The expression “small but perfectly formed” is rather over-used, but in the case of Andrew Eales’ new book How to Practise Music (Hal Leonard) it is entirely apt. This pocket-sized volume is the perfect companion for every musician, packing a punch in less than 100 pages with its wealth of supportive, imaginative, practical and thoughtful suggestions to keep the musician, whatever their age or ability level, focused and motivated.

Practising is the musician’s “work” and too often, especially for younger or early to intermediate level players, practising can really feel like hard work. An influential music educator and piano teacher, Andrew Eales understands the challenges facing players – that the necessary rigour and self-discipline of the practice room can “potentially steal our joy and rob us of our potential” – and he responds to those challenges with this succinct guide to assist musicians of all levels and ages to become confident, self-motivated players, while also recognising the need to set realistic, achievable goals in the practice room, and to be kind to oneself.

The book is arranged in sections which cover everything from reasons for practicing and organising your practicing (it’s remarkable how many musicians, even more advanced ones, struggle to organise their practice time intelligently!) to warming up and how to practice core skills (scales and arpeggios, studies and exercises, reading music and sight-reading). Later sections give sound advice on selecting repertoire, background research, listening and “chunking” – intensive work on short sections of the music – as well as mindfulness in practising and sensible advice on how to practise for performance, including thoughts on interpretation, authenticity, memorising and managing performance anxiety. The author manages to be both authoritative and accessible in his suggestions – a rarity in a world still riven with didactic instructions and ingrained attitudes – making the text engaging and interesting to read. Throughout, there is emphasis on playfulness in practising, as well as mindfulness, reminding the player that practising need not be a chore and that one should always find joy in one’s music making – and this is the closing message in the epilogue of the book.

This nugget-filled, little book of practise wisdom is small enough to keep by your side or in your pocket as you navigate your personal path through music. You may wish to read the book from cover to cover, or to simply dip into it; either way, you will find it an invaluable resource. Teachers too will find much useful information in finding creative ways to encourage students to practise.

A valuable addition to the practice room and the musician’s resources.

Recommended

How To Practise Music by Andrew Eales is published by Hal Leonard (£7.99)


Andrew Eales is a widely respected and experienced music educator and piano teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful teaching studio. He is a published composer and author, and his piano recordings have been streamed more than a million times worldwide. Andrew runs the piano website/blog Pianodao.com

Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

The internet is full of articles promising to help you learn to play the piano

  • Learn to play in just 4 weeks!
  • Play piano in 10 easy steps
  • 5 ways to become a great pianist

And so on….

The British pianist James Rhodes entered this busy, lucrative market a few years ago with his book ‘How to Play The Piano’, in which he promises to get the complete novice playing a Bach Prelude in just six weeks. It’s an admirable attempt which may provide inspiration and support to some aspiring pianists, but I am sure Mr Rhodes would agree that to master the piano, whether a professional or amateur player, takes many hours of commitment and graft. As one of my teachers, the wonderful Graham Fitch, observed, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!”.

Those of us who choose to embark seriously on this crazy, fulfilling, life-enhancing, frustrating and fascinating path do so with the understanding that the acquisition of skill, improvement and development are hard won (and for the professional, there is the added burden of the cut-throat competitiveness of the profession).

It doesn’t matter at what level you play – you can be a serious beginner or an advanced player; what matters is the commitment, made in the knowledge that this is ongoing process. For many of us (and I find this attitude is common amongst amateur pianists), it is the journey not the destination that makes learning and playing the piano so satisfying and absorbing.

If you don’t enjoy practicing – the process – forget it. You’ll never achieve mastery of your Grade 2 pieces or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Practicing is the bedrock of the musician’s “work”. For the professional, this usually has an end point – or rather a string of end points – concerts; but alongside that, there is the need to learn new repertoire, keep existing repertoire alive and fresh, to revive previously-learnt pieces, and to continually reflect on and review one’s skills, technical, musical and artistic.

But there’s more. Because practicing isn’t just about sitting at the piano, turning the dots and squiggles on the score into sounds. Practicing – productive, thoughtful, deep practicing – involves the head and the heart as well as the body. Each phrase, each chord, each scalic run or passage of arpeggios must be considered and reviewed. Listen as you play (and you’d be amazed how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves!). Reflect, review, play again. And again, and again….and make each of those repetitions meaningful.

