A friend of mine, who subscribes to this blog, asked me recently, “What I want to know, Fran, is how the F— do you find the time to write all that stuff?!”. Another friend said, “Why write it if you don’t know if anyone reads it”, evidently completely missing the point of why one writes anything. In anwer to the second question, I write because I enjoy it, and I find that writing about the music I am learning or am interested in, helps to crystallise my thoughts and feelings about it, allowing me time to consider it away from the keyboard.  Also, my visits to my teacher are very precious and valuable, and I would rather work with her than muse about music.

I am often asked how much piano practise I do; when I reply casually, “Oh, about two or three hours a day”, this statement is met with much exclaiming and pulling of eyes: “How do you find the time for that?!”. Sometimes, I am tempted to point out that Liszt allegedly practised for 12 hours a day, and that the average professional pianist puts in at least five or six hours per day, every day. The old adage “practise makes perfect” is definitely borne out by hours of repetitive practise: it’s the only way to improve muscular memory and it breeds a familiarity with the score – its shapes and patterns – that is invaluable. “Thinking time” away from the keyboard can also be classed as practising, as well as reading the score, going through it with a pencil, and listening and reading around the subject.

Regular practise gives structure to my day (and I am the world’s greatest procrastinator when it comes to boring reality tasks!), and a productive practise session can leave me on a “high”, with a self-satisfied sense of a job well done. And, as those who live with me will attest, not being able to practise – for reasons of absence from the piano, illness, tiredness etc – can leave me very grumpy indeed. The sheer physical effort of piano playing is akin to going to the gym: both activities release endorphins, the happy hormones which induce feelings of exhilaration, the so-called “runner’s high”.

During term time, when my time is limited by my teaching schedule (some 8-10 hours per week), my practising has to be highly organised. I don’t do exercises, in the traditional sense of 20 minutes warm up with scales and arpeggios, though I do create my own exercises out of the pieces I am working on (the Chopin Ballade has some useful arpeggiated passages, while the Gershwin Prelude No 1 is an exercise in syncopation and pulse). With at least three pieces on the go at any given time, I set myself clear targets for each practise session to ensure I cover everything I have set out to do. I set my iPhone to “airplane mode”, which means no one can call, email or text me, and try to ignore the doorbell. Then, armed with a mug of Lapsang Souchong, I begin.

Advice from my teacher about good working habits has been invaluable; also the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green taught me useful concentration and confidence-boosting techniques, which I now try to encourage in my students, especially the adults, who seem far more nervous and unsure of their abilities than the children I teach. But by far the biggest encouragement to keep going is actually being able to appreciate how much I have improved in the last eighteen months: I can hear the difference! And my confidence has been sufficiently raised that now when I open new music, I don’t immediately think “Ooh no, I couldn’t possibly…..”. I do admit, though, to being slightly fazed by Evgeny Kissin’s performance of the Chopin Ballade I am learning: I made the mistake of listening to him playing it only a few days into my work on the piece. It left me feeling utterly demoralised, but now, six weeks into the learning process, and roughly halfway through the piece (with all the really stormy, speedy passages still to learn!), I am delighted with the progress I have made, and am actively looking forward to playing it for my teacher next month.

And I’ve stopped listening to Kissin….

“Practise a tricky section five times. If you make a mistake, go back and start again. Play it perfectly five times, and you can consider it “done” and then move onto the next thing….”

This is a mantra oft-repeated to my students, most of whom greet such useful, teacherly advice with much shrugging of shoulders and rolling of eyes. One or two remember it, and so when I ask them how they intend to practise a problem area, they will repeat my mantra back to me. I assure them that I also use the same dictum when I am practising, but they don’t always look convinced!

In reality, I probably practise a tricky section many more than five times at one sitting, but the “five times rule” is helpful in keeping me focussed when a problematic passage is beginning to frustrate. “One more go and you can move on…” I mutter to myself as I repeat that same passage for the nth time and wonder if I will ever permit myself to move on to another section. Sometimes, when I’ve been practising the nasty bits of the Chopin Op 10 no 3 Etude over and over again for nearly an hour, I treat myself – and my neighbours who are probably forced to listen to the tedious repetitions – to a complete play-through of the piece. This is not just self-indulgent wish-fulfilment, where I hope that everything will fall into the right place at the right time; it also serves a practical purpose – to check that what I have been practising really has been taken in by head and hands.

