I am without a piano until early August when my new (old!) grand piano arrives. After the initial sense of loss after saying goodbye to my trusty Yamaha upright has worn off (on seeing my despondent face this morning, the time when I am usually busy practising, my husband suggested asking for the Bechstein to be delivered sooner), I am going to try practising in a different way – without a piano.

There is much to be gained from working away from the piano and the ‘distraction’ of the keyboard: reading, analysing and annotating the score, marking up fingering schemes, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about, its subtleties and balance of structure, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted, listening to recordings by others.

Reading: I habitually read scores in bed, having given up reading novels when I embarked on my diploma studies. I tend to read a score in a general way initially, for overall structure and shape, patterns and “colours” (this visual aspect is very important in my learning method, my synaesthesia assisting in the process). In a busy or complex score, such as the Messiaen I am learning at present (Regard de l’Etoile and Regard de la Croix), where there are some awkward chord clusters, I like to have a good idea of the shapes of the music imprinted in my mind’s eye. This also helps with memory work. Detailed reading comes with a careful analysis of the structure of the music, including a careful reading of the separate parts for left and right hand, and highlighting any potential pitfalls, or very tricky/awkward sections.

Another aspect of “reading” is reading around the score – i.e. books on music and composer, from detailed analaysis to performance practice and general commentaries, and programme notes.

Listening: Another important aspect of the learning process, there is useful work to be done by simply listening to other people’s interpretations of a piece or pieces on which I am working. This is not to imitate another’s reading of a work, but to gain insights or ideas, particularly for performance practice. For example, I have been enjoying Schiff’s recording of Bach’s Fifth French Suite, which I am working on at present. His treatment of ornaments in the repeats of the ‘Allemande’ is interesting and worth considering when I return to the keyboard.

And like “reading around”, there is useful work to be done “listening around” the music I am studying – again for historical context, stylistic considerations, interpretation etc. (I have a Spotify playlist called “For Reference” which I where I collect tracks which inform my current learning.)

Thinking: This may seem rather vague, but I spend a good deal of time thinking about the music I am learning, often when I am far away from the piano, such as on the District Line on a Monday morning on the way to my other job. This includes memory work (aural, visual and kinesthetic), “imagining the sound”, considering interpretative aspects, communication and emotion. This sits rather well with my teacher’s maxim “think before you play”.

Inspirations: Going to concerts provides me with some of the most potent and exciting inspirations – and it doesn’t have to be piano music either.

“If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And that means we [the audience] can’t hear it either.”

This is what my teacher said to me at my recent lesson, during which we worked on Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 no. 2, the last Nocturne published in his lifetime. In bars 20-22 the left hand plays descending sustained minims, achieved by silently changing from a thumb to a fifth finger. I’d got the fingering right, but I could not sing those sustained notes. As a result, they were lost amid all the other sounds and textures in this passage. Once I’d sung the notes, I found I could sound them easily, and a little extra weight in the finger added a warmth and resonance which was obvious, but not overpowering, under the gorgeous treble line.

It sounds obvious, that we should listen all the time when we are playing, whether in practice or performance, but it is quite common for us not to listen, and to allow the mind – and ears – to wander as we work, and thus not take in fully what we are doing at the keyboard. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.

My piano lesson last week was mostly concerned with listening as both pieces I presented have a strong melodic line which needs to sing out over the bass (the other piece was the slow movement from Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello, BWV 947). As I listened to myself playing, striving always for the most beautiful cantabile sound, I learnt to adjust my arm weight, lightening it to produce a better sound. In the Chopin, even where a passage is marked crescendo, leading to forte (for example, from bar 12), one should not allow the arm to become heavy: the sound one is aiming for here is increased warmth rather than volume. At this point, my teacher and I paused to discuss first-hand accounts of Chopin playing: it is said that he never played louder than mezzo-forte (even if he had written forte in the score). ‘Warming up’ the sound can create the effect of an increase in volume, without losing a beautiful tone.

I find it hard to persuade my students to listen. Too often they want to gallop through their pieces, get the notes right and not bother too much about producing a good tone. Yet, the production of beautiful tone is what pianists strive for above anything else: even the most spiky passages of Prokofiev or Stockhausen should be played with careful attention to tone. Be critical as you play: listen all the time and if you don’t like the sound you are hearing, find ways to adjust it to make it better by experimenting with arm weight (lightening the arm will usually produce a better tone), and by ‘visualising’ the sound you want to achieve before you play it (it’s amazing how different your tone will be if you spend a few moments before you play imagining the sound). We should keep our ears open and attuned to what we are doing, to allow us to make minor adjustments to our playing and sound production. If you like the sound you are producing in a particular passage, try and remember that sound for next time, and what it felt like as you were playing it. Were your arms light, your wrists soft? What else were you doing with your body to create that sound?

Recording yourself playing is another invaluable aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams fairly imminently, and sending them a soundclip to listen to. I ask them to listen critically, not for errors and slips, but for an ‘overview’ of the sound. I ask them to make notes (to bring to the next lesson for discussion with me) about what they liked and disliked about the sound, and to think about how they can improve it or change it.

If you do record yourself playing, don’t listen to the recording as soon as you’ve made it. You are likely to be far more critical at this point and may not listen in the right way. Leave it a few days, and then listen to your recording. Review it carefully and note what you like and dislike about your playing. Compare recordings of the same piece, made at different times and in different circumstances (for example, in practice, in performance, on a different instrument etc.).

Another aspect of listening is of course hearing other people play, live and on disc. Go to concerts, listen to recordings and note what you enjoy about the sounds other pianists make. Remember that they are probably employing the same techniques as you to create that sound!

Chopin – Opus 62 no.2

Here is Richter