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Many people love to practise the piano – personally, I don’t enjoy it at all! For me it is purely a means to an end, which will hopefully be a memorable concert performance or recording. That's why I need to achieve as much as I can, as efficiently as possible and in the shortest space of time. So, over the years, I have developed a way of working which suits this philosophy. Whether you are a student or an enthusiastic amateur, (and whether you love or loathe practising!) I hope these following pointers will be useful for you and help make your time at the piano more productive.
Editor's note: Jonathan Plowright made his Australian debut in July and August this year at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. He releases an album of Brahms solo piano music on BIS Records in January 2013. Read the Limelight review of his previous album, Homage to Paderewski.
My first tip, of course, being:
Everyone is different and we all have limitations when it comes to concentration. Some can concentrate for longer periods than others, and you should be able to find out your own limit, and realise when your concentration is dipping. That is the time to stop, have a break, go for a walk etc. The best practice is highly concentrated, where you are constantly thinking about everything you are doing, and there is no daydreaming whatsoever. Personally I find 45-60 minutes to be an ideal length of time for each session and I will do 4 – 5 sessions a day depending on my workload of pieces.
If you feel the day’s practice is going well, don’t do any longer than you would normally or go on any later in the day – you will only tire yourself. Save your energies so you will have plenty left to begin the next day. It is sometimes useful to set yourself a time limit in which to achieve your goal, as you will not always have the luxury of endless practise time.
Sometimes I find the first half-hour of the day is slow, as I have not fully got into the swing of things, and so for me this is the best time to do some finger exercises and scales.
Many students develop their own routine of exercises, which may include written exercises by Czerny, Hanon etc and a few scales and arpeggios. The only exercises I have ever done were given to me by my teacher Alexander Kelly when I was a teenager, and I still do them now. Created by Oscar Berenger, they follow a simple premise – a shifting harmonic progression (C- D- E- F- G, C-D-Eb-F-G, C-Db-Eb-F-Gb, etc) that slowly and simply moves you up through all the keys. If an exercise is simple to remember, you then spend more time concentrating on what your hands and fingers are doing. You should not be worrying about what the next note is.
You can’t always guarantee access to a piano when you need to, so here is an exercise you can also do on a table top or even your knee – with either hand.
Place your right hand on the surface (or between C and G on the piano). Keeping your thumb (1) pressed down on C, play D with your second (2) and F with your fourth finger (4). Now alternate your fingers to play E (3) and G (5) all the time keeping your thumb down on C. Continue these alternating thirds until you are in control of this movement. This can be illustrated for the right hand as follows:
1------------------------------------------------hold down thumb
2-------------------------------------------------hold down this finger
3-------------------------------------------------hold down this finger
And so on –
4----------------------------------------------- hold down this finger
5---------------------------------------------- hold this finger down
These are designed to improve finger independence. You will notice there is a tendency for the finger that is holding down the note to lift up; be careful not to press down hard to counteract this. One way to stop yourself doing this is to very slowly raise and lower your wrist as you are doing the exercise, but not in rhythm.
Your level, how quickly you absorb information from the page, whether you are good at sight-reading, the nature of the piece and genre – these factors will all affect how quickly you learn a particular piece of music. It will not, however, affect how well you learn a piece.
I have come to realise that the slower, more pragmatic the approach to learning a piece results in learning it better and ultimately faster. Treat yourself as an idiot and do not take anything for granted.
Once you start to learn the piece, practise under tempo until you are familiar with all the notes. Do not be tempted to play through the piece a tempo straight away. You could end up practising playing the piece incorrectly, and bear in mind it is very difficult and time consuming to unlearn mistakes.
Firstly, try to use the written fingering, as someone has taken the trouble to work it out for you, but this is a one-size-fits-all approach and might not suit everyone, so don’t be afraid to change it if it really doesn’t work for your hand size. Look at all the information on the page: if the phrasing, dynamics etc are the composer's, then this should be adhered to – it is punctuation and gives the music meaning.
The majority of time spent learning a piece will be polishing, where improvements seem to happen only very slowly. Once you can play a piece fairly well, there is no point just playing it over and over again in the same way. You will become too comfortable, lose your concentration, get bored and become inflexible. Ultimately, having flexibility enables you to adjust your performance to cope with different performing conditions – playing it on a different piano, in a different acoustic or even coping with the unexpected.
As I suggested earlier, when practising scales, play each hand with a different touch (e.g. in a Bach 2-Part Invention, play one hand staccato, the other legato etc). Try emphasising the third beat of every bar when it would be normally on the second, change the shape of your phrases, try playing it at double speed – play musical games with yourself.
In unison fast semiquaver passages – try crossed hands both ways. This forces the left hand to stop being a passenger, and become a leader, therefore becoming stronger and more independent. This is where playing scales in this way comes in handy!
Playing the piano is choreography – of the hands, arms, fingers... your whole body. Imagine you are practising in slow motion, where the movements are the same but just slower. (Don’t exaggerate your movements, otherwise you are practising a completely different movement and when you play a piece up to tempo, these oversized movements will get in the way.)
Try practising at half-speed without the pedal. While you are trying to make it sound less lumpy and more linear, you will be constantly forced to think of the next note and you will achieve a smoother finger legato. Say the notes to yourself as you play them — whether out loud or just in your head — obviously easier when you are playing it slower.
Try practising with the radio on! Especially with spoken dialogue about a subject you are interested in. Trying to block this out of your mind will heighten your concentration.