The three H’s: some thoughts on practising

As my autumn teaching term is about to start, a post on practising seems appropriate. Several of my students have already fessed up to me, via email and Facebook, that they have done little or no practising over the summer break. I’m disappointed, of course, especially as one is working towards Grade 3 at the moment, but I’m not surprised. Children have a wealth of other activities to distract them, and seem to regard the long summer holiday as the ultimate down time. Piano practice goes the way of schoolwork: forgotten for six weeks.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (with apologies to Jane Austen), that regular, focussed practising reaps rewards. On the most basic level, we practice to get better, to become proficient, to ensure we never play a wrong note. However, productive practising should never just be mindless “note bashing”. As Seymour Bernstein says in his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, “productive practising puts you in touch with an all-pervasive order. It is the total synthesis of your emotions, reason, sensory perceptions and physical co-ordination.” On a simpler level, to me this translates as: Head, Heart, Hands, which I’ll call “the Three H’s”.

Head: Never practice mindlessly. Engage with the music, think THINK about it. Be super-accurate in your reading and understanding of the score. Find out more about the composer and listen ‘around’ the piece to understand the context in which it was created. Think about what makes the piece special. What is the composer trying to convey? How will you express that message in your performance? What do you need to do to this music to “tell the story”? Learn patience when practising, and be receptive: rewards come slowly.

Heart: Fall in love with your instrument and its literature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it – and I know from conversations with other musicians, amateur and professional, that this is a common feeling. Immerse yourself in the music, lose yourself in it. If you love your music, you will work more creatively, and your unconditional love and emotional attachment will transform “deliberate concentration” into “spontaneous concentration” (Seymour Bernstein). This is what sports people call being “in the zone”. At this magical point, you will feel everything more closely, every note, every nuance, thus bringing you more in accord with the composer’s intentions. “Mechanical practising, if devoid of feeling, can produce accuracy but not musicality” (SB). Remember, music is a language of emotion: without emotion, a performance can be empty and unconvincing. Allow yourself to be carried away by the exuberance of the music: playing with passion can even out “bumpy” sections far better than repetitive scales or arpeggios.

Hands: Every physical gesture we make at the piano transfers into an emotion – and vice versa. Engage your body – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, torso, legs – and turn it into a vehicle for musical feeling. Be aware of everything you do and feel at the piano. Learn to sense the weight in your arms, from shoulder to finger tip, and experiment with different kinds of touch and movement to achieve different effects and emotions: high fingers, low fingers, wrist staccato, finger staccato, rotary motion, dropped wrist.

And remember:

“The last note is never the last – it is a point of departure for something to come”

(Seymour Bernstein)

2 Comments

  1. Great post – I think the “heart” is probably the hardest for kids to “get”. It’s really a maturity thing in many ways as children are so torn for their attention now that falling in love with the piano, for most kids, is a pipe dream. However, your comment still stands as such a vital thing. I think I’m only just getting there myself!! Good luck for the start of the new teaching year over there 🙂

    • Thanks, Tim. I agree re kids and “heart” – it’s always a real pleasure when one or two of them really “get” what the music is trying to say, or when they respond to a suggestion by teacher to try and “tell the story”. I think concentration is part of the problem – children want to whizz through everything and move onto the next thing so quickly. Learning patience when playing the piano – and particularly when practising! – is one of the hardest things to teach. I’m all set for the start of term – new music purchased, new achievement stickers, and my iPad full of new music apps to try out with the children!

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