Posts tagged practising

Wow! (or how to get good at piano)

A few weeks ago, two different piano parents asked me if I noticed anything different about their child at the most recent lesson. My response was, “Yes! Wow! What happened?!” The parents’ answer was, “I helped my child get to the piano every day this week.”

Success in piano is very much dependent on three things – the teacher, the student, and the parents.

Typically a teacher and student only spend about an hour together each week. At lessons I explain new concepts and demonstrate the physical aspects of creating sound on the piano. I teach good practice strategies and habits. Usually the student leaves the lesson with a clear understanding of the new concept or skill. After the lesson I email detailed instructions about what to do at home during the week. And at the next week’s lesson I review the student’s understanding or proficiency of the new concept or skill.

The student should be at the piano every day. I suggest practising 30 to 60 minutes per day, five to seven days per week. (Advanced repertoire demands 90, 120, and even 180 minutes per day.) It really does take a lot of time to get good at piano, and it is harder than it looks. The student should be reading their homework instructions at the start of each practice session and setting a daily goal for what they intend to accomplish. [Read this post about what good practising sounds like.]

The parents’ part of piano success is perhaps the most important – parents help the student schedule their practice time. It’s one thing to register for piano lessons, but it’s another thing to create time in each day for your child to practice. And what child excels at time management? By a parent insisting that piano practice is a part of every day, a student can achieve the frequent repetition necessary to master a new skill. I also want to acknowledge my piano parents’ many other contributions – teaching assistant, financial backer, chauffeur, cheerleader, and having a desire to enrich their children’s lives with music.

So the difference in these two students at that lesson was so dramatic. The students were extra cheerful and confident. They had mastered the new skills in their assignments and were eager to show me. It was a pleasure to listen to music done well. They had completed all their weekly goals, and we set off on some new discoveries. Live is busy, and it is a big challenge to meet weekly practice targets – even for me! If only all our days and weeks went according to plan. [P.S. to my piano parents: If you are facing daily battles to get your child to the piano, let's have a chat.]

Is that how it goes?

My students just performed at a students-only performance class, and are now preparing for our upcoming recital. At recent lessons we have been discussing practice and memorization strategies. I keep threatening to make a video for my students of me practising. And I suspect that we are taxing the ears and patience of our fans at home because practising and performing sound quite different from each other.

Here’s the ugly truth: good practising sounds bad. What I mean by that, is that the work at home in the days leading up to a performance should not sound like polished performances repeated day after day. So what does good practising sound like?

Good practising sounds incomplete while we work on a specific section of a piece – one measure, one phrase, one section, or one page – often out of order, and jumping backwards and forwards through a piece.

Good practising sounds repetitious while we are trying to master a new skill. Often the goal is to play a small section correctly three times in a row. If you make a mistake on the second attempt, it’s back to zero and you begin the cycle again. Gaining control of dynamics may take five, six, seven attempts until we can consistently deliver the desired volume.

Good practising sounds too slow. Deliberate slow practise is one of the most effective tools we have. We can concentrate and play with 100% accuracy. To repeatedly play a section of piece with a stumble or hesitation is learning to play it that way forever.

Good practising sounds like one hand at a time. This is a useful strategy when a piece is new and we are figuring out notes, rhythm, and fingerings. Later, when the piece is further along, we will return to hands separate work to review rhythm and articulation. And ahead of a performance we will return to hands separate work to review our memory.

Good practising sounds silent. When we are comparing sections or memorizing away from the piano the room gets quiet. And sometimes we listen to recordings of other performers to get some artistic ideas.

Good practising sounds like someone talking to his/herself. When I have one of those “eureka” moments, it is often accompanied by “ooooh” or “aha!”. And there’s a fair bit of muttering when things aren’t going as well as I’d hoped.

Please come to the recital. We’ll have it all put together and give you a great show.


Let us count the ways

Oh, that sounds impressive

This year’s teaching theme is technical development. A significant portion of a pianist’s practice time is spent working on scales, triads, chords, and arpeggios so that we have that facility at our fingertips [pun intended!] when we encounter those elements in our repertoire. At our recent group class, my piano students and I were discussing technique. My dictionary defines it as ”a method or way of performing the technical details of an art; technical skill: The pianist’s technique was brilliant…

Great example. My students and I tried to define brilliant technique. Then we watched some excerpts of Lang Lang and Vladimir Horowitz in performance.

In the week following group class, I collected students’ ideas for different ways to practice our technique. To become better players, and to save us from boredom, here’s a peek at our list so far:

Let us count the ways



How Does It All Add Up?

I’ve been meaning to write about some of the things that were going on in the studio near the end of this season. We were so busy finishing the year, that there hasn’t been much time for writing.

One thing I did was to run a five-week contest. Students earned points for their scores in sight reading, ear training, and technical work. The points climbed higher each week. Because the contest was running, I (the teacher) made sure to cover these elements at every lesson. They (the students) started paying attention – working at home, and focused concentration at the lesson. Everyone improved while the contest was on.

