Category Archives: Practising

Practising a diploma programme effectively

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of time-management, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regular to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the kind of gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stage craft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here

Peaks and Plateaus

 

Sometimes – often! – learning a new piece of music can feel like ascending a steep mountain.

The first few weeks, when the piece is still very new, can be an uphill slog as you cope with note-reading and learning, understanding the structure and harmony, and trying to get a handle on the character and expressive elements of the piece. Then one day you go to practise it and suddenly it seems a whole lot easier: you’ve scaled that initial steep ascent and have arrived on a pleasant plateau where playing becomes enjoyable again. At this point your progress may suddenly become quite rapid as you feel more at ease with the music.

But then – and I’m sure you know the feeling – you reach a certain point where you feel stuck on a ledge, the summit in sight, but seemingly unattainable. You need a push, a burst of energy to get you up there.

When I am reach this point in my learning, it is usually a sign that I need to see my teacher to assess my progress and to give me a shot of inspiration and encouragement to push me to the next level.

Sometimes reaching a seemingly inescapable plateau indicates that we are over-thinking our practising, or fretting over small or imaginary issues which we have turned into bigger problems. In this instance, try shifting the focus of your practising: if you have been practising the same piece in the same way for the past few weeks, try a different approach.

Maybe it’s a sign that it’s the time to put the music away for a few weeks and look at something else. “Oh but I might forget everything I’ve learnt!” I hear you cry. Not true – if you’ve done the careful learning in the first place, revisiting the music after a break should be fairly straightforward and it will take a matter of days to reacquaint yourself with the score. Taking a break also revives our interest in our music and gives us pause for reflection. Returning to the music after a break often throws up interesting new insights and ideas about the music, enabling us to work with renewed energy and excitement.

Conversations with friends, colleagues, teachers can often shine a light on a seemingly intractable issues with a piece. Asking a trusted friend or colleague to hear you play and give feedback can be helpful too. Meanwhile listening to recordings or going to concerts can lead to moments of revelation and inspiration.

Playing the piano is hard – as my teacher regularly says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it!” – and some pieces remain difficult, despite the many hours of work and thought we put into them. Thus, it is important to celebrate the Eureka! moments, while also allowing ourselves time to evaluate and reflect on what we are doing.

If you’ve reached a plateau in your learning, don’t despair. See your teacher, if you have one, or learn something new, something easier, or return to a piece you know you play well (this can be a tremendous confidence booster). Go to a concert with friends and enjoy talking about the music afterwards, join a piano group where you can meet other pianists and discover that we all share the same afflictions, hopes and fears. We don’t have to be chained to the piano every day to gain useful support for our practising and musical thinking.

Above all – don’t give up! And enjoy your music.

Further reading

The Bulletproof Musician

Practising the Piano

Reviving old repertoire

Returning to old repertoire can be extremely satisfying, and one often discovers new things about the music when returning to it after a break. I also recall all the reasons what I like about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place.

My teacher has cautioned me about reviving repertoire I learnt as a teenager. This is good advice, for despite a gap of over 30 years, all the impetuous errors of youth seem ingrained in the piece and the fingers, and undoing these problems can be nigh-on impossible. Against my teacher’s advice, however, I revived Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu for my ATCL Diploma in 2011, because I needed a “fast piece” in the programme. I had not touched the piece seriously for over 30 years, yet I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I could remember (it must be said that this is not a particularly difficult piece to memorise, being constructed from repeating patterns and motifs). But working from the old Editions Peters score I had as a teenager meant that all the errors were still there, as well as my then teacher’s annotations. In order to learn the piece carefully, I ditched the dog-eared score and purchased a new Henle urtext edition. In effect, I started again from scratch with the piece: I learnt new fingering schemes, thought carefully about the structure and atmosphere of the piece, and was delighted to have it described as “an assured and stylistically accurate performance” by the diploma examiner. Having taken the trouble to re-learn the work carefully, it is now very securely lodged in fingers and memory.

People often ask me whether it is “hard” to revive old repertoire. In general, I have to say I have found it relatively easy to return to previously-learnt repertoire, though this isn’t always the case (the ‘Toccata’ from Bach’s 6th Partita will take some careful work if I want to revive it). However, one can take steps to ensure that once learnt a piece can be revived and made ready for performance relatively quickly.

