It’s time to think about New Year Resolutions. Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – lists her top tips for effective piano practice.
The new year is nearly upon us, so here are eight daily practice reminders to incorporate into your practice routine as the new decade dawns.
1. Develop a practice schedule
It can be useful to schedule your sessions, compartmentalising your time. Whether you want to practise for 30 minutes or two hours, be sure to allocate your time wisely, and decide what you want to achieve.
If you stick to a plan as opposed to just sitting down at the instrument and letting your mind and fingers wander, you will be far more productive.
Draw up a practice chart and tick off your goals as you surmount them, daily or weekly.
2. Always warm-up
The importance of warming up cannot be underestimated. Rather like an athlete, playing the piano is a physical pursuit (and, of course, it’s mental too!), but you wouldn’t necessarily go for a run without doing a few stretches, so it’s a good idea to do the same on the piano.
Warming-up is a personal issue, but a few ideas might include playing scales, or working at Hanon or Czerny exercises very slowly, allowing your fingers (with the help of arm-weight) to really sink into the keys. You may prefer to use other repertoire, but essentially keep your warm-up patterns slow and deliberate so that your muscles have had a chance to get used to moving sufficiently before practice commences. Book 3 of Play it again: PIANO contains a chapter on warming-up, complete with a selection of exercises.
3. Lower your shoulders
Most of us have a tendency to raise our shoulders when playing, especially as figurations become more complex. Try to combat this issue by checking your shoulders regularly during practice time; if you forget then chances are your shoulders will feel sore and strained eventually. Make sure they are relaxed, that is, not raised and in their natural position, and ensure your upper body feels free.
A relaxed body position will become a good habit over time, if constantly kept in check.
4. Watch the sustaining pedal
Another habit which pervades piano playing is the constant use of the sustaining (or right) pedal. We have a tendency to use it at every opportunity without really thinking about our actions.
The sustaining pedal is a wonderful addition to the piano sound, but used all the time, it merely masks what we are trying to do with our fingers. If possible, try to put the right foot away for a while and listen to the sound and clarity produced by your fingers alone.
5. Remember the pulse and rhythm
Much time and effort might be spent finding the right notes, so tempo can sometimes be side-stepped. One idea is to concentrate on the pulse and rhythm from the outset. Many don’t like working with the metronome, but it can prove beneficial. It takes a while to acclimatise to a regular pulse, but it is well worth the effort.
Once you develop a feel for ‘sitting’ on the mechanical pulse instigated by the metronome, turn it off and find your own reliable method for time keeping. Using the metronome for a few months should have a positive effect on your ability to keep time.
It will make or break your performance. If you are a beginner, your teacher will probably write the fingering (or which fingers to use on which notes) in your score, but if you are more advanced you must become accustomed to writing it in yourself. Get used to the shape of your hand, because how you write your fingering will depend on its size and shape.
Learn to write all fingering in the score; this will prompt you every time you practise so you’ll be reminded to use the correct fingers at every session.
7. Bar by bar practice
Discipline yourself to work in small sections rather than continually playing a piece through.
Playing through, whilst important, will not be advantageous after a while, but working assiduously in small sections, breaking a piece down and working consistently will gradually improve your playing.
8. Always remember the music!
Dynamics, phrase marks, expression marks; these will help to shape a musically considered account. Interpretation, or how you play a piece, is an essential ingredient. Start by asking how a particular piece makes you feel; why do you want to play it. Is it a happy piece? Is it sad? Reflective? Atmospheric? Children may wish to draw pictures. We tend to become engrossed in technical challenges and occasionally forget the creativity in music making.
I wish you a very Happy New Year!
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.