eventually it will catch up with you. In the meanwhile, you probably have various aches and pains and your sound and technique—even if good—are not as good as they could be.

PIANO PRACTICE METHODS:

SECTION BY SECTION PRACTICE

Divide your piece into small sections and practice each section until it is good. Then combine two small sections to make larger sections. Practice this larger section until it is good. Continue combining sections until you play the whole piece.

Make sure to divide the music into sections that make sense–a phrase, a half phrase, or two phrases, for instance. Don’t just divide it by two measures or one line if it doesn’t make any musical sense.  At the start, your sections should be quite small–small enough that you can almost play it perfect from the start. As you get more comfortable with the piece, the sections can get larger. With an easy piece, the sections can be larger to start with; with a difficult piece, the sections will be very small.

The most common error students make is to start with sections that are too big. Pick a small section and work out the fingering and the counting. Then try playing your section, with careful attention and at a slow tempo, seven times over. If you can’t play it flawlessly (at a minimum: correct notes and counting) after one or two tries, then your section is too long or your tempo is too fast. After playing the section seven times, close the book and try playing it by memory. If you can’t remember it all, your section is too large. Cut it in half and try again.

As you learn a piece, you will gradually be able to deal with larger and larger sections. But when you are first learning a piece, your sections should be short enough that you can memorize them after playing them only seven times.

Why this works:

The rule “memorize after seven times” comes from the psychology of learning. If a stimulus small enough to fit into short-term memory is observed, with attention, approximately seven times, it will enter long-term memory. If this process is repeated over a period of time (say, the stimulus is observed seven times a day for a period of five days) the long-term memory gradually becomes stronger and stronger—a “permanent” memory.  So if, in the beginning, you stick with sections that are small enough that you can “memorize after seven times,” you will be working with sections that are small enough to fit comfortably in your short-term memory. These sections are the easiest for your mind to comprehend and process, so they will be learned and memorized more quickly and they will be retained longer.

If in your practice you play sections of your pieces that are longer than your short-term memory capacity, the beginning of the passage will have “slipped out” of your short-term memory by the time you reach the end of the passage. This overloading of the short-term memory disrupts the whole memory process. Learning and memorizing is much more difficult under these conditions.

Advantages:

Working in a way that complements the natural way you learn, you will learn faster and retain what you’ve learned longer.  If you practice a whole piece or a section that is too long, you forget all those mistakes in the first phrase by the time you get to the end. Working with a small section, you can grasp all the problems at once—and so fix them. You can aim for perfection. It is easy to get one small phrase perfect, even the first day you ever practice it. But it seems impossible to get a whole piece perfect, even after weeks and weeks. Remember: Divide and conquer!

When to use it:

You should use this method with every piece you learn. You should also combine it with other methods.

HANDS SEPARATE

Take a section, and play each hand separate until you can do it well. Then play it hands together until you can do that well.

Advantages:

Playing each hand separate is easier.  The left hand can be weaker and just fumble along without being noticed too much. Giving it special attention will strengthen it.

When to use it:

Usually you should only use this method if you are having trouble playing hands together, or having particular trouble with one hand in a certain section. In sections where you can, it is usually better to start out with both hands.  Hands separate practice works well with hymns, polyphonic pieces (for instance, fugues), and any piece where the hands are fairly independent.

WHOLE-PART-WHOLE

Do the whole thing, divide it up into parts, then do the whole thing again. For instance, play the whole piece, then practice each section individually, then play the whole piece again. Or, play a whole section, then divide it up into smaller sections and practice those, and finally play the whole section again. Or play hands together, then hands separate, then hands together again.

Advantages:

Psychologists who study learning say that this is one of the best methods of learning. It helps you learn faster and retain things better. Psychologists refer to this method as “synthesis-analysis-synthesis”. It can be used in other areas also (for instance, schoolwork).

When to use it:

It can be used at any time in learning a piece, but it is particularly good for a piece that is pretty good but needs to be polished, or to bring an old piece back up to snuff.

For additional tips and information, please see the rest of this article at: http://brenthugh.com/piano/piano-practice.html