I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!
So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.
- Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
- Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
- Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano. Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
- Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
- Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
- Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
- Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
- Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.
Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.
The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.
A guest post by James Holden
I am not practising but playing the piano.
It has not always been like this. I was younger once and like all pupils would be given my notes on how to play the notes. I would each week be handed a few handwritten, barely legible lines marking out my teacher’s expectations for the coming week: a list of scales to perfect, contrary motion; the names of the pieces to work up.
I am older now. I no longer have to decipher any comments or reach any point by a particular time. I no longer have to worry that my lack of practice will show. I’m not working towards any exams. I’m not studying for a GCSE or A Level. I’m certainly not building up to my Grade 6, Grade 7 or Grade 8. I’ve not had to pick any pieces from List A; I’ve not even looked at List B. And I’m definitely not looking forward to any concert performance.
I am older now and I no longer practise the piano. It’s not practice because I’m not practising the piano for anything. I’m not practising a work in readiness for some point in the future when I’ll finally be asked to play it, when I’ll be asked to perform it, when I’ll be marked, given a merit or a distinction or not. I’m not setting aside time at the keyboard now against some prospective moment. I’m not preparing for anything. No, I’m not practising but just playing the piano.
The difference is one of quality. It is a difference that I can feel in every note, even the wrong ones. I’m not practising the piano, I’m just playing it and that playing belongs entirely to this present moment, this instant as I press down each key. This is it; it’s happening now and not in some future time of a potential recital. It belongs entirely to me, even and especially when I play not the right notes but the wrong ones.
It is an experience that as well as being more immediate in time is also now closer in space. It is nearer to me. The playing begins and ends with me at the piano. There is no inevitable audience. I’m not playing to the upper circle or to any icy examiner but for myself.
The difference between practice and play is also one of quantity. I play the piano far more now than I ever did when I was younger. I play every day when I’m at home. And when I’m not playing the instrument I’m listening to recordings of other people playing it. The piano is no longer a distraction but the thing from which I’m distracted.
And with this increased quantity of time at the keyboard has come an increased quantity – or at least variety – of music on the stand. The difference between practice and play has been for me a greater freedom to choose any piece I want, from any List, A or B, any piece by Liszt or otherwise, from the most simple to those that remain beyond me at the moment, and may well always stay out of reach. It is equally a greater freedom not to choose certain pieces and to abandon any work I want. If I find a work unrewarding (which is different to finding it difficult) I can simply take the music down and put it away without any sense of failure. There is no longer any merit or distinction in playing something that more than challenging me is making me unhappy.
This playing still does not come easy. I’m only moderately competent at the piano. I still have to work out which note is which when there are multiple leger lines. I still have to work hard to eliminate those wrong notes which multiply themselves across the keyboard. And I still patiently have to work my way through complex passages hands separately first and then hands together after, counting in my head as I go, one and two and… getting a feel for the cantabile melody line before adding the accompaniment.
And yet for all these difficulties it is still a joyful and intensely rewarding experience. And so I would recommend that everyone diligently practise the piano and then whenever possible also make time just to play it as well.
© James Holden 2014
Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter
I’m flagging up this interesting project which a colleague of mine in the US (and contributor to this blog), Catherine Shefski, is undertaking this year, to learn and record one piece of piano music per week. As she says in the blurb to accompany her recordings on SoundCloud “Like many piano teachers, over the years my own piano playing has taken a back seat to teaching and all the administrative work that goes along with running a music studio. This year I’ve decided to change that. I am making a commitment to record and upload one piece each week. By setting these weekly deadlines, I’m hoping to overcome my tendency towards procrastination and perfectionism.”
I think Catherine’s comments probably chime with many piano teachers – that we don’t play enough as we focus more of our attention on teaching. If one runs a busy teaching studio, it can be hard to find the time to play oneself, and at the end of a long teaching session, one may not feel like sitting at the piano. However, I think it is crucially important for a teacher to play regularly, if possible. One should be constantly exploring new repertoire, and honing one’s techniques and skill-base. All useful in teaching, and to me, more useful than reading dry pedagogical texts and music theory away from the piano.
I admit I am very selfish about my piano playing: this is partly because having got one Diploma (with Distinction!) under my belt, I am now working towards the next one (LTCL). I learnt from my preparation for the first Diploma, that if I don’t put the hours in at the piano, I won’t be properly prepared – and preparedness is essential. On another level, I really really enjoy playing the piano. Even if I am working on some particularly knotty passages of Liszt or a finger-twisting Rachmaninov transcription of Bach, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from playing. I am rarely bored, because if there is nothing else to do, I will nearly always play the piano. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this – even a busy professional pianist has to love his or her job to do it well.
Take a look at Catherine’s accompanying blog to read more about the Go Play Project, and visit her SoundCloud to hear her pieces.
As for playing the piano, in the words of the slogan of a famous sportwear company – JUST DO IT!