Lately, I have been enjoying revisiting some of Szymanowski’s Opus 50 Mazurkas, the first two of which I played for my ATCL recital. The pieces felt different without the pressure of an exam hanging over me, and I felt I was playing them in a freer way as a result. I am also working on Rachmaninov’s G minor Etude-Tableau (Opus 33, No. 8), for my debut in the South London Concert Series in May (the piece will be paired with Szymanowski’s Mazurka no. 1). It is a mark of how carefully I practised the piece in the first place that within an hour of practising earlier today, I felt it coming back together nicely. Of course there are elements that will need some careful, detailed work (the cadenza, for example), but overall, it is still in pretty good shape. Getting it “concert ready” should not take too long.

Professional pianists will have many pieces “in the fingers” which can be downloaded and made ready for performance in a matter of days. This may include 20 concertos or more, most of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, many of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, plus other pieces which are ‘standard’ repertoire: Mozart and Schubert sonatas, works by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, much of Debussy and Ravel etc., and popular ‘standards’ from the 20th Century repertoire by composers such as Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, Berg, and Schoenberg. Careful learning and preparation mean that repertoire can be learnt, revived and kept going simultaneously. It is this kind of deep, thoughtful practise that is essential for ensuring repertoire remains in the fingers (and brain) even if one is not practising it every day.

Some thoughts on reviving repertoire successfully:

  • Recall what you liked about the pieces in the first place. What initially attracted you to the pieces? Rekindle your affection for the pieces when you revisit them
  • Don’t play through pieces at full tilt. Take time to play slowly and carefully.
  • Trust your practise skills. Be alert to issues as they arise and don’t allow frustration to creep in.
  • Look for new interpretative and expressive possibilities within the music. Try new interpretative angles and meaningful gestures.
  • Don’t hurry to bring the piece up to full tempo too quickly. Take time to practise slowly and carefully.
  • Schedule performance opportunities: there’s nothing better to motivate practise than a concert date or two in the diary.

On the days when you don’t feel like practising…..

This post is inspired by an article on the Terribleminds blog of Chuck Wendig, a novelist, screen writer and games designer, which I found on Twitter. Although the original article is about the habit and practice of writing, I found much of what Chuck says chimes with the musician’s routines and practice of practising.

Practising is a habit. If we are serious about our music, our progress with our repertoire and our technical and artistic development, we need to establish good and regular practising habits, as regular as cleaning one’s teeth. No one, not even professional musicians at the top of the game, is born with an innate talent which negates the need to practice and to hone one’s skills. Regular practice equals noticeable progress.

The days when you don’t feel like practising are the days on which you should be practising. Even it it’s nothing, or it’s awful, or you feel you achieve little, it’s important to do it, to prove you can still do it, and that you are constantly feeding the artistic temperament, whetting the gears, keeping the grass growing.

The activity of playing and practising creates momentum. There is negative momentum in not practising. Miss a day, or two days, or three, and you might start to wonder why you bothered in the first place, whether this activity really for you? You stop being a pianist and turn into Not A Pianist. The more you don’t do it, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you should be doing it, and the more likely you are to procrastinate.

Fight inertia with activity. Go and practise! Practising is energising. The physical activity of playing the piano releases endorphins, the same ‘happy hormones’ which produce that feel-good glow that comes from a good training session, or a race well run.

You could argue that forcing yourself to practise will be counter-productive. Believe me, it’s not. Even if you’re just doodling, improvising, playing chords, scales, cadences, it’s the act of doing that is important. When I was learning to drive, as an adult in my early 30s, my instructor told me to get as much time at the wheel as possible, whether I was practising three-point turns or simply experiencing the activity of driving. Piano practise is the same – and you don’t have to be working on set repertoire to be doing useful practising.

Practising is an act of doing, creating, living with the music. It defines who we are as musicians and gives us a reason for being. Live and breathe your work, begin every practise session with the question “What can I do that’s different today?”. Feel excited and stimulated by your music. Fall in love with it.

Remind yourself that it is a huge privilege to be allowed to play these great works, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One can feel like a conservator, or a gardener, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift, a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano.

On the days when it’s hard to practise, that’s when it’s most important to practise.

