Sunday, May 3, 2009

Piano Practice Techniques that Everyone Can Use

One of the most important things that I can do as a piano teacher is teach both beginning and advanced piano students effective piano practice techniques. Of all the instruments, piano requires a great deal of coordination. Not only must the pianist be able to use both the right and left hands simultaneously, but the performer must use his or her right foot on the damper pedal. Even the left foot is used on the soft pedal in more advanced literature.

Pianists are constantly performing different motions with each hand. For example, one hand may be playing legato (connecting one note to the other) while the other hand is playing staccato (short). Often the performer will be performing different motions with different fingers of each hand, particularly in more advanced literature. A common problem is to be able to bring out the melodic line over the accompaniment no matter where that occurs in the music.

Here are some practice techniques that both beginning and advanced students can follow:

  1. Hands Alone Practice – One way to master the coordination needed to be able to do different motions with each hand is to devote some time to hands alone practice. It is amazing how much easier it is to perform a piece hands together after considerable time has been spent on hands alone practice. Also, hands alone practice on more complex pieces of music allows you to concentrate more fully on what each hand must do.

  2. Establish a Good Set of Fingering – Good fingering is very important to your success as a pianist. As you practice hands alone, establish comfortable fingering that you will use at all times. Experiment with different fingerings to see what works best for you. If you are taking lessons, your teacher should be able to help you with this. Remember that a good set of fingering can mean the difference between mastering that difficult run or passage.

  3. Work Slowly and Be Accurate – A common problem is that the student wants to play too fast. Remember that you must establish an accuracy of notes, rhythm, and fingering before you bring a piece up to speed. You will be able to maintain a proper speed when you know the piece extremely well.

  4. Do Spend Some Time on Rhythm and Counting – I always have my students count aloud. Besides establishing a rhythm pattern, I find that counting can help with concentration, and it also helps to maintain tempo (speed). Some teachers recommend use of a metronome. I personally don’t own a metronome as I prefer to establish an internal “body rhythm” where I feel the beat and rhythm of the music. Also, many pieces, particularly of the Romantic era, do not have a strictly regular rhythm. In other words, there are places in the music where you might speed up or slow down. You can’t do this with a metronome. With a metronome, you tend to get a mechanical feel to your music and sound like the pianist for a ballet class. Metronomes can also be tricky for beginners to use. Perhaps my prejudice against metronome use comes from my own frustrations as a student when I was made to use a metronome.

  5. Master One Small Step at a Time – This is actually a continuation of the hands alone practice above. After each hand is mastered, practice your pedaling. In most situations, pedaling follows what the left hand is doing. As you begin to place the two hands together, remember to work slowly for accuracy. Later add in your phrasing, dynamics, and shadings.

  6. Break the Piece Up into Practice Sections – This is one of the methods that really help students with mastering a more difficult piece. I will break the piece into one page at a time, a section at a time, a line at a time, and even one bar at a time. If a passage is difficult enough, I will even have the student do a ½ bar at a time. For example, there are 4 difficult measures in the J.S. Bach Invention #1in C Major. I find that students are able to master these 4 bars after hands alone practice and working small sections of this passage hands together.

  7. Practice Alberti Bass Left Hand Passages in Chords – Another very effective practice technique that I use with students is to have them practice broken chord passages such as Alberti bass passages in chords. This practice method is appropriate for any passage, right hand or left, consisting primarily of broken chords such as the Bach C Major Prelude from Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier. By practicing in chords, we teach the brain where the fingers must be placed and positioned. Try this practice technique and you will see quick results.

  8. Perfecting the Finished Product – Once you have learned the piece, a good way to keep it in top shape is to play it through each day. Take note of the passages that could use more practice. Devote some time to practicing these “hard” parts. Then go back and play the piece once again. You should see an improvement.

Let me know if you find these practice techniques helpful by leaving a comment on this blog. Your own practice suggestions will be welcome to our readers.