Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Few Tips on Piano Practicing

I received an email today from one of my site visitors, Candace, who asked for some general advice on practicing and also asked what a typical practice session is like for me. I thought this was a question worth posting on the blog, so this is in answer to that email.

The first thing I would mention is that everybody is different and so effective practicing will be different for each person as well. Play around with some different methods for practice and over time you will find what seems the most effective and enjoyable for you. Definitely make it enjoyable :) So many people have the conception that practice is boring and mundane - it should be quite the opposite! So find ways to make it fun for you.

The following is a list of some thoughts/tips/suggestions for improving your piano practice sessions. These are in no particular order and are in no way intended to be comprehensive.

Practice Tips

  • Always practice something to improve your technique. Hanon is GREAT for that! Czerny is also another great resource for technical exercise. Find ways to make this fun - maybe try new things, like all staccato or legato, or right hand staccato and left legato, etc. Mix up the dynamics (loud/soft) and maybe even play around with different rhythms. Again, Czerny is a great way to work on technique and combine some more interesting sounds/music than Hanon (although I would never abandon Hanon altogether). Also, if you are able, try playing Hanon in different keys - get your fingers familiar with the geography of all 12 keys. Oh - and always slow and with a metronome!

  • I was taught to always play something old and something new. This keeps your mind active on learning while also improving your abilities on refining. Both of these are important. Also, I've noticed that at times when I am discouraged, playing something I'm familiar with helps re-boost my confidence.

  • Don't overwhelm yourself. Unless you are preparing for life as a competitor or performer you will likely need to adjust your practicing schedule to what you have time for. Some days you may just spend a few minutes on technique and "something old" so that you have more time to work on your "something new". Balance according to your allowed time, goals, and personal enjoyment.

  • Sometimes it helps to take a break from a certain piece. Especially if you are frustrated or discouraged at your progress. Take several weeks off from that piece and start a new one - you might be surprised at how much easier it is the second time around!

  • Practice hands separately and SLOW... Oh, and use a metronome!

  • As your work becomes more refined try recording it so that you can listen to it. I've learned quite a bit about my own weaknesses through recording myself.

  • Be patient and give yourself credit for your successes. For example, if you've successfully learned some of the Chopin Preludes, you should be pleased - these are difficult works!

  • Don't be afraid to tackle the works that you want to, even if they are difficult. Just go about it slowly, methodically, and enjoyably. Again, practice hands separately and slowly. I would rather say I tried and failed, than say I never tried at all. Also, you can always take a break from that piece and come back several weeks or months later with a new perspective. Did I mention practicing slowly and with a metronome?

  • Break each piece into sections and practice by those sections. Don't practice the entire work at once. Focus on one section and then move onto another. Make the sections as small as they need to be. I usually divide my works by musical phrases or change in style/tempo/etc. If a section is particularly difficult, then break it up even smaller. If you aren't sure how to do this, contact me and let me know which piece you need help with and I'll give you some suggestions on how I would divide it up.

  • Be sure to pay careful attention to fingering. In fact, I recommend writing in the fingering before you ever begin to practice so that you don't train your hands incorrectly. Learning something incorrectly the first time can be hard to correct. So be extra careful with this.

  • Learn about the work you are studying. Great art is deeper than even the original artist typically comprehends. Study the work inside and out - gain an appreciation for what makes it unique. Personalize it; this will give it deeper meaning to you and will make it that much more enjoyable to practice and perform.

A Practice Session

Having given a few tips, now I'll answer the other question - what a typical practice session is like for me. Those of you who have followed my blog or read a bit of my background will know that I am an engineer by education and career. Next to that, I have a family. I also am very active in my religion. So my music typically takes a back seat to all of these things. I very seldom have time to have a great practice session and usually just sit down at the piano for a few minutes and study something. Sometimes I'll pick a key and play through Hanon (ex 1-31); other times I'll sit and improvise to work on my chords; fortunately there are also those times when I can actually pull out a work I'm studying and give it some good practice. However, those extremely rare times when I can still get in a good practice session it goes something like this:

  1. Start with some technique - either my Liszt technique book or Hanon. Always alternating keys throughout the exercises.
  2. Get my brain going with some improvisation or transposition. To do this I will often pull out a church hymnal because these are excellent for basic chords with melodies and will attempt to transpose the hymn into various keys. Or for improvising I will just sit and start to play or will improvise on an established melody or chord progression. For example, I love the chord progressions in Bach's Aria to the Goldberg Variations. So I will put that in front of me and improvise on just the chords he uses.
  3. I will cycle through each of the works that I am studying - both old and new. I usually start with the "old" because it keeps my anticipation up for the "new." For "old" works (one's I have performed previously) I will start at the end and practice each section until I reach the beginning of the piece. Sometimes I'll treat myself by playing through the whole thing once I'm finished. Then I move onto the next work. For "new" works I will start at the end and go slowly through the sections I have already studied and then start just one or two new sections. I'll work on those until I feel good about them.
  4. Once I've gone through all of my pieces, my brain is usually too tired to keep going - a good practice session for me is anywhere from 3-7 hours (now you can see why I hardly ever get these anymore!). So at that point I just enjoy the wonderful feeling of my hands and forearms burning with fatigue and excitement and peel myself off of the bench. You know you've had a good practice session when it takes you a couple of seconds to get your feet to remember how to walk again ;)

I hope that this information helps and isn't too overwhelming. Feel free to contact me with any follow-up questions or feedback.