The 50% practice routine

A bit of homespun advice about your piano practice:

Each practice session begin with a scale and arpeggio. Choose a different key each time. Remember to play smoothly, in time and with an even tone – these are the 3 things to look for. I appreciate this is not an attractive task (you can make it attractive and look forward to it.) However it builds strong technique. Exercises are not exactly an attractive proposition but if you want to improve then it’s a habit that needs to be cultivated. Someone once told me that to create a habit it takes 21 days, so try it… so for the next 21 days do your exercises before anything else.

When we play the piano to play we often do 2 things: a) play for pleasure, go over our favourite-of-the-moment pieces, and b) practice new ones. I can’t emphasis enough that if you want to advance and play more challenging and beautiful pieces you must spend at least 50% of your practice time working on new pieces. Call it “the 50% rule” if you like and please try it. At each practice start with exercises, then practice the new pieces, then finish off with the things you love.

Online Piano Lessons

The Coronavirus pandemic makes humans think creatively and in this case offer online piano lessons. Having done some testing we’ve found the best solution for sound and video quality is to use Skype.

One-to-one lessons via Skype are available for existing students. Please contact me if you’d like to keep rolling!


Looking ahead!

When sight reading or maybe just playing a piece that you know from music, always look ahead. You should be looking at least one bar ahead all the time to anticipate what is coming, the fingering that will be needed, and seeing the structure of the music.

It’s a tough disciple to follow at first but looking ahead will pay huge dividends.

Tip to aid concentration and accuracy – the game of threes!

This is a good one.

When practicing you sometimes come to a difficult section which slows you down or stops you. Instead of starting from the beginning take the difficult section and play it slowly 3 times without making a mistake. Should you make a mistake during any of the 3 times then start the 3 times again. Continue until you can play it the 3 times without making a mistake. The next day try again, and if you complete the 3 times successfully then increase the pace until you can play the section at the same speed as the rest of the piece.

The ‘game of threes’ is an excellent way to improve your concentration and accuracy. Remember that good pianists always go straight to the tricky parts of a piece and practice those first.

If you are going to perform the piece eventually then try playing the game of threes for the whole piece.

Golden Rules for Good Practice

  • Aim for a short practice every day. This is much better than a long practice every few days.
  • Think of practice like sports training. Start by warming up with some scales or exercises, then work on your pieces, and finish (warm down) with a favourite piece.
  • Approach your practice session ready to learn. Think about what you are doing and concentrate as you play.

Performance nerves, and a strategy to deal with them

We all suffer to a greater or lesser extent with anxiety about performance. Here is some tried and tested advice:

Think about dealing with performance nerves as an ongoing strategy. It’s no good procrastinating and hoping that it will be ‘all right on the night’.  You must practice performing regularly as well as practicing the piano. However this is not as tricky as it sounds.

When preparing a piece for performance in public or preparing for an exam, practice it to a level where you can play it comfortably. Then arrange to play it to members of the family or to friends. Do this a few times before the live performance will take place.

Another good strategy if friends/family are unavailable is to video yourself playing the piece.

When playing to your audience, adopt some or all of these ideas:

1. You do not care about making mistakes in performance.

2. In the mood of not caring about making mistakes, why not relax and even take a few risks?

3. You and the piano are in a bubble. You cannot see/hear outside the bubble.

4. If you make a mistake, instead of thinking ‘oh dear’ (or some more inflammatory phrase!) as quickly as possible focus on the positive act you were trying to accomplish, e.g. you may have been shaping a phrase, playing a rhythm, staying on the beat. Making a mistake is a ‘negative’ so get back to the ‘positive’ fast.  Implement this idea when practicing, and refocus quickly onto a positive idea whenever you make a mistake.  Concentrate on the here and now.

5. Listen more to the piano. Listen to the actual sound.

6. Play every note as if you mean it. Play from the heart.

Read all about it!

If you are learning a new piece and have tried some of it on the piano, how about this for a recipe for success:

Take the music and find a comfortable chair away from the piano. Browse through the music bar by bar taking in the notation, hand positions, fingering, dynamics … just generally ‘read’ through it. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ve taken in when you return to the piano.

Let’s learn pieces quickly and accurately!

Thoughts on motivation – It’s not for now, it’s for life!

Sometimes you ask yourself, why am I practicing, why am I doing this? The answer is that no matter how you feel right now you still like the piano and like music – that feeling will stay with you for a lifetime. However, today you find it an uphill struggle to learn a new piece or just to sit and play.

The answer could be to put the new piece aside for a while and play some old favourites. They don’t need the same effort and you like them. Perhaps you’ve got your own private list of 3 or 4 that you can always turn to and enjoy. Taking part in this activity stills the mind and removes the stress of learning something new. And hey, you’re enjoying your music again!

Don’t give up. Just play something you like. The need to learn and practice a new piece will return soon.

Melody Playing

As we progress and learn new and sometimes more complicated pieces, we practice the piano and unintentionally ‘ignore the tune’. Music can often be made up of not just one melody. When you look at the phrasing in the right hand and left hand you can often see that a musical piece has multiple ‘songs’ within it. Faced with all this complication we get taken up with the technical challenges of learning a piece and omit to make the melodies sing out.

Chopin is reputed to have taken great pains to teach his pupils a legato, cantabile style, or playing that is singing, melodious, smooth, expressive and graceful. See the Style paragraph here.

The melody will usually be identified with phrase marks. Here are some tips to produce a good singing style:

  • Play the phrases of the piece on their own, without harmonies, and as expressively as possible.
  • Work out the ‘shape’ of each phrase. Could it start quietly, and with a little crescendi come to the loudest part of the phrase and then taper off with a diminuendo?
  • Listen to the melody. Play each note with a fully rounded tone so that each can be heard for its full value. Give all notes their full time.
  • Imagine someone singing the melody.
  • Do any parts of the melody repeat? If so consider playing the second softer than the first.