In 2008, I taught a seminar at the Plano Centre on how to practice piano efficiently. The following outline and its' solutions can be applied to most, if not all, styles of piano. It was originally designed to improve classical training in working up demanding pieces. However, it can be applied to any kind of piano music which can't be sightread at first glance.
Intuitive Practice Methods are the most common methods taught & used in working up a piece of music. Intuitive, in this context, means that it makes the most sense. If you were stranded on an island with just a piano, these would be the ways that you devise your practice strategy. However, these methods are extremely counter-productive. Here are some examples of intuitive practice methods and the correct way to practice:
1. Starting a piece practicing both hands together- INCORRECT
- CORRECT- Hands separate practice is the only way to rapidly increase speed & control. It eliminates fatigue, stress, and potential injury. When you become tired with one hand, immediately switch to the other hand. It also allows you to focus on techniques that would be incredibly difficult to coordinate playing hands together.
2. Both hands together slowly then build up in speed gradually- INCORRECT
3. To memorize well, continue to play both hands slowly even after memory- INCORRECT
- CORRECT- You waste too much time trying to acquire the required speed with both hands. The hand motions executed at a slow speed are drastically different to the motions at the required speed. Also, metronome use is often abused as it is used excessively in the process of building speed. It should only be used, on occasion, to check your timing & rhythmic accuracy.
4. Learn your piece before memorization- INCORRECT
- CORRECT- This is a very common strategy that leads to inconsistent performances. With practicing hands separate, you should be able to memorize your part at desired speed first so that you know the proper hand motions at required speed. Slow play should be used very carefully.
- CORRECT- Instead of waiting till you have finished learning a piece to memorize, why not start memorizing from the get-go? You save a lot of time & energy. Plus, memorization significantly improves coordination, timing, playing with expression, and confidence in performance, along with many other technique & musical aspects of your piece.
Correct Procedure for Piano Practice
Study piece away from the piano
Plan your song strategy: Your first sight-read
- Analysis- chord structure, song form, repetitions, dynamics
- Listening- hearing different interpretations of piece
Hands Separate: Focus on separate hands for the majority of your practice time. The majority of technique development is acquired through separate hands practice.
- Sight-read through parts you can play at a reasonable tempo
- Skip parts that you are unable to sight-read
- Mark these areas & find the most difficult parts
Practice difficult sections first: Throughout the process of learning & memorizing your piece, these parts will require the most time spent acquiring the proper techniques to perform the most difficult sections at required speed.
- Decreases practice time
- Increases your ability to memorize
- Gets you up to final speed faster
- Eliminates coordination problems with both hands
- Provides consistent & accurate performances
Continuity: Overlap “Cycled” segments to next phrase or section of music
- Shorten difficult passage-Find the core of technical issue
- Cycling- repetition of a short passage
- Switch hands often
Parallel Sets: Group & block passages into chord shapes
Learning & Memorization: Memorize separate hands before proceeding to both hands
Picking Proper Speed: Technique improves most rapidly when playing at a speed in which you play accurately.
- While “Cycling”, go ahead and memorize
- Memorize the easy sections first while acquiring technique separate hands on difficult passages
Relax: Playing technically challenging passages become easier when unnecessary muscles are relaxed.
- Once you are up to desired speed, increase speed up to 120%
- Vary practice speeds
- If you lack the technique, shorten passage & apply parallel sets
Importance of Slow Play: Always finish with one slow play at the end of practice.
Fingering: Use suggested fingerings in music
- Memory reinforcement
- Allows to think ahead- dynamics, song form, expression
- Eliminates bad habits
Tempo: Only use metronome to check tempo & timing issues.
Hands Together: With proper amount of time developing & acquiring technique via hands separate practice, the last step is coordinating both hands together. You are ready to put hands together once you can play separate hands at least 120% of final speed.
- Practicing pieces that are too difficult, especially with hands together
- Overuse of Damper(Sustain) Pedal
- Disregard to musicality & dynamics
- Playing at the wrong speed
- SLOW PLAY at the end of a practice session
- Physiological Changes: Growth of nerve & muscle cells occur during sleep
- If you notice diminishing returns, such as lack of focus or more mistakes than usual, then immediately go to something else and return later
- Don’t work too hard on one thing
- Bad habits are hard to break but easier to fix if you do it promptly
As a classically trained pianist, I have been taught & secured the most disciplined techniques to enable the ultimate musical freedom & expression. As a jazz trained pianist, I have been taught to disregard certain classical techniques and allow body flow & movement to ignite creativity. As a pop/rock/blues pianist, I have blended the combination of jazz & classical techniques to ensure accuracy yet promote creativity. In a nutshell, there are fundamental differences in body positioning, yet there are 9 basic finger/hand shaping & relaxation techniques that if taught & acquired at the beginning stages, will allow you to perform with ease, minimum amount of muscle tension, develop finger independance, speed, etc. in any area of piano performance you decide to focus on.
- Sit near the edge of the bench and make sure bench is far enough away from the piano to allow your forearms to extend fully.
- Center your body at middle D(in between the group of 2 black keys). This is the symmetrical point of the keyboard. Symmetry in music, piano, & theory is found everywhere, whether it be the Cycle of Keys, fingerings for scales, and many other important skills and concepts.
- Curve your fingers in a relaxed "C" shape. Making a strict "C" shape will create tension and not allow your fingers to relax. To simulate this without a picture or diagram, take your right hand and gently wrap your fingers around your other hand. Leave your fingers in that shape as you remove your other hand. Notice that the curve does not point your fingers directly "south"; there is a slight angle.
- Keep your fingers relaxed at all times. Once resting your fingers on the keys, you should not feel any tension in your fingers, hands, wrists, or forearms. When playing, if you feel your fingers are feeling tight or tense, slow down.
- Don’t be afraid to move your fingers into the black keys. There are certain angles and positions that your hands will need to get used to. However, if you allow your wrist to move side to side, you can always find the right angle to eliminate awkward hand positions.
- The top of your hands should be approximately 1-2 inches above the keys. Always make sure that your wrist is at or slightly above key level.
- The top of the hand, the wrist, and the elbows should all be in line & parallel with the ground. If you are properly positioned on the bench and have enough distance between you and the piano, you should be fine.
- When playing one or two notes with one hand, only move the fingers. If you are starting to move your wrist up & down without purpose(moving the wrist up & down is required to produce certain tones & proper articulations), or even your arms/shouders, then you are using unnecessary muscles to perform the action of stroking one or two keys. However, if playing a chord or cluster of 3 or more notes, you will need to move from the elbows and shoulders in order to have 100% control of the keys.
- When you are not using your fingers, rest them on the keys. This will require slow & thoughtful play from the very beginning.
There are other techniques that I have dismissed for this topic, such as: proper shifting of the body; balancing techniques; proper feet positioning. The above techniques are meant to focus on the beginning development of finger/hand shapes and relaxation of the upper body.