Practice Makes Perfect

Practice Makes Perfect

The great Ukrainian pianist Shura Cherkassky once said that if someone heard him practicing, they would never believe he could actually play the piano! When asked how he did practice, he would reply: "Slowly. Very slowly." A number of great musicians have been largely self-taught, but none were blessed with enough talent to make practice unnecessary. Even the great Rachmaninov had to practice his Third Piano Concerto before performances, in one instance on a dummy keyboard while sailing to America! And if Rachmaninov had to practice, let's face it so do we.

Some people have the self-discipline to undertake regular, constructive practice. Others need a little cajoling and a few, despite our best efforts, just don't seem to see the point of it. Like it or not though, practice is the key to success when learning a musical instrument. The greatest teacher, the finest ear and a profound love of music: you can have them all, but if you don't practice you might as well chop up the piano for firewood! If your heart is willing but you're unsure of the fastest, easiest ways of achieving your musical goals, I hope my suggestions this month will help.

Playing for Time

One of the most important things I teach is how to practice effectively. (Not that I really like the word practice, exploration and experimentation are much more apt!) Very few people seem to know innately how to practice. It requires a level of patience that many learners don't naturally have, and the temptation is often to try and go too fast, too soon. Practicing isn't easy. It requires a great deal of concentration, and whatever your ability you must always set goals. You need to know exactly what you want to get out of a practice session, or you're likely to get nothing at all.

Whether you're six or sixty-six, practice is an integral part of your progress. Ideally, each of your lessons will lead naturally on to practice, and practice in turn on to your next lesson. In a perfect world, it's a continuous process that creates its own energy. All aspects of music are connected, and your teacher can help you to make those connections and encourage your musical thinking. In my lessons I like to take pieces apart and put them back together, identifying the different ingredients and explaining them in ways that can be applied to any other music my students play.

If I'm learning a new piece myself, I often find it helps to begin the process away from the piano. Once I've formed an initial impression in my mind (be it the general character, rhythmic shape, articulation or anything else that stands out), I can use those elements to develop other ideas when I play the piece through. Then the technical work can begin, particularly fingering. Playing the piano is all about choreography, and even the most complicated music can be condensed into small component parts (be it hands separately, a single bar or even, on occasion, a single beat).

Fingering is an art in itself, and its importance is often understated in my experience. It's a subject I intend to explore in much greater detail in the future, so for today I'm going to limit my comments to saying that too many pianists use the first finger that comes to mind. That, I'm afraid, is often a recipe for disaster. Good fingering is the basis of so much with the piano, and you should always think very carefully about which one to use and why. Most important of all, when you've made your decision write it on the score. It's the only way to remember what you've decided!

Fun and Games

Too often, there's confusion between playing and practicing. Children, in particular, can find it hard to make the bridge between having fun and the serious world of practice. It's actually very important to play games at the piano and let off steam, but a clear distinction must be made between the two. Claudio Arrau loved practicing, he was fascinated by the idea of cultivating his sensibilities. And Murray Perahia said that if you make practicing a quest, it becomes more than an exercise and makes sitting down to practice for six hours a day much less strenuous.

I don't know about you, but I can rarely afford the luxury of one hour's practice a day never mind six! Learners are often taught to make practice a re-creation of their lesson, and there's much to be said for the structure this approach gives. A conscientious teacher might, for example, advise their students always to begin their practice with scales. But is this approach as successful as it might sound? For some it can seem a little too daunting, and the end result might be a token gesture or no practice at all. The secret, surely, is to vary your practice routine and keep boredom away?

The hardest step is often getting started, again particularly for children. So remember, nobody likes to be lonely. If children play football or act in a play, they do it with friends. Playing the piano need be no different, the trick is to remove that initial psychological barrier. The best results come from using a variety of strategies. Establishing the difficulties of each piece at the outset will help you understand what to do next, and if you're learning a short piece perhaps just concentrate on one line a day? No one can practice everything every day, so aim for quality over quantity.

There are certain 'tricks of the trade' when it comes to practicing, but in my experience people learn what works best for them through trial and error. For all of us though, it's important not to sit too high or too low, or too near or too far, and to be comfortable when we play. Scales, while not a musical panacea, are also important (planes have wings, cars have wheels and musicians have scales, as the saying goes!). But again, be creative. Practice three octaves apart, with your hands crossed. Experiment with different touches, dynamics and keys signatures.

Building Technique

There are things you can do to make your practice more effective, which is especially important if you have limited time. Practicing with one hand on the keyboard and the other on the wood, for example, is good for coordination, rhythm and a host of other things. It really focuses the mind on each hand, ideal for Bach fugues for example (where you have to be aware of each individual line, and where each finger has to be its own orchestra). A metronome can also be useful, particularly for deciphering rhythms: try tapping the beat with one hand, and the rhythm with the other.

Of all the difficulties an amateur pianist has to contend with, a lack of secure technique is the most serious. Technical exercises, like scales, should be part of a balanced practice routine. Your teacher will be able to steer you towards the right exercises for your particular needs, but Pianoforte Technique on an Hour a Day is worth exploring, as are Essential Finger Exercises and Daily Technical Studies. Hanon and the Czerny Op. 261 and Op. 821 exercises are excellent too, if you want to work on specific technical difficulties without the distraction of interpretation.

It would, of course, be impossible for me to cover every last practice tip and technique in one go and I'm not going to try, but I will be returning to related topics in future months. Many books have been written on the subject of practice, and most are full of useful advice (you can also read my own top tips here). In particular, I would recommend three for your consideration: The Art of Practicing the Piano by Jeffrey Whitton, The Art of Piano Playing by Heinrich Neuhaus and Practicing the Piano by Frank Merrick (the full text of which can be downloaded online, for free).

Ultimately, of course, books and articles (including mine!) are no substitute for the real thing. Whatever your ability, you must have a good teacher. The most important skill to develop is an ability to listen to yourself, and to hear what you are playing. An additional, experienced ear is incredibly helpful to this end but if, for any reason, you are working alone, invest in a tape recorder. Without care we hear what we want to hear, but if you listen to a recording of yourself you will hear what you really played. I warn you though, it's not always a pleasant experience!

< Back to News & Views
Print article
If you would like future articles sent directly to your inbox, please complete the form below.

First Name:
Last Name:
Email address:
  I have read the enclosed terms and conditions and understand that my details (including my email address) will not be shared with any third parties.