Come to each practice session with an open mind and a willingness to fully engage with the music all the time. I’ve read accounts of great pianists practicing technique while reading a book propped on the music desk. This kind of mechanical practice is not helpful – and can even be harmful. Even when practicing the dullest exercises, or scales and arpeggios, find the music within, and bring expression and artistry to every note you play.

Approach your music with a clear internal vision of how you want it to sound. For less experienced players, this can be confusing, the fear of entering unknown territory. How do I know how it should sound? you might ask. But this marks your first forays into interpretation, into taking ownership of the music and making it yours. Our interpretative decisions about our music are shaped by our own experience – playing or listening to repertoire by the same composer, or from the same period, reading around the music, going to concerts, conversations with teachers and other musicians, and harnessing the power of our imagination to bring the music to life.

Don’t feel constrained by the notion that there is a “right way”, but rather forge you own way, and be committed to it. We take ownership of the music by recognising and committing to the value of what we have to say.

Mastery comes not from 10,000 hours of piano practice, but from 10,000 hours of deliberate, intelligent, thoughtful, self-questioning practice. During this process, basic skills are acquired, which allow us to take on new challenges and make connections which were previously elusive. Gradually, we gain confidence in our ability to problem-solve or overcome weaknesses, make more profound interpretative or artistic decisions about our music making, and at a certain point we move from student/apprentice to practitioner.

Now we have the confidence to try out our own ideas while gaining valuable feedback in the process, and our growing knowledge and skill allows us to become increasingly creative, and bring our own individuality and personal style or flair to the task.

When we practice we should do so actively and creatively with joy, playfulness and spontaneity, appreciating every note, every sound, the feel of the keys beneath the fingers, the way the body responds to the music, the nuances of dynamics (both indicated and psychological, as the music demands), articulation, expression, and so forth.

In short, our music making should be an ongoing, responsive process of discovery and refinement, rather than one of predictability, averageness or “good enough”.Such dedicated craft takes inordinate amounts of work – concentrating on very short sections of the score, seeking feedback from intense self-monitoring, at all times remaining curious and open-minded – but this approach provides us with accountable pianistic tools (interpretative, technical, artistic, and psychological) and validation methods that put us on the path to mastery. From a practical perspective, such pianistic tools are a virtuous circle of intense self-evaluation, analysis, reflection and adjustment, and the ability to always see errors as pointers to improvement. It’s a kind of “apprenticeship of incremental gains” informed by continual reflection, adjustment and refinement.

Learn the piano in 6 weeks? Bah! It’s a lifetime’s work.


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Practicing is like being in a riptide – your view of the beach is different every time and on each re-entry to the beach, you notice different or new details.

Practicing is the musician’s day-to-day work and when done well it is undertaken with the focus and concentration of an elite athlete to achieve the necessary technical and artistic facility to perform complex repertoire.

As a child, learning the piano from around the age of 5, I found practising something of a chore: the same piece of music faced me each day on the music desk of the piano, the same tedious exercises to be finessed to please my teacher at the next lesson. At that time I didn’t receive any suggestions from my piano teacher as to how to practice productively. Instead, I engaged in fairly mindless repetitions.

It was only as I matured as a musician that I began to understand the significance of deep, thoughtful practice, and how this approach would shape and secure the music I was learning. This was more than demonstrated to me when I returned to the piano in my late 30s after an absence of some 20 years and I revisited some of the repertoire I had learnt and enjoyed as a teenager; it was quite evident which pieces had been practiced more carefully for these were the ones whose notes and phrases still felt familiar under the fingers, and were the pieces most easily revived. It was a very clear indication that the body does not forget, such is the power of procedural (or muscle) memory.

Practicing should never feel like a chore. One should approach each practice session with an open, curious mind and a sense of excitement and adventure, to start each session with the thought “what can I do today that’s different?”. It’s a constant process of self-critique, reflection and adjustment. Practicing is like being in a riptide – your view of the beach is different every time and on each re-entry to the beach, you notice different or new details.

