One of my best friends is a published author. With two popular and successful books under her belt, she gave up her day job to write full time. When we meet, she and I often end up discussing creativity, for the life of the writer and the musician are not dissimilar. We share similar processes – for example, the need to keep to a regular routine, as this fosters more consistent creativity and output –  and we both appreciate the need to feed the muse: as my friend would say “what comes out must be put back”, and when our creative forces are depleted, we must stoke up further reserves of inspiration. She and I both also see value in accumulating experience and wisdom as we progress through our daily lives.

Just as writers have days when the creative juices seem to dry up, so too do musicians. We may rail against an unproductive practice session, frustrated that nothing seems to go right, the brain willing but the fingers sluggish and unresponsive – or vice versa. This can be seen as “wasted time”, pointless because you achieved nothing but, apparently, a slew of errors. It can be disheartening and demoralising to walk away from the instrument with the feeling that you have achieved very little.

In fact, nothing is wasted, and if we treat each practice session with curiosity and an open mind, it is possible to find useful nuggets in everything we do. Reflection is a significant aspect of deep practising, and it is important to consider why a practice session didn’t go as planned and to explore ways in which it could go better the next time. All errors should be regarded as learning opportunities (I used to tell my students “there’s no such thing as a wrong note”) and should be examined carefully: maybe that slip was due to a poor or improperly-learnt fingering scheme.

Students in particular also believe that they should only be practising the music they have been assigned to practice by their teacher. Wrong. Any time spent at the piano is useful, even if you’re just noodling, messing around with some chords, improvising, or simply playing through some pieces which you enjoy playing. One of my students actually apologised to me for having learnt the first section of Debussy’s Clair de Lune during the Christmas break. “Why are you apologising?” I asked her. She said she thought I would be “angry” that she had practised something I hadn’t assigned to her. What she hadn’t realised was that by taking the initiative to learn some music without me, she had taken a first step towards a goal which is imperative for a musician: autonomy.

Time spent away from the instrument is also beneficial. Our daily lives feed the musical temperament and contribute to our music making, and it is simply unhealthy, and often unproductive, to spend hours locked away in the practice room. We draw on life experience to inform our artistry and activities which may seem divorced from our musical lives can actually inspire and inform. Don’t feel guilty about spending time reading a book or watching a movie: this is not “wasted time” for the musician, and nor is “down time”, for body and mind need time to rest and unwind to be ready for the next practice session or performance.

As musicians we should cultivate curiosity, not only in practicing and performance, but in our daily lives, and just as the writer may squirrel thoughts away in a notebook, so we too should store ideas. This way we ensure that nothing is wasted, and everything contributes to the richness and variety of our musical lives.

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The first of a series of short films made in collaboration with Casio UK and Pianist magazine. In this film, Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist offers suggestions on how to make the most of limited practice time, and making practising productive and most of all enjoyable.

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Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance, and for 12 years ran a successful piano teaching practice in SW London. She is now based in West Dorset where she teaches from her home in Portland. Further information

Managing the practise of a selection of pieces, as one needs to when preparing for a performance diploma, can be problematic and at times frustrating.

I find juggling four works at the same time so tricky. If I leave one aside for a while, even only a week, it seems to fall apart!

For my Associate performance diploma I had 7 works in the programme and for the Licentiate 8 (I treated the Bach keyboard concerto as 3 works from the point of view of practising). All the pieces had their own particular difficulties, knotty sections which needed focused practise. Ensuring that everything was practised regularly and systematically became a feat of time-management, as my practise diary attests, with each day’s work minutely mapped. One of the most important things I took away from the experience of preparing for my Diplomas was understanding how to practise deeply and thoughtfully.

  • If you have limited time to practise, learn to be super-efficient. If it helps, map your practise time in advance and keep notes of progress in a notebook. These notes should include 1) what you plan to achieve at each practise session and 2) what you actually achieved. The notes you make after the practise session should offer food for thought and consideration at the next practise session. However, allow your practise plan to be flexible – there will be days when you can’t practise, or don’t feel like practising, and I believe it is important to be kind to oneself on those situations, rather than beat oneself up for not practising. Rigid schedules can be unrealistic and dismotivating.
  • You don’t have to do all your practising in one chunk (and bear in mind that after about 45 minutes, one’s attention is waning and it’s time for a break, if only five minutes to do some stretches and make a cup of tea). Taking breaks during practise time helps to keep one focussed and engaged and ensures practising is productive and mindful, rather than mindless “note-bashing”.
  • Learn how to dissect the pieces to spotlight which areas need the most attention. Take out technically challenging sections and “quarantine” them so that they get super-focused work. And don’t just quarantine sections once: build quarantining into your regular practise routine and return to those problem areas regular to ensure noticeable improvement.
  • Break the pieces down into manageable sections and work on those areas which are most challenging (technically, artistically or pianistically) first while your mind is still fresh and alert. Start anywhere in the piece, work on a section, and then backtrack and do an earlier section before knitting those sections back together.
  • With a multi-piece programme, try to have the works on a rotation, so that you start with a different work (or movement if playing a sonata or multi-movement work) at each practise session rather than spending a week, say, working on a single piece.
  • Even when you feel a piece is well-known and finessed, spend some time doing slow practise, memory work, separate hands practise etc. Be alert to details in the score – dynamics, articulation, tempo etc: even, and especially, when a piece is well-known we can become complacent about such details and overlook them.
  • Schedule regular play-throughs of entire pieces, and (about 3 months prior to the diploma date) the entire programme, even if some works are not fully learned/finessed. This allows you to appreciate the overall structure and narrative of both individual works and the entire programme, and helps to build stamina.
  • Practise away from the piano is useful too. Spend time reading the scores and listening to recordings – not to imitate what you hear but to get ideas and inspiration. Go to a concert where some of your repertoire is being performed and in addition to listening, look at the kind of gestures and body language the pianist uses and how he/she presents the programme (all useful pointers for stage craft and presentation skills, on which one is judged in a performance diploma).
  • When we’ve been working on the same pieces for a long time, we can lose sight of what we like about them as we get bogged down in the minutiae of learning. It’s worth remembering what excited you about the pieces in the first place, why you chose them and what you like about them (I ask my students to make brief notes about each of their exam pieces, and I did the same for my Associate programme).
  • Above all, enjoy your music and retain a positive outlook throughout your practising.

Further reading

The 20-Minute Practice Session – article on Graham Fitch’s blog

I offer specialist support for people preparing for performance diplomas, including advice on planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety – further details here