In addition, they earned points for the number of days each week that they practised. I ask my students to practise at least five days per week. While I do have some guidelines for how much time to practise each day, I don’t usually mandate setting the oven timer. I want my students to approach their practising with the attitude of taking whatever amount of time is needed to get the job done. And a student will make better progress by practising for 30 minutes over five days versus practising 75 minutes over two days. There is something very important about the frequency of practising.

So, the contest points were geared to getting yourself to the piano during the busiest time of the year. For the duration of the contest I didn’t care if practise time had to be shorter than usual. I just wanted them to make it a priority to schedule their practising each week. And guess what they accomplished?

Six hundred and seventy-five practice days!

Plus, another excellent recital.

How to Cheat at Piano

There’s been a lot going on in the studio lately. Everyone (including me!) is preparing for something – group performance class, music festival, exams. The music is mostly ready to go, except for:

  • the place where the memory always breaks down
  • the place where the left hand plays the pattern upside down
  • the place where the dynamics are forgotten
  • the place where the voicing is vague
  • the place where the pedal should really change

Plus, we’ve been chronically short of practise time with school and sports. But the deadlines are immovable. So how do we prepare so that our performances shine?

For a week (or even two) we have ignored what has been going well, i.e. the first line or the first page, and instead hyper-focused on a small section. Depending on what needed to be accomplished, the size of the section varied from four measures to one page. By playing only what really needed attention we were able to be extremely demanding and make a dramatic improvement in a short amount of time.

You’re right, you can’t really cheat at piano. It takes time and discipline to create a great performance. But when you’re close to a performance, you can practise only a small section for a short amount of time and see a big improvement.

P.S. This strategy also works well when you are just learning a new piece. Map out a small section and focus on learning the rhythm, notes, fingering, and dynamics correctly right from the first day.

“Oh, I always have trouble there.”

At last week’s lessons I heard that comment at least once every day. The solution: a pencil.

The problems have been little things like the name of a note with several ledger lines or the fingering needed to get through a tricky passage. It only took a few moments at the lesson to figure things out. As I passed the student a pencil, I secretly smiled to myself and wondered why they tortured themselves for a whole week of practising.

An ordinary pencil is one my most useful practising and teaching tools. I even have a set of coloured pencils that I have assigned certain meanings. Sometimes I use the colours to help a young student decipher the black symbols on a white page of music. Other times I use them to highlight dynamic markings. Their uses are creatively endless. And they all have erasers in case we change our minds.

If you’re the parent listening to practising at home, make sure your child has a pencil at the piano. When a student is learning a new piece, there should be a good deal of stopping and starting to figure things out. If they are repeating a stumble for an entire week, they are learning it with a mistake. When I see them at their next lesson, that neural pathway has already been formed and reinforced. I can’t undo it. The student must build a second neural pathway in the upcoming week. Amazingly, no matter how hard and long we work, the error learned in the first week has an annoying tendency to show up months later in performance. And then it really is a case of “I always have trouble there.”


31 Days to Better Practising

Now that the piano season, school, and fall sports have launched, I’m hoping you are settling into a good practise routine. When you’re busy you have to be focussed when you practise your instrument.

Chris Foley is a pianist, teacher, vocal coach, and the author of The Collaborative Piano Blog. His blog is one of my favourites. In 2007 Dr. Foley posted a series of articles entitled 31 Days to Better Practising. The articles have now been published as a free e-book. Since Dr. Foley says it better than I can, we’ll be discussing some of his strategies at upcoming lessons. Download a copy for yourself.

Who Needs a Teacher Then?

The other day I was out for lunch with a friend at a Chinese food restaurant. When the bill came, there was a fortune cookie for each of us. Not wanting to tempt fate, I reached for the closest one, and opened it with a bit of skepticism. (Seriously, fortune cookies are just for fun, aren’t they?) Mine read, “Practice is the best of all instructors.”

After laughing at the uncanniness of how a random fortune cookie could possibly know that I was a piano teacher (and spend a significant part of every day practicing and/or thinking about my students’ practicing) I marvelled at the big truth in the small sentence.

I see about 30 students each week, and we usually cover a lot of ground in our weekly lessons. I still enjoy taking lessons myself. I’ve noticed, though, that the real learning happens in our daily practice.

When I get engaged in my practicing (as opposed to just playing something while daydreaming) I learn a great deal. Much of my practicing seems like a science experiment in which I seek to solve the mystery of, “Why can’t I get this to sound the way I want?” The solutions are many and unique to each problem. To improve a passage where I always stumble, I must look closer at the notes and patterns or rework [and rework again!] the fingering pattern until it sounds and feels effortless. To master a complicated rhythm for two hands, I must understand beat and rhythm and learn to coordinate another new physical motion akin to patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time. To memorize a piece securely, I must analyze the piece’s structure and chord patterns – and understand the historical time period and unique voice of the composer’s musical language. To create a captivating performance, I must craft the phrasing as carefully and elegantly as the best short story. To play with a beautiful sound I must listen, adjust to the instrument’s response, and listen to get just the sound I desire. And then I repeat until the results become reliable.

Practice really is the best instructor.