Sunday, July 10, 2011

Getting the Most From Practice Time

Frequently students, or their parents, ask me how much time they should spend practicing each day. My answer is usually this: until you see improvement. But I really wish they would ask about the quality of practice rather than the quantity.

At my lessons I put a great deal of emphasis on showing the students how to practice. I view the lesson as a sort of supervised practice session. The methods and techniques that I show them at the lesson are to be done at home. Too often people view the lesson as a sort of "test" and the time at home as "homework." I don't view it that way at all.

Here are a few of the most important elements of practice:

1. Focus and energy: If you aren't focusing your full attention on what you are doing, you may as well go do something else. If you are playing through your pieces while thinking about work or what you will make for dinner, you would be better off just going and doing those things instead of playing the piano. It is absolutely a myth that you are still getting something from it if you are just going through the motions, running your fingers through the music, so to speak. You must be listening with laser-like focus, to really hear your playing in the most clear and objective way possible. You must also give attention to your body, to know what your hands, fingers, arms and torso are doing, and to sense unnecessary tension, so that you can correct any problems you find rather than reinforcing the problems by continuing to play them over and over. Try to clear your mind, become aware of your body, and center yourself before you begin practicing. This type of focus is not easy to sustain for hours on end, so it is better to do smaller amounts, or take more frequent breaks and re-center yourself, than to do a long stretch of practice without focus and energy.

2. Playing with full emotional involvement:  I know it is a commonly held belief that it is fine, even desirable, to "learn the notes" of a piece before adding "expression." If you've read my previous posts, you know that I emphatically disagree with this idea. Everything that comprises that elusive quality we call expression, or musicality, is channeled into something you do physically. Every tiny nuance in your physical touch of the keys affects the dynamics, the phrasing, the timing, and many other subtleties. My point here is that if you are practicing without emotional involvement or "expression," you are practicing in a way that will have to change later. You are using a different physical coordination than you will ultimately need, and therefore you are practicing something that you will have to discard and replace with a different physical coordination. The expression is not something you can add at the end, like a coat of paint. Or perhaps to put it in its simplest way, you become what you practice: if you practice playing mechanically, without expression, you will become good at playing that way. When students play for me at the lesson without full emotional involvement, I often ask them, "What are you saving it for?" Aim to play with the full force of your being 100% of the time.

3. Ear work: Most students mistakenly believe that when we practice we are just practicing the physical -- the movements of the fingers, hands and arms. But you need to be working on developing your ear, as much, if not more, than the physical mechanisms. The ear will be guiding your hands in everything you play, and if your ear does not really know, at a very deep level, how the music sounds, you will never achieve mastery. Ear work such as transposing or figuring out new music by ear should be done at every practice session.

4. Hands together: Practicing hands separately has been a mainstay for pianists for centuries, but I believe it is a big mistake. The ultimate challenge of the piano is the two-hand coordination, so you may as well jump in and practice that as much as you possibly can. No amount of playing hands separately truly prepares you for playing hands together, because it doesn't develop the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that enables you to play hands together. My motto is: "Practice time is too precious to spend it with one hand in your lap." Read my previous post on outlining to see how it is possible to play hands together right from the beginning.

5. Eyes closed: Once you know a piece by memory, or if you are playing by ear and/or improvising, you should spend as much time as possible playing with eyes closed. This develops your kinesthetic awareness and advances your technical mastery. It is a well-established fact that taking away one sense strengthens the others, and we've all seen the technical prowess that many blind pianists have. I tell my students that if they want to double the rate of their progress, play everything with eyes closed. (If you did the ear work described above, you'll memorize more quickly and be able to play with eyes closed sooner.) Playing with eyes closed is "practicing on steroids."

6. Play real music: Don't spend your precious practice time doing mechanical exercises like Hanon or Czerny. I give my students what I call "set-ups," specifically designed technical work, often derived from the pieces they are playing, which help develop mastery of specific techniques. These are meant to be done in small enough doses that they don't become drudgery but are still effective. Most traditional exercises aren't conducive to playing with expression, and  spending too much time on them will cause you to play mechanically.

If you put these principles into practice, you'll find you achieve more in less time, and enjoy your practice time more. What could be better than that?