Repetitive practise breeds familiarity, not just with the music open on the rack in front of you, annotated with all sorts of very personal markings, fingerings, reminders and hints which become crucial signposts on the map (pink dots to highlight to remind me to pedal carefully, the words “WATCH IT!!” in bold, gestural strokes, exhorting me to keep focussed in a passage where my attention is liable to wander to check what my hands are doing, causing me to lose my place in the score), but also with the landscape of the keyboard and the physical sensation of the notes under the fingers. Repetition informs muscular memory, enabling the fingers to fall in the right place more often than not, and, eventually, one hopes, every time. Learning the patterns, the feel of a particular passage as well as the sound, all contribute to the overall process. In time, all these ‘learning components” come together, and one can enjoy that special moment when everything seems to slot into place and you play as if standing back from the music momentarily, playing at arm’s length, as it were. I love this sense of disengagement, of watching myself play. I feel it sometimes when I’m swimming, or running – a rare, special synergy. Yet, as my teacher pointed out when we were discussing it once, it is at this point that the mind and body are fully engaged, concentrating fiercely.

Even though I tend to employ the same strategies for learning new work, it never fails to amaze me how an hour of going over the same passage again and again can result in noticeable progress along the sometimes steep learning curve. There are times too, though, when a passage repeated again and again just fails to “go in”. I remember feeling this with a short piece by Delius I tried to learn last winter. It was a gorgeous piece, but full of bear traps to trip up the unwary, and it always felt awkward under my hands. However hard I tried with it, it never felt comfortable, and in the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat and set it aside. It is rare, these days, for me to give up on a piece of music, but sometimes even the “five times rule” fails to achieve the desired outcome.

Practising yesterday at the end of the afternoon, when the temperature had cooled a little and it was more comfortable to work in my piano room, it occurred to me that often there is a right time, and a wrong time, to practise certain pieces.

I’m learning a late Haydn Sonata, his penultimate one (Hob. XVI: 51 No. 61, composed in London in the 1790s) in cheerful D major (that’s royal blue, if we are talking ‘synaesthesically’!), with a first movement that is both sprightly and gentle, moving forward from a proud opening voice to a dialogue which alternates between melody and accompaniment. The brief, graceful development section shows some unexpected twists, with a truly Beethovenian climax, and some delightful cantabile passages. It closes surpisingly quietly. The second movement has chorale and fugal qualities, with offbeat dynamic accents, again prefiguring Beethoven. It moves forward with a clear purpose towards an abrupt ending. This is a grandiose sonata, though perhaps not as august as the E-flat major sonata which succeeds it.

I used to play quite a lot of Haydn when I was in my early teens, and then rather forgot about him, favouring Beethoven and Schubert instead. Although the D Major sonata lasts little more than five minutes, there is nothing mere about its content: it is one of those pieces which looks easy – the notes are not difficult and are comfortable under the hand – but has hidden depths, requiring some careful learning. It’s a good compliment to the rest of my current repertoire (Chopin, Gershwin, Debussy and Poulenc). I love the clarity of a Classical sonata, and it has warmth and nobility within its two short movements.

Yesterday, I practised for an hour and a half, Poulenc first, then Chopin Op 10 no 3 (just the tricky bits – the chromatic augmented fourths, the dreaded sixths, the brief cross-rhythms in the last section), before throwing myself, rather too energetically it must be said, at Gershwin’s first Prelude, which I love at the moment (and hope I will continue to love as I have another three pages, and the Third Prelude still to learn!). The Haydn seemed a good piece to round off my practise session, but as soon as I started to play it (badly!), I knew I had come to it at the wrong time of day. My hands and arms felt leaden and tired, my fingers fat and jelly-like, sliding all over the place, smearing notes and muffing easy runs. The octaves dragged, the triplets were uneven, and I ended up feeling very hot and frustrated.

Haydn merits an early start, I think, when one is clear-headed and fresh, and the piano room is cool. The piece deserves care and attention as each note must be heard and valued. It needs to sound unforced, yet elegant, lofty yet unprententious. Today I began my practising with the Haydn and the difference was noticeable: it was a whole lot better –  indeed, it felt like a different piece!

The Poulenc Suite in C is another case in point. This too benefits from early morning practising. Like the Haydn, it needs great clarity, with a pureness of expression which highlights both the naive and the elegant qualities of the melodies.

Debussy, on the other hand, seems to fare better when practised in the afternoon – and the hot days, with a light breeze drifting in through the open French doors, are the perfect backdrop for his ‘Voiles’. I find myself listening to the wind rustling the bamboo trees in my garden, lifting leaves off the ground, swirling little eddies of dust – and sometimes, just sometimes, I find I can recreate the same sensations at the piano.