Practice the piano makes perfect
Practice the piano – It would seem to be an inspiring motto for the pianist. But after years of so-called practice on the piano, the student finds, more often than not, that perfection still seems as far away as ever. Why is this? Because you don’t practice the piano the right way.
A good deal of what passes for practice the piano does not achieve anything like perfection does not, in fact, even lead in that direction but in precisely the opposite one. The more I practice the piano the worse I play. This is a remark which sounds ominously familiar to anyone who has taught students in the more advanced stages of piano playing. What has so often happened to bring about this unhappy state of affairs is that physical effort has been substituted for mental effort. You should get familiar with the piano keyboard diagram and the piano playing technique.
Consider the procedure adopted by the majority of students who have not been shown the best way of setting about to practice the piano.
Usually the composition which is to be learned is read through at the keyboard played at sight ‘to see how it goes’. Almost inevitably some wrong notes occur. The fingering employed is bound to be haphazard. Then, perhaps, the more complicated passages are repeated, probably with various fingerings, until a degree of comfort in their execution is reached. There may be some slow practicing, but as soon as the fingers can run a little faster this is abandoned. And nearly always there is the desire to make the piece go to bring about a condition in which the fingers, with as little help from the mind as possible, can play the right notes at the right speed and so produce a general impression of the music usually an impression approximating to what it sounds like when So-and-so plays it. The desire to make one’s playing of a piece sound, as soon as possible, finished, is often responsible for the scamping or even the omission of those steps by which may be built up something that is not merely sounds something like a real performance.
It is a truism to say that the fingers, hands and arms are servants of the mind. It is only by the exercise of our mental powers that we can direct those movements which will result in the production of the sounds we want to hear. In learning anything at all it is the mind which must be used. Even at the later stage, when we can perform the pieces we have learned, the mind must be in supreme command. The act of learning consists of the acquisition of knowledge, the forming of sequences of thought or of mental patterns. It involves the act of remembering. There can be no learning without remembering without, in fact, memorizing. This statement holds good whether we wish ultimately to play ‘from memory’ or with the book before us. It is true even in the apparently physical process of learning the movements of technique, for only by remembering by memorizing the sensations associated with any movement are we able to reproduce that movement. This is in fact how you practice the piano. And, be it noted, if we have memorized, have established a clear mental image of such associated sensations, we can provided the body is in good condition and not hampered by excessive cold, poor circulation, fatigue and so on reproduce the movement at will. Movements learned in this way will be under our control. Then we shall have technique the ability to produce, by means of physical movements, the exact sounds we require.
How to practice the piano
When we are learning a new movement or are applying our existing technique to unfamiliar passages (as in the learning of a new piece), our actions must be made as deliberately and consciously as possible. With repetition, movements tend to become automatic, to need less conscious thought for their direction, until, after a prolonged period of repetition, they may, if we allow it, seem almost to ‘perform themselves’ without conscious thought. This automatic performance of the movements of technique would seem to be the aim and ideal of most piano students, but here we come face to face with the greatest danger of all. How can we play convincingly unless, at the very moment of performance, we mean, consciously and purposefully, the precise tone, time and duration of every note or group of notes that we play?
We must never allow the movements of technique to become wholly automatic when we practice the piano. If they pass too far beyond the realm of consciousness we can no longer control them, and the resulting sounds can have no real musical meaning or conviction. On the other hand, without a certain degree of automatic behavior our playing will never become fluent. Automatic behavior, up to a point, will result from the repetitions which must be made in practicing. It is a natural process which we could not, even if we would, prevent. It will therefore be seen how vitally important it is that in practicing, repetitions of movements should be made with the greatest possible accuracy. If we carelessly repeat incorrect movements, these incorrect movements themselves will tend to become automatic, and in doing so will make it more and more difficult for us to perform the correct movements. This kind of misguided ‘practicing’ is not merely a waste of time. It is definitely harmful, and can only lead the student further and further away from his goal.
