Motivation can be a tricky subject for pianists of all ages, says Melanie Spanswick
Practising the piano and making progress are not always synonymous. Practising can be a tedious pursuit, demanding complete focus and concentration, and often involving a hefty portion of self-knowledge. Therefore, how can we perpetually ‘feel the love’ during those onerous practice sessions when progress seems slow? Here are a few ideas.
- Buy a practice journal. I encourage my students to write about each lesson; they often like to do it on the way home afterwards. Aim to write down what happened in the lesson. What did you learn? What do you still not understand? How are you going to harness your practice during the week in the light of the lesson? If you don’t have regular lessons, you’ll need to be even more thoughtful; perhaps begin by writing about your progress over the week. And be honest – if you feel you haven’t improved, then why is this the case? A journal is a sure way to note progress and therefore keep motivation strong.
- Set out what you’d like to achieve this year. You can also write about this in your journal. You may have a particular ‘goal’ in mind. A couple of years ago, two of my students, who are friends and were both turning fifty, decided to mark the occasion by taking a performance diploma. One took the ATCL performance diploma, and the other, the LTCL performance diploma. This was a significant undertaking, but their motivation was such that during the year they went on several piano courses, came to me for lessons, and practised performing their programmes regularly. Both passed with flying colours – a perfect demonstration of a ‘goal’ effectively executed. What is your ‘goal’ this year?
- Try to play music you really love. An obvious statement, but how many teachers impose repertoire and never allow students to explore the wide variety of material on offer. I generally gravitate towards technical exercises and ‘technique’ based repertoire with my students, and we normally focus on these at the beginning of each lesson. But beyond this, I hope that a student might suggest a composer or a piece that they’d like to explore. This is more difficult if you are taking an exam and must play certain pieces, but it’s still possible to delve into repertoire alongside an examination. One way of doing this is to be creative with your sight-reading. This skill must be developed, so try to find reading material which you will enjoy. You don’t have to stick to sight-reading ‘tests’: if you fancy reading through the score of La La Land, or the latest Ariana Grande song, then purchase and download the piano score, and slowly work through it. The more you read, the stronger this skill will become, and you are also enjoying music you want to play.
- Attend music events. Going to concerts is the best way to ‘hear’ repertoire live, but we haven’t been able to do much of that recently! However, you can also use sites like YouTube or ‘live-streamed’ events. Try to attend with a like-minded friend or colleague and discuss the programme and the music. What did you enjoy? If it’s a composer you’ve never heard before, research their music afterwards. They may have written a piece suitable for you to learn.
- Attend a piano course or masterclass. I encourage all my students to attend piano courses. This may be a scary prospect, but it’s surprising how much you can learn from eavesdropping on the lessons of other players. Two of my students go to specific piano courses regularly where they know they can perform to a friendly audience – and, as a result, they have really ramped up their performing skills, playing with far greater confidence as well as enjoying the sense of occasion, as opposed to feeling terror and insecurity.
- Form a duet team. This may take some research on your part to find a partner who is of a similar level to you. Piano duets and trios can cement friendships. And they are also fantastic vehicles for improvement. Sight-reading, coordination, rhythm, basic technical grasp, confidence and repertoire knowledge are just a few of the positive outcomes from such a partnership. I teach several ensembles regularly and their playing has progressed enormously. Performing as a team is fun and engaging. Try it – it might just be your favourite pursuit this year.
- Play in a music festival. Competitions aren’t for everyone, but there are non-competitive classes in most music festivals all around the UK, and abroad. I have adjudicated at many such events, and love these classes, because the pianists are playing purely for the love of the instrument. Yes, it’s very nerving-wracking for those who have never done it before – you will almost certainly not play how you would wish at first. But, again, they are great preparation for performance and they will develop your skills. You could try the online or virtual events which have become popular over this last year, too.
- Form a piano group. Only for the dedicated souls! If you don’t fancy setting up your own group, there are numerous groups already in existence, and they offer the chance to play in a ‘safe space’, hopefully free from negative criticism.
- Aim to work in small sections during practice sessions. A common student complaint is that they don’t or can’t achieve real technical improvement from week to week. In this case, technical difficulties have often been side-stepped or skimmed over. Try to work in very small increments, noting the physical motions needed to really manage note patterns. By focusing on one bar at a time, employing optimum movements, you will master each passage. This does demand careful focus, but if you can view it as a new learning experience, then each passage should eventually feel comfortable.
- And, finally, make sure your posture is relaxed and flexible when playing the piano. Tension, stiffness, and taut piano playing can cause serious issues, including physical pain as well as frustration. If this is a problem for you, then find a specialist teacher who can help – this is certainly a very worthwhile goal.
Good luck – and enjoy yourself!
About the author
Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.