Last week, with a degree of heart-in-the-mouth trepidation, I submitted the application to take my ATCL Diploma exam. Since I have not taken a music exam for……um……….30 years, the prospect is slightly unnerving, not least because I still retain a very strong memory of my Grade 8 exam: the empty room, the big black shiny Minotaur of a Steinway grand piano, the silent examiner, the Bach Prelude (D minor) which if allowed to, might run away like an excitable horse, the sturm und drang Beethoven Sonata (Opus 10, No. 1), and the Chopin Nocturne (also D minor) which I loathed….

The good news is that with 8 weeks still to go until the exam, I feel fairly well on top of my repertoire. The pieces are all learnt, quite a lot has been committed to memory (one is not required to play from memory in the exam), and the work now is to finesse and refine. The danger at this point, of course, is over-practice. My students, most of whom seem to specialise in winging it in lessons and do very little practice in the intervening weeks, look at me askance when I mention over-practising, but it does exist. Famous cases of over-practising include Scriabin, who ended up with a hand injury, something I can identify with. On a less dramatic level, the point at which one knows a piece intimately can be, if you’re not careful, the point at which weird and new mistakes start to creep in. These can be the most difficult errors to unlearn and so it is crucial to practice extremely carefully and thoughtfully at this point.

At the piano course I attended last month, we talked about practice diaries, and the benefits of keeping a very detailed practice diary – not just of how much time one spends practising each day, but also notes on what needs to be done, what has been achieved etc., along with a list of questions, which can be applied to each and every practice session, to encourage one to think very carefully about the repertoire one is working on. Here are some ideas for a good practice diary:

Have I warmed up? For quick warm up exercises see my earlier post here

Am I listening as I play? It’s remarkable how easily the mind can wander when you’re working on a piece that is very familiar. Stay focussed, listen, and be strict with yourself about errors, bumpy, uneven or sloppy sections, lazy pedalling, articulation etc.

Have I noted all the dynamics? Articulation markings? Other signs and symbols? Again, familiarity can breed complacence. It’s worth taking the time to do this detailed work even if it’s a piece you know well.

Am I noting rhythm and pulse properly? Practice with a metronome if necessary until an ‘inner pulse’ is established throughout.

Is my fingering secure throughout? There’s a passage in my Bach Toccata (BWV 830) which gets me every time! Slow, quiet practice (“like a Chopin Nocturne”) can be helpful in these instances.

Am I taking care over phrase beginnings and endings?

And what about shaping, colour, contrast?

Which sections do I need to memorise? For example, for an awkward page turn

Keep a detailed note of how many minutes of practice per piece you have completed each day. Keep a clock by the piano, or use the stopwatch feature on your ‘phone. It’s amazing how this can force the mind to focus, especially if you know you have limited time in which to practice.

What do I need to do tomorrow? At the end of each practice session, make a note of what has arisen out of today’s session and what needs attention tomorrow.

Good luck, and don’t ever let your practice sessions feel like the character in this novel:

Work shaped every hour for him, as regular as a lunar cycle, and the cadence by which he set his life. From the age of sixteen, he had known only this life. Without it, he could feel directionless, without focus. Yet practising, four to five hours every day, practising until you never got it wrong, could be a form of captivity. Often, when he was wrestling with something new and tricky, when the same page of the score confronted him day after day, he felt he did not move forward in the night. Then it really was like prison, though without the punishment, only in the sameness of his days.

(from Music Lessons by Frances Wilson)

And take inspiration instead from Robert Schumann:

So what does it mean to be musical? You are not musical if, eyes glued nervously to the notes, you play a piece painfully through to the end; you are not musical if you get stuck and cannot go on because someone happens to turn two pages at once for you. But you are, if with a new piece you almost sense what is coming, if with a familiar one, you know it completely. In a word, if you have music not just in your fingers, but in your head and your heart.

(from Musickalische Haus- und Lebensregeln)