Repeated movements will not become too automatic if we endeavor to remain constantly aware of them. For this reason, especially in the study of quick passages, we must return again and again to slow, deliberate, thoughtful when we practice the piano. Only thus can we keep movements under our immediate control. So once again we come back to the point which we have made repeatedly: in playing the piano, whether we practice the piano or in performance, no physical movement is of value without a conscious directing thought.
Our first impressions of anything to be learned are so lasting that it is the most elementary common sense to make these first impressions as nearly perfect as possible. In beginning the study of a composition, therefore, the method of playing it through at sight in order to obtain a general impression of the music is not recommended. But of course we do want to know “how it goes”. The best way to survey the piece as a whole is by silent reading away from the keyboard.
All who aspire to the name of musician should find this quite easy in the case of all but the most complicated works and in dealing with these (the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 106, for example) a run through at the keyboard is not likely to make matters much clearer. If, however, one finds it impossible to obtain an adequate idea of the music by silent reading, or if the temptation to play it at sight proves quite irresistible, several days should be allowed to elapse between such sight-reading and the beginning of serious study of the piece at the keyboard. By then the impressions made by any errors, such as wrong notes, incorrect rhythm, poor fingering and so on, will have faded somewhat from the mind. In any case, after we have made a general survey of the music there will be much to do before we are ready for any serious work at the keyboard.
What are the steps in order to practice the piano
Our first task must be to work out the fingering in the utmost detail. With experience, this can be done principally away from the piano. If it is necessary to compare possible alternative fingerings at the keyboard the passage under consideration should be played very lightly and with a very relaxed hand, in order to avoid making any very deep impression on the mind. All that need be done, very often, is to place the fingers on the surface of the keys without depressing them. In any case, we should resort to the keyboard only after having decided upon such alternatives. On all account must we “have a shot at playing the passage in order to see which fingers we happen to use“. If desired, the entire composition can be fingered before any keyboard work is begun. The writing of the fingering above every note and chord is most earnestly advocated.
In starting work at the piano we should keep in mind two invaluable pieces of advice: Liszt said,
“Think ten times for every once that you play;”
“Slow practice is golden.”
We must think each passage, if necessary ten or a hundred times, before we attempt to play it, in order that our mental picture of the passage and of the means of its execution may be quite clear. Then we must play it slowly far more slowly than most students ever think necessary so that we may, while playing, consciously direct and control every movement.
Only small sections of the music should be taken at a time. The length of such sections varying with the complexity of the music and the capacity of the student. In the case of a work of some difficulty, sections of a bar or even half a bar may be chosen; in simpler music, perhaps four or eight bars never more. The important thing is not to attempt too much. Absolute accuracy must be our aim, and half a bar learned well is better than a whole piece learned carelessly. If the difficulty of the piece makes it advisable, the hands may learn their parts separately; but they should play together as soon as this can be done with control and accuracy.
Let us suppose that we have played our small section once with absolute accuracy. Much will now have been accomplished. Next, this achievement must be consolidated.
To do this, we must simply repeat four, five or six times what we have already done. If the thought has been sufficiently clear and detailed, it should be possible, after a few repetitions, to play the section from memory. With practice and experience it will be found possible to memories each section simply by silently reading, analyzing and thinking about it. When this can be done, all the repetitions of the section may be made without looking at the copy.
Having thus practiced the first section we can go on, taking the next few notes or bars and learning them in exactly the same way. And so on, throughout the piece. It will be noticed that the repetitions are not made in order to improve our playing of the passage.
Our first performance should be accurate in every detail, and we must repeat it merely in order to establish it more firmly in our minds. One series of repetitions will rarely suffice to teach us the passage for ever. We shall probably find it necessary to go over the same ground several times, preferably on successive days, before we feel quite certain of it. And on each day we must remember not to omit the most important part of all the thought before, and during, our playing.