Music is complex, multi-faceted and rich in detail. For this reason, in our practicing we must be alert to its many subtleties, its highlights and its shadows. Each practice session should be, amongst other things, an exercise in revealing another facet of the music. Paradoxically, this becomes more difficult the better one knows the music: familiarity with the architecture, the organisation of the notes on the stave, the sound and feel of the music, and our physical and emotional responses to it can lead to complacency and then details are overlooked. At this point, we are deeply embedded in the music, undoubtedly a good place to be. Now we must step back, to view the beach from a distance, with new eyes and the benefit of experience, and look again at the music.

It’s remarkable how many details can be missed and how taking a long view can reinvigorate our practicing and breathe renewed life and colour into our music.


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Part 2The problem with perfectionism, and releasing expectations


 

In my first article, I discussed how musicians can judge when it’s time to ‘let go’ of a piece of music and decide it is ready for performance or should be put aside for awhile.

In this second article on ‘letting go’ as a musician, I will explore how criticism and negative feelings can hold us back as musicians, and how ‘letting go’ allows us to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance, self-reliance and confidence.

Musicians are by nature highly self-critical, a habit which is often inculcated at a fairly early point in one’s musical study, by teachers, peers and one’s self.  Self-criticism is important: the ability to self-critique is a significant aspect of productive, intelligent practising. It also encourages musicians to become independent learners who are able to make informed judgements about their progress, technical facility, artistry in performance, and career development.

Alongside this, there is also the need to seek feedback and endorsement from others – teachers, mentors, peers and critics – which also help support one’s musical development.

Music is a world where there is much judgement and criticism (both positive and negative); it is also highly competitive, and such competitiveness can lead to questions such as “am I good enough?” and toxic feelings of inadequacy and failure, which can impede one’s musical progress and even seep into one’s daily life, affecting self-esteem and confidence.

Letting go of such feelings, the need to seek approval or endorsement from others, stepping away from competitiveness, is not always easy, but the ability to recognise, confront and manage them can make us better musicians – more confident, resilient, centred and motivated.

Letting go of perfectionism

The notion that one must play every single note perfectly is, in my opinion, one of the most significant contributors to feelings of failure and inadequacy as a musician. Unfortunately, the musician’s training still places an undue emphasis on perfectionism, which can lead to anxiety, stress and injury, and encourages unhealthy working habits. Perfectionism can destroy our love of music and rob us of joy, spontaneity, expression, communication and freedom in our music-making. In short, it can lead us to forget why we make music. Perfectionism filters into the subconscious and creates a pervasive, hard-to-break personality style, with an unhealthily negative outlook.

Instead, it is far more healthy and productive to let go out perfection and strive instead for excellence in everything one does. Excellence is realistic, quantifiable and attainable. Excellence develops confidence and responsiveness and offers continued inspiration. And by striving for excellence we can stay connected with our artistic muse, our desire to make music, and the overall meaning of that music.

Letting go of the fear of failure

Hand-in-hand with perfectionism goes the fear of failure – failure to play the music “correctly”, failure to achieve that grade, diploma, competition result, failure to secure that job. We fear that we will appear foolish, weak or inadequate, or that we will be embarrassed, or an embarrassment to others, if we fail.

Fear of failure may also lead one to take a “what if…?” attitude to one’s music-making. “What if I make a mistake in a performance?”. Will my teacher/peers/colleagues think I’m a lesser musician because of it?

Let go of the fear of failure by recognising that “to err is human”, and that mistakes and failure are a crucial aspect of learning. A mistake can and should lead us to evaluate what we are doing, and all errors and setbacks should be seen as opportunities for self-analysis and critique, resulting in self-correction, adjustment, improvement and, importantly, progress.

In a performance situation, letting go of the fear of failure allows us to play our music “in the moment”, creating a concert experience that is spontaneous, communicative and enjoyable – for performer and audience.

Fear of failure is also related to ego, and letting go of ego makes us better musicians, and human beings.

Letting go of external validation

Throughout one’s musical study, as a child, teenager and adult, one seeks and receives approval, endorsements and validation. While such feedback can be extremely helpful – and outward signifiers of achievement such as good exam results or positive critique from, for example, a respected musician, teacher or critic can encourage greater motivation – it can be all too easy to place too much emphasis on negative feedback or to “read between the lines” of critical commentary.

