The trials and triumphs of professional practice

Recently I’ve started to practice the piano again. Real practice, as in proper, sustained practice, consisting of a lot of technical work and then some difficult repertoire. And… I have made quite a few discoveries about the way I approach practice versus the way I assume my students will approach practice.

The reason this all started was that last term I had the pleasure of accompanying my daughter for her flute exam. It’s something I’ve done every year for both of my kids since they were little; it’s always a privilege to be able to go into the exam room and hear how they play – something most parents don’t get the opportunity to do.

Anyway, this year it was just a teensy bit stressful. My daughter is now up to seventh grade, and the accompaniments are not just oom-cha oom-cha anymore. Up until now, I have been able to rely on my sight reading skills to be able to get through a few rehearsals, and then do just a quick brush up before the exam (of course, since I was not getting paid, I figured this was perfectly acceptable). But these accompaniments had octaves, great big crashing cluster chords, fast passages that were not based on scales, and a huge variety of key sig and time sig changes (my daughter quite likes avant garde music). Not only could I not get by just sight reading these accompaniments, I actually had to practice them a lot… and I wasn’t doing a very good job.

I came to the realisation that my piano technique had begun to fade somewhere in between getting married and having my first child. It then completely disappeared after having my second child and spending all my time writing BlitzBooks. Demonstrating pieces for a few students each week was not going to be sufficient to keep up any semblance of good playing.

So I found myself thinking: is this it? Am I going to be someone who used to play the piano? Or am I going to do something about it?

I decided I needed help, so I emailed my piano teacher from my Conservatorium days and asked if I might be able to come and have a lesson to try to resurrect my long lost piano technique.

She thought it was a lovely idea and over the next month I had three or four lessons. But more importantly, I actually did some practice in between the lessons (which, as anyone knows, is rather essential to make the actual lessons worthwhile).

Here are some basics I discovered:

  • If you don’t think you’re improving, you won’t practice
  • If you are worried you are not doing it right, you won’t practice
  • If you don’t like the material you’re playing, you won’t practice
  • If it’s a really nice sunny day, you’re unlikely to practice

My teacher had also asked me what repertoire I would like to play. At first I had thought it would be a terrific idea to learn some of the 48 Preludes and Fugues that I had never done. After five minutes of trying one of the Fugues I decided to revise this goal down to the two and three part Inventions.

The technique exercises I started on were primarily for working on and developing my cantabile sound using arm weight and finger/hand control. Exercises for finger strength and independence came next, with big block chords and finger lifting. Then there were the usual scales and arpeggios, which build endurance . I forced myself to keep doing these technical exercises even though I couldn’t feel myself improving as quickly as I would have liked. I kept my motivation up by reassuring myself that there’s no way I can be making my technique worse by practising…

The studies I started on (well actually I revised them from years ago) were from Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a couple from Cramer’s selected studies. My teacher asked me to play these extremely slowly with exaggerated wrist movement and I have to say that after a while of doing this it really did work much better fast! It felt like a Karate Kid moment after doing ‘wax on, wax off’.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing all of these exercises and studies. It was relaxing in a way, being able to tune out of the higher mental complexities that come with sight reading, analysing and thinking while playing repertoire, and just tuning in to legato and endurance.

So I was on my way, and began to fall into a somewhat regular practice routine, consisting of technical work and Bach inventions. Here are some more things I discovered:

  • Playing a difficult passage three times in a row correctly is not enough. 5-10 times is effective.
  • Trying to memorise something you’ve spent a lot of time sight reading is extremely difficult. It takes active memorisation rather than memorising by ‘osmosis’ (i.e. gradually falling into a habit of playing from memory).
  • After spending much effort and nailing a particularly difficult passage on one day, the next day it can be completely gone again. Gone like it was never practiced. This is extremely frustrating. However, like all physical pursuits, the muscles need time to learn and adjust, and they can’t be ‘taught’ everything they need to know in just one session.

So all in all I realised that the advice I give to my students about practice, whilst accurate, is actually all rather simplified. Now I can really and truly empathise with them when trying to perfect or memorise something. It is like a doctor who becomes a patient and realises his bedside manner is all wrong!

The point of this article (and more like this to come) is that pianists discover things through practice that helps communicate things to students. This is why people should ‘preach what they practice’.

9 thoughts on “The trials and triumphs of professional practice

  1. Horror of horrors! I started doing this recently and realised how difficult I was finding the time to get “stuck in”. A timetable helped so much. Life is so busy, especially for children these days, that if a particular time of day is not allocated to practise, the day is gone before they know it ….

  2. I love this! I had a younger student of mine ask if I had to practise too, or if I was so good that I didn’t need to any more. I very proudly told him that I wouldn’t stop practising until the day I died – there is always something that can be improved. I have the hard challenge of having to practise two instruments. Double the practise time ;D

    1. Pablo Casals, the great cello virtuoso, upon being asked why he was still practicing 6 hours a day at age 95, replied: Because I think I am making progress!
      So, if it’s good enough for Pablo Casals, it’s good enough for me! My brother always says you get busy living or you get busy dying…and it’s true. If you ever stop learning, you start the process of dying. I’d rather live! So, I practice piano all the time.

  3. Musicians play music, artists practice their art. It is hugely beneficial for the students of teachers who practice their craft — not just because we’re in the ‘trenches’ with them, but we can empathize when the going-gets-tough. Thanks for your perspective — will look forward to reading more posts!

  4. I have felt for years that music teachers — private or in the schools — should continue to be performers and therefore need to regularly practice. I will say that when I say “performer” I do not necessarily mean a solo concert career. What I mean is that they should be regularly performing in some manner.

    I teach piano. I also am the pianist / organist and choir director at a church. Also for the past 3 years I have accompanied the high school and middle school choirs and show choirs. I have accompanied soloists for contests, learned 200 page musical scores in a week, been given stuff to sight read 10 minutes before I was to play it. Along with this I do solo piano programs for civic and church groups. This means that I have to regularly learn a lot of music, some easy and some challenging. I must practice (even though I am a good sight reader. Because of this, I have learned even more efficient ways of practicing since I also want to have a life.

    You commented on the easy, sight readable accompaniments for your child in her earlier days. Now the accompaniments get harder. I believe that no accompaniment is “easy”. You must learn how to support the soloist at all times. One cannot just plug along “typing” notes. An accompanist must know the solo part as well as the soloist (if not better). A soloist will have difficulty building to the big parts or coming back to the intimate parts if the accompanist is just plugging away at the music. I have learned that I must learn the words — or at least the meaning if it is in a foreign language — as well as every dynamic in my part and the solo part to help the soloist in every way possible. Accompanying is a specialized art, and too many pianists think that it is just sight-reading.

    Anyway, thank you for your blog. Perform as much as you can. Practice as much as you can. Learn as much as you can. And enjoy our great art as much as you can.

  5. On the Bulletproof Musician blog which you recommended in another post, I read that recent research is actually suggesting NOT to practise as many times in a row, at least not without variation in any case (though I certainly wouldn’t be encouraging any students to practise fewer times!) Here’s a link:
    Thanks so much for your books – can’t imagine being without the Musicianship books and have seen miracles with How to Blitz Sightreading 🙂

    1. HI Margaret, yes I found that Bulletproof post absolutely fascinating. I have been trying it myself and it’s true – although there doesn’t seem to be as much improvement within one practice session, it is definitely ‘still there’ the next day and doesn’t require as much remedial work!
      So I think it’s not about practising fewer times, just interleaving those times with different pieces, to keep students on their toes. 🙂

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