Category Archives: How to Practice the Piano

Musicians, How is your Practice Going?

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Musicians, How is your Practice Going?

You’d think that with the stay-at-home order, I’d be able to get in some consistent practice time on piano, guitar, and recorder. But noooooo. I’ve practiced piano twice. Guitar and recorder not at all.

I wish I could say it’s because of all the writing and artwork I’m doing. But the truth is, I’m barely keeping up with my blog. I’ve made almost no progress on my other writing project (a rewrite of my novel, and a story that might be a short story or a novella or novel, but I’m stuck). The only art I’ve made is my catalog o’ Zentangle® patterns.

I’m finding it difficult to focus these days. The pandemic is one reason. My husband being in the hospital and then a skilled nursing facility is another. Also, by the evening, when I normally practice, I’m toast. I just want to watch TV.

 

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I know that if I sit down at the piano and just play, eventually I’ll focus and everything else will drop away. You know how when you’re in the zone, you’re one with the music? So why is it so hard to walk to the piano, turn on the light, and begin?

What do you do when you’re not feeling motivated to practice? Do you go to your old favorites? Run through your scales? Start that piece you’ve been saving for after you’ve mastered the Pathetique?

I went to the internet and googled How can I motivate myself to practice piano? Three videos popped up, but I hated the voices of the vloggers, so I didn’t finish listening to any of them.

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But I also found these articles:

I like the idea of just committing to a short time, like five minutes, and seeing what happens. I think I’ll try that tonight.

Now it’s your turn. What do you do when you don’t want to practice? Or have you been practicing more while stuck at home? Share in the comments below.

Video of the Week #223: How to Practice the Piano

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Today’s video has a limited audience. If you play the piano, are not a beginner, and would like to get to the next level quicker, the practice strategies in this video will be very helpful to you. It’s a little longer than what I usually post, but so worth your time.

How to Practice the Piano: Avoiding Play-Related Injuries

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How to Practice the Piano: Avoiding Play-Related Injuries

When I was a little girl and just beginning piano lessons, my teacher spent what I considered an inordinate amount of time talking about posture and hand position. At eight years old, I was much more interested in making music than getting posture and position correct.

But when I retired from teaching and began seriously practicing piano again in my mid-sixties, I found that my hands ached during and after practice. I chalked it up to arthritis.

The repeated chords in the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata were particularly troublesome. I realized I was tensing my fingers and pounding the piano. But how else could I play that passage?

I was also revisiting the Schmitt exercises, and I found some that specifically dealt with eliminating tension by moving the hand from the wrist, keeping the arms still. Exercise 48 works with thirds and sixths, repeated and scales; exercise 51 works with repeated octaves and scales in octaves. I applied that technique to measures 25-29, 43-52, 121-125 and 138-147 of the Moonlight Sonata, third movement, and it helped.

Over 50% of professional pianists experience play-related injuries at some time in their careers.

 

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Sergei Rachmaninoff

I saw a list of famous pianists who suffered from injuries, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was mentioned, which I consider poetic justice. How many pianists were destroyed by the unplayable chords in his Prelude in c# minor? I have small hands. How do you play a full, wide chord without stretching your fingers to the breaking point?

I polled some of my pianist friends on Facebook, and their best suggestion was rolling the hand from left to right, letting go of the lowest note and keeping it sounding with the sostenuto pedal. That’s a new skill for me, and it will take lots of practice until I can do it well. I didn’t even know I had a sostenuto pedal until recently.

Realize that the editor’s fingering markings in your music might not work for you. I’d always assumed they were the only correct way to play the passage. However, it’s subjective. Experiment with different possibilities, especially on chords of less than five notes in either hand.

Playing piano with tension in the body (hands, arms, shoulders, back, butt, legs) causes damage. So does playing while slouching. If you’re having pain, that’s a sign that something is wrong. Stop. Playing through the pain can have long-term adverse effects.

Elizabeth Mueller Grace discusses the role of posture and alignment in preventing injuries:

Beth Grace works with a student to correct alignment errors.

Muscle memory is a boon to pianists, in that it enables us to memorize music; but it’s also a curse, because it makes bad habits in our practice are so very hard to unlearn.

Dorothy Taubman developed an approach to playing the piano that eliminates damage caused by improper alignment. She identified four errors that cause structural damage: twisting the hand, collapsing the wrist; overspreading the fingers; and overcurling the fingers.

An introduction to the Taubman Approach:

I would love to learn the Taubman Approach for playing dense, spread-out chords, but the only way is to take lessons from a Taubman-trained instructor, or to take the Taubman workshops yourself. Or you can stream Taubman Approach videos for $14.99 per month. I have not done any of these, but I’m thinking about them.