We may also measure our progress against that of others, but comparing oneself to others is negative and counter-productive. Just because so-and-so can play Gaspard de la Nuit, it does not necessarily make them a ‘better’ musician. Stop trying to compete or compare: accept that we are all different as musicians, and instead focus on our own strengths and talents. Alongside this, release the notion that there is certain repertoire that we should play (for too long I felt trapped by this pressure, but when I let go of it, I found far greater fulfilment and enjoyment in my music making).

We develop and flourish as musicians if, instead of looking for approval from teachers, colleagues, reviewers or the audience, we self-critique and recognise the value of what we have to say. We should measure our personal success against the challenges set by the music, not by extrinsic aspects – the endorsements of others (except perhaps a few respected or trusted mentors and colleagues). As Schumann said, “As you grow older, converse more with scores than with virtuosi.” 

Remember why we make music

Above all, it is important to remember why we make music – because we love it and want to share our passion with others. Music is also a shared cultural gift, and one which gives pleasure to many, many people. This knowledge should infuse our playing and sustain us over the long term.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Guest post by Walter Witt

We live in a crazy world.  Some would say a world out of control. Fake news from politicians themselves instead of fake news about them. Conspiracy theories pushed by populist (read authoritarian) leaders  – or as the case may be, soon to be ex-leaders.  “End of timers.” “Anti-vaxxers.” “Science deniers.” Unchecked corruption, without the slightest regard for what was once called the rule of law. And, as if that weren’t enough, the world faces the prospect of a never-ending pandemic, a virus simmering among us, killing the elderly and young alike, while people refuse to wear masks just to make a “political statement.” How then, amidst all of this, and more, can music, the simple act of studying the piano, help us resist this real world onslaught? How does studying piano help us improve the quality of our everyday lives?

I suspect there are some of you who are musicians and are simply curious about what I am going to say. Others who are professionals with non-professional artistic interests, interests which you work hard to pursue. Others among you who are parents and wondering how in the dickens you are going to convince your kids to stop surfing Instagram or Snapchat and instead practice the piano for at least 15 consecutive minutes..

Around 10 years ago, my daughter, who was 9 at the time, had taken the delightful habit of dancing while listening to me play a Chopin Etude or a Brahms Intermezzo. One day, while I was practicing, she turned to me and asked: “Papa, who taught you to play like that?” Her question got me thinking. Who was it in fact who taught me to play? And what did I really learn from them, not only about the piano, but about the important lessons of life? Or about myself? And why am I even doing this ‘piano thing’ anyway, sitting at a keyboard while my back gets stiff – what’s the point?

Unbeknownst to my daughter – and, thankfully I did not drop these weighty questions on her then as she would have no doubt run from the room, hands in the air, screaming – I started to put pen to paper and write down my thoughts.

Learn what it means to accept challenges

I realize now what my father, a surgeon but also a pianist and organist equally talented in both instruments, meant when he said: “sitting down at the piano can be the hardest part of playing the piano.” There is a moment when you decide to learn a piece. Something tells you there is no alternative. No more playing around with a melody here or a passage there. It is like thinking of that client or project, mulling it over, but never actually signing the contract.

So you accept the challenge before you. You realize it is time. Sometimes it can take years – like finally saying hello to a neighbour. You meant to do it earlier, thought about what to say, but you never started the conversation. It was too much effort at the time or something else came up. There was always an excuse. But now you are going to learn this piece because you want to yourself, not because someone else wants you to. So you start that long difficult job or project. You say hello to that neighbour. You finally greet the music before you.

When I start a new piece, I invariably think of my beloved childhood piano professor, Mae Gilbert Reese, a student of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory near Paris. I see her standing next to me. She is saying: “this is the beginning of a journey. I helped get you to this point but you brought yourself here alone. The journey will be difficult. You will stop at points as you travel, stumble over notes, get stuck in a phrase and think you cannot move forward, that there are too many obstacles. Your back will ache. Your fingers will ache. But you know what the piece must sound like. You can hear it. You can see where your destination is, so you go on. You return to the piano and get on with it.”

Then when I start the piece, my reflexes turn on. I am an athlete again. A pianist approaches the entire act just as an athlete does, investing oneself fully in the moment, through a process of constant self-preparation.

