Are your performances littered with unexplained mistakes? ‘It went better in practice’ becoming a regular phrase? Analyse your preparation and take the opportunity of the new year to resolve to improve the quality of your practice.
Whatever your age or ability level, there’s a strong possibility that you’ve developed several bad habits with your practice that are limiting your progress and reducing your long-term potential. Like a bad crease ironed into a shirt, mistakes caused by practising incorrectly often go unnoticed until it’s too late, and worse, rarely disappear without having to start all over again.
Create a timeline. Whether you’re preparing for an exam, public performance, or a forthcoming deadline set by your teacher, fix the date very firmly in your mind and then work backwards. Allow yourself 2-4 weeks polishing time (depending on the complexity of the work/recital programme) and make sure everything is learnt before this period begins.
How you begin to learn a piece is the most crucial part of all, and without strong foundations, there is a risk that all the work you do afterwards will collapse under the pressure of the performance. Whether they realise it or not, most people get nervous about a performance because there are parts they haven’t learnt well enough.
You shouldn’t be nervous or anxious about any part of your piece or programme. Instead, you should feel excited to communicate the piece to your audience. If you don’t, you haven’t learnt it well enough. I regret not realising this for the majority of the years I was a student.
Here’s what to do to make sure you don’t fall into this trap:
Understand the background and history of the composer and piece before you begin to learn the notes.
Familiarise yourself with the layout of the music; where is the climax of the piece, and how do you know? Start to think about how you will interpret the performance directions and the technical challenges that will go with them. Listen to recordings to start to connect with the music, but remember, they are for inspiration to help you develop your own voice and not to be copied!
Highlight the most demanding technical challenges so you are already aware they will need more work.
Learn each hand separately, particularly making sure to play the left hand on its own. If you can play the left hand on its own all the way through – from memory if necessary – you will be able to play the entire piece under any circumstances.
Practise slowly – and then even slower than that! The majority of people don’t practise slowly enough. All of your upper body needs to get used to the ‘feeling’ of playing the piece, and you need to be aware of how your body is being used. Be aware of this as you increase the speed of performance tempo.
Don’t always begin your practice at the beginning of the piece. Start from the most technically challenging part(s), or from where you left off yesterday. The more ‘starting points’ you can create, the more comfortable you will feel with the piece. Should something go wrong with the performance, you won’t be tempted to go back to a more familiar part, or worse – the beginning.
Parents: If your child has a busy schedule such as a packed school week with after-school activities, help them to move their focus away from the amount of time they are practising for to what they are achieving during each practise session. Always trying to hit a target of ’25 minutes’, for example, can be difficult, and stress can have negative impacts on the learning process. Instead say: ‘today, I will make sure I can play the left hand of the first line as I know how much I struggle with it. Whether that takes 10, 15 or 25 minutes, doesn’t matter; what’s important is that I achieve it today.’
Avoid combining both hands until they can play well on their own; this will never work and will always cause weak spots that will give way under pressure.
Check this list off against your own practice. If there are things written here that you aren’t doing, then the chances are you’re not practising properly and your performances will be hampered by unexplained errors.
Let’s make 2018 the year where your piano playing changes for the better!
© Christian Dawson 2018