In these early stages of learning a piece of music it is best to keep the small sections separate from each other. As these sections become more firmly fixed in the mind they should be combined to form longer sections. Eventually the whole piece can be played right through at a very slow speed, with complete accuracy, and possibly from memory. There must still be great mental concentration and conscious control of the physical movements. The time needed before this can be done will vary considerably with the length and difficulty of the composition in relation to the ability of the student and the frequency of the practicing periods. Plenty of time should be allowed, for this stage of learning must never be hurried. On paper, this method may seem arduous. But if it is faithfully followed, reliable results will be achieved in a surprisingly short time.
What’s next in the process of practicing the piano
After this, our task becomes easier when you practice the piano. With continued repetitions the speed can be increased, and, in the process of quickening the tempo, the mental control of the physical movements will become somewhat less conscious. Instead of thinking so closely of the actual physical actions though even in our most intense preoccupation with these we must not have neglected to listen, both inwardly and outwardly we must now think more and more of the sounds we wish to produce. The preparatory work which we have done will largely take care of the right notes. Now is the time to give ourselves up to the mood of the music, the flow of the rhythm, the curve of the phrases with their points of climax and repose, and the shape of the piece as a whole. In this way our mental activity will gradually become transferred from technique to interpretation.
In the first stages of learning the composition, accuracy of notes was our primary objective, hence practice the piano. Our approach now will be rather different. We must allow ourselves to respond emotionally, to enjoy the music, for now that we have overcome most of the mechanical difficulties of playing it, we are in a position to do so. We must allow ourselves to play with greater ease and fluency. At this stage a wrong note or two are of little moment; if our first impressions have been correct and have been strengthened by thought and repetition, no lasting harm will ensue.
At first we shall respond to the music in a general way, but our further progress should be synonymous with the gradual growth of a more and more detailed awareness of the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ of every note. Of the precise value, tonally and rhythmically, of every note in relation to its fellows, and in relation to the general scheme of the music. With the development of this detailed awareness, any occasional wrong note we may have played will be corrected, so, practice the piano as often as you can.
In most pieces there will be found passages which seem more difficult than the rest and which require more purely technical practice. Such passages may tend to get “out of hand” to some extent however well we know the piece. In such cases the only solution lies in repeated thought analysis and controlled slow practicing. Indeed, this kind of work will be needed from time to time for any composition which is to be kept in one’s repertoire, but it need never be dull; for increased familiarity with worth-while music always, given good, thoughtful practicing, brings to light previously unnoticed details and with them a sense of increased power and achievement.
Although the practice of the piano technique should be developed as far as possible through “the study of real music, it is necessary to practice exercises designed solely for the overcoming of certain difficulties such as the playing of scales, arpeggios, trills, octaves and so on. The days when pianists had no alternative but to obey Czerny’s directions fox the practice of his exercises (‘Repeat each section twenty times’) in the hope that at the end of so many repetitions they might, with luck, come a little nearer to the acquisition of a certain knack, are happily past Today, an increased knowledge of mechanics, physiology and psychology has made possible a more rational approach to the problems of piano playing.
It has already been shown that the learning of physical movements is fundamentally a mental process, and even the practice the piano of technical exercises should never be undertaken without a clear mental picture of the actions to be performed. Knowledge, concentration, and constant analysis of the physical sensations which accompany the various movements and muscular conditions of the parts of the body used in playing, are essential. And technique built up in this way will possess a permanency and reliability unobtainable by other methods.
In order to develop the muscles and stretch the fingers to fit them for the often strenuous work of piano playing when you practice the piano, exercises away from the instrument are invaluable. The need for such exercises varies with individuals, those whose physical endowment is frail needing them more than those with a robust physique. But all who wish to play well will benefit from a little time spent regularly in this way. Free swinging movements of the arms are good to begin with when you practice the piano, and can be practiced by anyone. But the more specialized exercises should only be performed under expert guidance and supervision, otherwise an excess of zeal might prove permanently harmful, as in the case of Robert Schumann.
In concluding this piano lesson let us, in the light of the foregoing, amend the motto with which we began: knowledge, concentration, patience and perseverance, combined with the right sort of practice, will make perfect or as nearly perfect as human fallibility will allow.