Respect your body

There are exercises Mrs. Reese taught me – how to relax your arms, your hands, your wrist, your fingers. Lean over and let your lower back muscles stretch out naturally. Your upper body slowly drops the ground as gravity takes over. Let your hands drop flat on the ground, watch them drop. Soak your hands in hot water for a minute. Do this first. Then sit down at the piano.

Prepare yourself physically first for what is ahead. Always do this, no matter what you do.

Take your time.

When you start a piece, you sight read. It’s the same as looking over a job and preparing an action plan for the project first. Your reflex is to go fast. Resist this reflex. Start at quarter tempo, no more. Simply listen more closely to the harmonies and the structure of the piece as you play it slowly for the first time. You are outlining the job ahead. Think of the composer writing the piece out with his pen, the time he or she took to write each note. So slow down, watch your hands and examine each note. The notes enter your fingers correctly from the start this way. You are starting what could be a difficult task, trying to solve a problem. It is like a relationship which can be difficult. There are emotions to sort out. You have to decide what to do.

Start slowly and later, you can speed up. When you learn to drive you don’t drive on the highway first, especially with a brand new license. You start on the surface streets. There will be time for the highway later.

Think of what are looking at while you are looking at it

When I was a kid, I needed to remind myself this early on. The reason was I did not see well sometimes, even with my glasses, perhaps why I am not as a good a sight reader as I would like to be. It really is a question of eyesight. You need to see what is in front of you on the page. It’s like seeing what’s in front of you in life and focusing on it. If you do this, you are fortunate – seeing something for precisely what it is, and not thinking you see something when in fact you don’t.

Sometimes it is easier to see what you want, in certain instances. All of us do this. It is a human frailty, perhaps linked to our capacity to dream, a gift which distinguishes us from animals, as far as we know. One’s dreams do not have to be an entirely new world or creation either. They can be the slightest of differences from reality.

I can remember taking off my glasses just to see how long I could get around my day without them. So what if things are a little blurry, right? I would leave them off. Unfortunately, my glasses had an annoying way of disappearing that way! So I kept my glasses on. To see things as they are in life – the sharp details of responsibilities. Don’t worry about taking the time it takes to see something and to understand it. Resist the temptation not to look at the hard edges. It may be perfectly human to do so, but you can’t afford to do it, especially in today’s world.

Learn how to listen – really listen!

Most people have no idea what listening means.

My sister and I used to play a game, before I started the piano. My sister would sing a note. I would go to the piano, look at the keyboard, and play the note. Then she would sing a melody. I would listen and sing it back. Then I would play it on the piano. My sister would then turn me around and tap a chord on the piano while I faced the wall and ask me what chord it was. I would go back to the keyboard and play the chord. To end the game, she would finally lift both hands and – in a surprisingly energetic gesture – bring both hands down, randomly, on the keyboard! I would return to the piano, find the notes and play them. I had perfect pitch but more importantly, I learned early on to listen.

Sometimes when I practice a piece, I play the right hand quietly or not at all, moving my fingers like phantoms floating lightly over the keys. Then, as the fingers of my right hand move silently, I play the left hand full voice. I listen closely to what the left hand is saying. I hear new voices that were previously neglected.

Walk in the streets, close your eyes and listen to what you hear. Listen to bits and pieces of conversations as people pass by. A couple are talking about each other’s workday — “this girl in my class is very shy” a woman, a schoolteacher, says to her husband. “I can’t stand my job anymore,” the husband says to his wife. You hear a mother encouraging a child riding her bicycle for the first time. “Very good – keep going,” she says. “Very good.” Then other people approach. You can hear them greeting each other. You listen to their steps as they pass. You listen to the wind moving through the trees. Concentrate on listening to the moment itself. You will be surprised how much better you listen afterwards.

Beware of the pedal

No pedal at first. The pedal has a way of making you think you play better than you do. The pedal is like a hoax that you perpetrate on yourself. It is similar to a good bottle of wine: you wake up at some point, probably with a hangover, and realize that without that pedal, without that bottle of wine, you are not quite as beautiful as you thought you were! Be honest with yourself – no pedal to start.

Look ahead

Always. When you work through a piece, remember that you are going somewhere – that the music has to go somewhere. Think of the notes you are playing but also the next note, the next phrase. Prepare yourself. Position your hand. Construct your fingering for where you are going next.

