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Get The Most From Your Practice Time

This article is designed to give you some very helpful suggestions regarding practice techniques.

You bring home your assignment from the music teacher, but you can't remember everything that was said during the lesson. Certainly, there is, or should be, a lesson plan for the next week to let you know what to work on. OK, I have to work on this scale and this arpeggio, or this other exercise. Then I see here that I have two or, perhaps, three songs or pieces to work on for the week. You say to yourself, alright, and go about your chores or your homework, etc. and later on, maybe the following day, you get around to your lesson plan.

At this point most of what was said during the initial lesson is forgotten. I realize that no one is capable of remembering everything and, because we see and hear so much in any given day, it is impossible to recall what is said in a 30 minute time period.

So how do I go about practicing the music?

How we practice determines how we will inevitably perform the piece regardless of the level you are on. Most students will start from the beginning of a piece and struggle to get through to the end of the piece. This approach can sometimes work fine, although it usually results in a performance that is very good initially, but then deteriorates toward the end of the piece. If you are playing a piece that is more than two pages in length, your concentration can easily wane after that second page. In order to overcome this fact, you need to alter your approach toward the initial stages of practice.

Here are some helpful suggestions.

These items may sound elementary, but you would be surprised at how often they are disregarded. I have had students actually prepare pieces in the wrong key or time signature resulting in numerous difficulties to overcome during the lesson.

As an alternative to working through a piece from beginning to end, attempt splitting up the piece in sections and work them individally. If the passages are in two or four bar phrases, work them individually. After the passage is learned, go to the next phrase. When three or four phrases are learned, start from the beginning and link them together. It is also possible to learn a piece from the end to the beginning. In addition, look for the difficult sections so you can tackle them first. Sometimes it is necessary to play passages across the bar-line, or to isolate spots that give you trouble.

The single most influencing factor is the speed at which pieces are practiced. If you cannot touch the next key before it needs to be used, you are going too fast! Music is built from the ground up. The first thing you should address is the bass movement. This means that practicing the left hand alone is crucial to your learning. If the left hand is carrying the melody line, the right hand will be the accompaniment and should be addressed first.

Correct reading of the rhythm is of the utmost importance. Tap out the rhythm if it is difficult to read. Go slowly. If you are dealing with larger note values, the count should be subdivided to lower note values. Conversely, if the piece is in continual eighth note movement, you should count to the higher note value. Also note that the tempo of the piece has an influencing factor. If a piece goes slowly you should count it at the faster note values and vice-versa. Altering the rhythm of a passage can aid you in working out the difficulty. For example, straight eighth note passages can be altered to dotted-eighth/sixteeneth note rhythms or sixteenth/dotted-eighth note rhythms. Changing the rhythms of passages can greatly increase your ability to play them easily. This is due to the fact that when altering the rhythms, you are forced into having to play the next key in sequence much faster than it will need to be played during the performance of the piece.

Always bear in mind that touching the next key before you play is critical toward learning a piece that will be error free.

When you first approach a new piece of music, you should try to avoid attacking it as if it were some sort of beast to overcome. Go about it slowly and deliberately, working the hands alone at first, and then combining them. In this way, the input your brain receives is more consistant and much more conducive to learning. Also, when working the hands separately, it is best to imagine what note values the other hand will be playing at the same time. This insures that the rhythms will be correct, and the hands will work together easily when combined.

Always take the time to read through a piece before beginning your work. Look for what the music and the passages are telling you about the piece. For example, are there repeated notes or repetative passages. If you encounter passages that appear as broken chords, play the groups as a single chord. This will give you the necessary fingering and help set your hand for the positions required. Also look for passages that are identical in structure but appear in different keys. Most of the time, you will be able to use identical fingerings for these passages.

Most difficulties in playing music occur when the fingering used is either too difficult for the fingers to accomplish, or is inappropriate for the type of material being studied. An example would be attempting to learn the music of J.S. Bach. In this style of music, the fingerings have to be exact or the piece will not come together. Phrasing and articulation are also important. In Bach's music, phrasing can mean the difference in your ultimate ability to render the piece. Remember that fingerings are subjective due to the formation of your hands, and that no two pair of hands will ever be similar in their construction. What is easily accomplished by one can be impossible for another due to the formation of their own hands. The great composer and vistuoso pianist Rachmaninoff had a hand span that encompassed an octave plus the fifth above. His left hand could reach a chord C-Eb-C'-G"!

Next I would like to address the subject of 'Creative Visualization'. After a piece is thoroughly learned. this method can be easily employed by finding a quiet spot and simply thinking through the piece. When you initially try this, time yourself, and then time the actual length of the piece as you play it. You will be surprised at the difference. The human mind can run through things much faster than you can actually play through a piece. Once you can think through a piece in the same time frame as it takes to perform it, you have accomplished this goal.

Memorization can be the key to overcoming many technical difficulties, especially when the music contains large leaps for either hand. Memorizing music can be accomplished by various methods. You have the tactile, which is the muscle memory required to play a piece without looking at your hands. You have the aural, which is the reliance upon hearing what should come next. And you have the visual, which is performing by watching what the hands are playing. Ideally you should be able to employ all three methods so that your memorization is complete, and also alleviating the concerns regarding failure due to distraction or anything else that might interfere with your concentration while performing.

It can be very helpful to paint a mental picture of the piece in your mind. The composition might remind you of a scene in nature or a story that unfolds as you play the piece. Remebering the story can actually aid you in remebering the different sections of the music. This idea is not new. The composer Richard Wagner developed what is known in music as the Leit Motiv in which a theme is connected to one of the roles in the opera. Upon hearing the theme, the audience could expect to either see the character or realize that the actions on stage are referring to the character associated with the theme.

If you have a reasonable knowledge of music theory, you can divide the piece into sections by remembering the beginning chord structures and harmonic progressions of these sections. Knowing the form and structure of a piece can greatly enhance your ability to memorize the music. The great pianist Arthur Rubenstein once forgot an entire section of the Brahms Piano Concerto in Dminor during a performance. He was able to 'fake' his way through the secton by formulating a standard chord prgression and melodic lines common to the key of Dminor. Although the orchestra knew he was in trouble, no one in the audience, except those with knowledge of the score, were able to tell the error had been made.

Performing music entails many factors including the senses of touch, sight, and hearing. The peformance of music plays into the emotions of the musician as well. Not all pianists will be comfortable in the performance of every composers works. One must be able to assimilate the thought processes of the individual composer in order to do justice to their works. For some, Mozart will take precedence over Beethoven or Haydn. For others, Chopin may excell over Brahms. You must experience the music of every major composer, however, in order to find those that appeal to your own particular emotional criteria.

I sincerely hope that this article will help aid in your practice habits. Not everyone will practice the same way or for the same duration. What some can accomplish in 30 minutes, others may take two hours to complete. The quality of practice will be the determining factor in being able to perform excellent and error free music.

[NOTE: The principles in this article can apply to instruments other than the piano. Posture and playing positions are critical with most instruments and the ability to prepare for the next note or rhythm in sequence is a universal approach.]


© Copyright 1998 Howard Richards revised 2004