The days when you don’t feel like writing

The Practice of Practising

An interesting programme broadcast on BBC Radio Three in which concert pianist Stephen Hough talks about the activity of practising, memory, how to balance perfection in practise with a sense of “letting go” in performance, and much more. With contributions from Nicola Benedetti, Joyce Di Donato, and Julian Bream. Many interesting insights from top international artists which have relevance to musicians of all levels.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03lzrsk

 

 

The perfect wrong note

My students don’t believe me when I tell them there is a book called The Perfect Wrong Note. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that mistakes are good, that mistakes make us better musicians.

The desire for perfectionism is all around us in our modern society, from the need to produce a perfectly cut and edited film or CD, to the pressure to achieve the “perfect body” (whatever that is!). Very young children are immune to this pressure: they learn from mistakes, often made during play, and by doing so gain a huge amount of knowledge about the world around them before they have stepped foot inside a school environment. But from the moment they are in school, they are encouraged not to make mistakes, and through the demands placed upon them by teachers, peers and parents, they develop a certain moral judgement and become self-critical. They learn that not making mistakes wins praise, while making mistakes results in disapproval.

Being a musician, particularly a professional musician, is highly demanding, and the training required is extremely rigorous. Music students strive for mastery and perfection in their playing, because they know that being well-qualified in this respect will earn them merit and recognition, from teachers, peers, audiences and critics. As musicians, and teachers of musicians, it is important that we set ourselves high standards, but constantly striving for perfection can promote false or impossible standards.

As pianist and teacher Charlotte Tomlinson says in her excellent book Music from the Inside Out, people frequently – and wrongly – equate perfection with excellence. While perfectionism is negative and damaging, excellence is achievable and positive.

When I’m teaching students, and when I’m practising myself, I never see a wrong note as a mistake. Wrong notes and mistakes are instructive – and we can always learn from them. When an error occurs, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Do I know where the mistake happened?
  • Do I know why the mistake happened?
  • Do I know how to put the mistake right so it doesn’t happen again?

All mistakes happen for a reason and it’s important that we understand why a mistake happened and what we can do to prevent it re-occurring. Sometimes it may be something quite simple like a poor or awkward fingering scheme; but sometimes mistakes, particularly those that recur in the same places, may be the sign of a more deep-seated issue, technical, physical or psychological.

When students come to lessons with me, many of them play their pieces with slips and errors – and many of them stop to correct these errors, despite my saying “keep going!”. I try to encourage students to “play through”, to keep the flow of the piece going by not stopping to correct each and every mistake. Look at any exam report, for whatever grade, and you will see that “flow”, or rather lack of flow, is a constant gripe of music examiners. Constantly stopping to correct mistakes becomes ingrained in the muscle memory to the point where one will always stop at the same point, even if the mistake is no longer there.  I worry when students play blindly, not taking notice of what they are doing, not listening, because this is when mistakes get overlooked, and keep cropping up, week after week. Mistakes such as these are hard to correct and need careful, detailed practising to put right. Mistakes made from poor conception and understanding, lack of preparation or careless practising need consistent work to put them right. But mistakes made from off the cuff inspiration and insight can be wonderful and exciting.

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel positive about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

An excellent performance may not be a perfect performance – but the excellent performance will almost certainly be the one which conveys the meaning and emotion of the music, which tells the story, communicates with the audience and allows the listener to be carried away by the music, to the point that the performer almost becomes invisible. Some of the greatest pianists of all time made visible mistakes in their performances – Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Paderewski, Cortot, Hofman, Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels – but these people remain piano legends because of the beauty of their playing, their insight and communication, and interpretative skills. I have been to concerts by some of the top professional pianists in the world and have heard mistakes – split notes, a smeared run, a missed chord. I’ve even been party to a few memory lapses on occasion. Did these spoil the concert experience as a whole? Of course not, because the performer played with conviction, emotion, musical understanding, passion.

We need to learn how to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism to become more fluent, confident, convincing and expressive musicians. We should strive for the “ideal” not the “perfect” version in our music. And as Charlotte Tomlinson says in Chapter 3 of her book, sometimes we just need a “f**k it switch”, to free us from stress and allow us to stand back and see the bigger picture.

Further reading:

Music from the Inside Out – Charlotte Tomlinson

The Perfect Wrong Note – William Westney

The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green

The Musician’s Way – Gerald Kilckstein

This article originally appeared on my sister blog Frances Wilson’s Piano Studio.