Sources and related reading:

https://majoringinmusic.com/preventing-resolving-piano-injury/

http://thepianoteacher.com.au/articles/the-taubman-approach-to-piano-technique/

http://www.pianocareer.com/piano-practice/how-to-deal-with-piano-practice-related-hand-injuries-and-muscle-pain/

http://pianomap.com/injuries/index.html (read all 7 sections)

http://pianomap.com/taubman.html

https://takelessons.com/blog/piano-guide-injury-prevention Scroll down to “Knowing When to Stop: Common Injuries and How to Avoid Them.”

http://www.wellbalancedpianist.com/pianoinjury.htm

http://www.wellbalancedpianist.com/bptaubman.htm

https://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/14/arts/when-a-pianist-s-fingers-fail-to-obey.html

https://www.richmanmusicschool.com/articles/pianists-pain-prevention-tips

https://medium.com/real-world-music-theory/how-to-play-large-chords-that-are-too-far-for-your-hand-8d6b72d5bc2b

Video of the Week #171: Are Czerny and Hanon a Waste of a Pianist’s Time?

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Almost two years ago, I posted an article about the piano exercises of Ernő Dohnányi in which I quoted Dohnányi’s thoughts on the exercises of other composers. Here is another discussion on the same topic.

How to Practice the Piano: Learning Repertoire

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How to Practice the Piano: Learning Repertoire

This is a continuation of a series. See previous installments here: How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part I—Preparatory Exercises; How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales; and How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire.

Repertoire is the collection of pieces a musician is able and ready to perform.

Always start your practice with warm-ups (see the posts referenced above). I’m an old lady with arthritis in all my joints. It takes me fifteen to twenty minutes of warming up before my fingers are agile enough to do some serious playing.

Piano 9So that you don’t just put in your time without making any progress, think about what you want to accomplish during your practice session. Be specific: “play pages 30 and 31 smoothly” is a better plan than “learn the second movement.” Mindfulness helps you become the musician you want to be.

When I’m beginning a new piece, I can tell by looking at it (how dense the notes are, how complicated the rhythms are) whether I need to start out playing just one hand at a time. I play the (mostly) “melody” hand first, then the (mostly) “harmony” hand. (That’s just my personal preference. It really doesn’t matter which hand you play first.) If there are sections I stumble over during my read-through, I mark them in pencil and go back and practice those sections until I can get through them pretty well.

Unless you are just beginning to learn how to read music, I don’t recommend that you write out your note names. It will slow your mastery of sight reading. (Unless there are lots of ledger lines. I give you permission to write out note names wherever there are three or more ledger lines.)Piano 3

I wish when I was learning to read notation someone explained to me that eventually I wouldn’t need to recite “every-good-boy-does-fine” to figure out what notes to play, and that I would just internalize the patterns on the page and know how they fit my fingers. Or maybe someone did, and I didn’t get it. Anyhow, I remember how much of my early practice involved deciphering those notes over and over again. How tedious, and how I hated to practice! The sooner you get past that phase, the better. After all, notation is just a pictorial representation of the sounds.

When you can play the piece with each hand separately pretty well, put them together.

From this point on, I practice in terms of the rule of ten. If the piece is fairly short, I play it ten times every day at a comfortable tempo. I keep a scratch pad and pencil on my piano bench and make a tally mark after each repetition.

Piano 13If the piece is longer, I work through it a page at a time, playing it ten times through; then two pages ten times through, then three, etc., until I’m playing the whole piece through multiple times a day. (If it’s really long, I’ll only play it through two or three times a day, stopping from time to time to drill a difficult part.)

I also keep track of the tempo. I have an old-school metronome—if you have a smart phone, you can probably find a free or inexpensive app. I start out at a comfortable tempo, and identify the number of beats per minute with the metronome. I write it at the top of the page of music in pencil. If it needs to go faster, over the course of days, weeks, and months, I increase the tempo in increments of anywhere from 1 to 10 beats per minute, until it’s up to the speed it should be.

Sometimes it makes sense not to practice from beginning to end. Sometimes it’s expedient to learn the ending first, especially if the ending is particularly spectacular. Your practice does not have to be linear. You may accomplish more in less time if you master the most challenging and unique sections first (for example, the B, C, D, and E sections of a rondo, rather than the A section that gets repeated over and over).

Also, if you make a mistake, don’t go back to the beginning of the piece and start over. Instead, analyze your mistake. Why did you miss that note? Did you misread it? Was your fingering awkward? Go ahead, experiment with different fingerings, and find one that you can execute smoothly. Write it down in the music. Mark the spot, and turn it into a mini-exercise. Remember the rule of ten. Choose a couple of measures around the spot, and play them ten times (or more, until they become more fluid). Next time you practice the piece, find that spot again and practice the snippet as part of your warm-up.