Get yourself into position first, no matter what you do in life. Otherwise you may have to improvise a passage to survive (this happens to everyone these days!). Think where you are going first, anticipate. Plan on how you are getting there, then act accordingly. Think of where you are going as you go.

Remember to rest

Close your eyes for 5 minutes. Drop your arms by your side — no movement, just like that stretching exercise. I remember how Mrs. Reese would stop me abruptly after a long session on a piece: “I think we’ll stop for a while here, go on to another piece. We will come back later,’’ she would say. She knew that the intensity of music fills you completely. You become saturated. Music, particularly great music, is that way, particularly when you perform it. Stop to rest no matter how large the problem may appear to be. Then start again.

Be conscious of your environment

Always remember the key you are in as you play. You are A minor, or F minor, or E-flat major. Think of the flats or the sharps. It is like your surroundings on a journey. Are you in the city? In the country? Are you surrounded by people? Are you alone? Think for a moment and then play the scale on the piano, just to clear your mind. Stop and think of the place you are in and then return to the problem. You will have a better idea where you are going if you do.

Watch your time

Watch your time when you practice. Keep moving through the piece, otherwise you will become tired. Or hungry. You will call it quits! Your body simply becomes weak. Later on in life, you become conscious of the limited time you have left. It will weigh on you and can even become your greatest suffering. We all must guard against wasting time in life on things we can’t control, no matter how crazy they may seem. Keep track of your time on this earth.

Don’t fool yourself with the easy parts

Whatever you do, don’t play the easy parts first! They are like the downhill slopes on a cross country race. Instead, go straight to the difficult passages. My teacher, Mrs. Reese, would call these the “technical” passages, sections of a piece that seem impossible to start. The ones that scare you and are terrifying to look at, even on the page. The technical passages are the challenges which you will face in life. Go straight at them. Do not flinch or look for the easy way out. You will delude yourself and end up going nowhere.

Take notes

Keep a pencil ready with you to mark your thoughts as you go. Mark comments on your performance but above on the performances of others. As you are play the passages, mark the score and write down your thoughts. Note the dynamics, the crescendos and diminuendos in your life as you live it.

My father was a champion note taker – he had to be, writing histories and physicals on his patients or surgical reports. My father wrote me letters over the years, no matter what continent I happened to be on at the time. They were just short notes, to say he was thinking of me or to let me know how things are. The letters were never long. Nor were they ever in the least way self-aggrandizing. In fact, I never recall a single time in his letters when he mentioned an honour conferred on him in the course of his work, although there were many. I read these letters again sometimes as they have given me comfort through the years. It wasn’t until later however that I realized I had been reading his notes to me, in my piano, every day. “Don’t hurry,” he tells me in the margins of my Cortot edition of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, marked in pencil at the recapitulation. “Steady,” he says, at the beginning of the coda at the end of the piece. I see my father’s handwriting next to Mrs. Reese’s in the margins of the same score. They are invariably clear, concise written words – “hold,” “softly,” “slow down.” Clear and concise. Sometimes they are simple translations from Italian or French for example —‘Spianato’ –Italian ‘spanare,’ to smooth over, simple, plain” …. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ : The maid with the flaxen hair. My father never spoke French, or Italian for that matter. He understood however the importance of language, of precise meaning, and certainly for the purposes of his piano.

Classical music is a precise business, and a precise business merits note taking. Every note and phrase, the sense of a phrase and what each phrase means, counts. The composer intended each phrase to mean something. So take the time mark even as you are playing. Sometimes I will lift my left hand and mark as I play while my right hand continues playing, circling a note to accent, marking “piano” here, “pianissimo” or “forte ” there. It is like writing a journal. You jot down the relationships which count for you, whether you made the right decision to go somewhere or meet someone. Perhaps you see something beautiful which delights you. Or something else which repels you. Write down your thoughts as you go through life wherever you are. You will come to think differently of the journey.

These “lessons from the piano” will resonate more with some perhaps, and less with others. On the whole however, they are lessons that have served me well, keeping me strong, particularly in difficult times such as those we are living through today. I hope they will do the same for you.

home-page-2Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris.  A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most  compelling figure in classical music today.

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