Diary of a Pianist: More on Practicing

The "Less is More Strategy":

(From the Study Hacks Blog) The Piano Player Confessions I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy. This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career. Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians.

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.“

The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”

I only play through my pieces when I'm working on stamina, as I get close to performance day; at that time, I play through my entire repertoire or set three times in a row. Interestingly, when I'm collaborating with singers - "practice" often means running songs or arias once and only once.

Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.

“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”

For decades, I've been told by my teachers to create "exercises" from difficult passages. As an example, in approaching difficulties surrounding trills, I've created "Trill Drills" in every key and every finger combination for both hands -- possibly with the exception of thumb-pinky! -- in every register of the piano.

Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.

“Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”

This doesn't really work for me, but I do practice "mentally" away from the keyboard. I'm very interested in Frederic Chiu's "Deeper Piano Studies" method.

Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.

“Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”

This principle is not stressed enough. According to Charles Rosen, piano players are the only musicians who do not have to listen to their sound to produce their sound. Or as one of of my own teachers said, "some students play the typewriter, not the piano". One of the major reasons I rarely encourage my students to play Hanon exercises is that they play them mindlessly, never really hearing the ugly, or at least non-musical, sounds they are producing. I work at each and every lesson with my students (as well as in my own practice) on producing beautiful sounds, thinking about what emotions the composer wants to express, and remaining fully engaged in the process.Thanks to my great friend and fellow pianist, John Poole, for sending the Study Hacks blog post, which I've shared partly here.