Piano 11In the olden days, I bought recordings of pieces I was serious about learning so I could listen to them over and over. I still do, but I also look for video performances online. Honestly, YouTube is my second home. I love it when I can find three or more excellent performances of the same piece and study them. If you look at my Pinterest page, you’ll see lots of my favorite videos saved there so I can find them quickly. It’s interesting to see how different pianists interpret the same piece. You hear things you didn’t realize were there. And you make decisions about how to make the piece your own. For example, I don’t play the fast part of the Rachmaninoff Prelude in c# minor up to tempo. I think it begins to sound muddy, and you miss the beauty of those Russian School arpeggios.

Keeping my repertoire up to “performance” level (I don’t perform!) is a daunting task. In January, 2014 I identified 12 pieces I wanted to concentrate on for the year. I’m still working on the twelfth, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (the third movement is such a bear!). I’ve worked on it nearly every day in 2015, and I’ve still got a long way to go.

Over the years I’ve collected lots of piano music. I’ve started photocopying pieces in my repertoire and putting them in a big binder so I don’t have to go looking through my books for them. That way I can systematically practice my way through the binder and keep my skills up on all those pieces.

How much time should you practice? And do you have to practice every day?

Piano 2If you want to get good, yes, you do have to practice every day. Oh, you can miss a couple days a year, but if you miss a couple days a week, you’re not going to play your best.

If you are younger than ten years old, start out practicing 15 minutes every day, and put in as much extra time as you like. If you’re ten or older and you’re a beginner, start with 30 minutes a day, and add to that as you get better. Read Sit. Stay. for a discussion of the relationship between practice and mastery. And just so you know, professionals typically practice four to eight hours or more every day.

I practice 60-90 minutes most days. If I don’t have a free block of time on a particular day, I’ll play less rather than not at all, but for me, playing a half hour or less just isn’t worth it—it’s like stopping just when you get going.

Do you have any tips about practicing piano that I didn’t mention in this four-part series? Please share in the comments below.

How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire

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How to Practice the Piano: Selecting Repertoire

This is a continuation of a series. For the previous installments, see How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part I—Preparatory Exercises and How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales.

Piano 4Piano repertoire is the collection of music a pianist is able and ready to perform. If you are taking piano lessons, your teacher will have lots of input into what pieces you learn, based on your experience. Most teachers use a piano series, supplemented with other favorite pieces from time to time, in a sequence designed to help you progress in your mastery of the instrument.

If you are not taking piano lessons and you do not have a basic knowledge of the piano and musical notation, please don’t handicap yourself. Find some instruction, even if it is a group class through community education.

However, if you do know your basics (for example, you took lessons when you were younger, and you can still play many of the pieces you learned back then), you can progress on your own, but it will take discipline. (See Sit. Stay.)

What kind of music do you want to play? Classical? Pop? Jazz? Standards? The music you most enjoy listening to will influence what you select for your repertoire.Piano 8

One caveat about popular music. If you play pop songs from published music, you may find it doesn’t sound like the CD. It’s often notated by people other than the songwriters, for lots of reasons. For example, a lot of songwriters aren’t trained musicians, and can’t write music notation. So the publishers rely on scribes to put it into written form. The scribes might get the gist of the melody, but they’re not as invested in it to make the harmony exactly right, or they miss little stylistic things the original performers do. And the syncopated rhythms are often beastly to translate into note values. Don’t bother with “easy” or “simplified” versions—they will not satisfy you, unless you’re five years old. You’re probably going to have to listen to the music over and over again to pinpoint how the recorded version varies from the sheet music and determine for yourself how to edit your sheet music so it matches the original recording.

Or you can play by ear, as many musicians do.

Or you can even put your own twist on the music. (Always acknowledge the performer you’re “covering.”)

I mostly play classical music, and I prefer to play from notation. I like piano teaching series books. I grew up with the Michael Aaron and John Thompson series. Nowadays I like the Celebration Series from The Royal Conservatory, updated in 2015. It includes pieces from diverse eras–Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Some pieces are well-known favorites, others more obscure, but most have stood the test of time rather than being written by one teacher expressly for his own series.

Celebration 6I like using series books because they help me grow a varied repertoire relatively inexpensively. I rarely buy single pieces if I can find a particular piece in a book. The only time I deviate from that practice is if the book is pricey, and I seriously only want to learn one piece in it.

One of the benefits of using series books is that they are graded. In other words, each book in the series is progressively more challenging that the one that precedes it. As you work your way through the series, you should be systematically increasing your skills.

But there are many types of piano books other than series: collections of a single composer’s works; books with all or most of the selections on a particular CD (usually popular music); collections from a particular style; and collections of particular forms, such as sonatas, etudes, preludes, and waltzes.

If you have a music store near you, go and browse. But don’t go crazy—music is nonreturnable. I can’t tell you how many bad choices I’ve made that I ended up giving to Goodwill.

Something to consider as you choose music is the level of annotation. Some music has fingering written in. Some has footnotes where embellishments are written out, or commentary about style. These features will enhance your ability to learn the pieces.

If you live in an area far from a physical music store, some excellent online sources are Dover, Sheet Music Plus (which also offers digital downloads), and, of course, Amazon.

In a future post, I’ll write about practicing repertoire, explaining how you can make your practice time most productive.

How do you select pieces for your repertoire? Share in the comments below.

How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales . . .by Andrea R Huelsenbeck  

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How to Practice the Piano: The Warm-Up, Part II—Etudes and Scales . . .by Andrea R Huelsenbeck   

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Originally posted on Doing Life Together:

Today’s post is a continuation of a previous one on warming up for your piano practice session. To read an article on how beneficial practicing an instrument is, click here.

Etudes

Etudes are studies that target a particular element of technique. Many composers have written etudes. Chopin wrote 27 that are so beautiful they are concert pieces.

The king of etudes (and the first person to call one of his pieces an etude) is Carl Czerny. He studied with Beethoven and went on to become a successful composer and teacher himself. His School of Velocity has been used for over 150 years by piano students all over the world. As the name suggests, these pieces are designed to help the pianist develop speed. I particularly like the collection called Selected Piano Studies.Czerny

Learn one hand at a time, starting with your more dominant hand. Some measures will be harder than others. Mark those measures and turn them into little exercises, playing them through many times every day. I start by playing them at least ten times, and the last time must be perfect or I keep working. As I improve on those little snippets, I try to play them perfectly three times in a row, then ten times in a row.

When you can play the entire etude well with separate hands, then put the two hands together.

Play it as slowly as you need to play it correctly, then work on increasing your speed. (You can buy an inexpensive metronome or find one online or download a metronome app.) I start by playing at a comfortable speed, finding my number of beats per minute (bpm) by experimenting with different settings on the metronome, writing that number on my music, and gradually increasing the speed anywhere from 1-10 bpm at a time.

You can work your way through the book practicing up to four etudes at a time, playing each one 4-10 times. Again, systematically rotate through them to review the ones you’ve already mastered.

Scales

Thoroughly learning scales will enable you to play pieces in all keys, major and minor. It is helpful, before practicing a piece, to run through its scale first, along with a progression of chords in that scale.

If you are just beginning to learn your scales, start with the key of C. It is the simplest, because it doesn’t have any sharps or flats. Then progress through the Circle of Fifths.circle-of-fifthsTraveling clockwise or counterclockwise through the circle will add one sharp or flat to the pattern. (Don’t make me try to explain why—just know that music, like everything else in the natural world, is governed by physics and mathematics.)

The Hanon and Schmitt exercise books have scales sections. Refer to these so you can see where the black keys fall and also which fingers to use for each note. Fingering is important; these tried and true fingerings will help you play smoothly with ease.

For the sake of being systematic, learn all the major scales first; then progress through the minors. There are two kinds of minor scales that pianists need to know: harmonic and melodic. The harmonic minor scales are what composers use when writing the harmonic scheme of a piece in a minor key; they use the melodic when writing the melody. The melodic minor is different ascending and descending. (Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. Some intervals sound better going up than going down.)

Start by practicing one octave (eight note unit) going up and coming back down again. Learn the scale first in your more dominant hand, then the other hand, then both hands together, an octave apart.

When you can play one-octave scales in each key well, try two octaves, then three (it helps to group your notes in threes), then four (think groups of four sixteenth notes).

Then learn to play them in contrary motion. Starting with both of your thumbs on the same note, let your right hand go up (right) and your left hand go down (left) in the sequence of the key for one octave, two octaves, or three octaves, then reverse direction and move back to the starting note.

Warming up is just the appetizer of your practice session. Spending time on exercises, etudes, and scales will prepare your brain and your muscles for the entree of your practice: making beautiful music out of notes on a page.

This concludes my two-part series on How to Practice Piano: The Warm-Up. In a future post, I’ll write about practicing repertoire, explaining how you can make your practice time most productive.

Did you find this post helpful? Is there something you would add to the practice of etudes and scales? Please post a comment below.