Whether you are a younger or older player, or a beginner or very advanced pianist, the following suggestions will hopefully help to instantly improve your performance, says Melanie Spanswick.
The start of the academic year brings fresh hope and promise. Many will consider learning the piano, either at school or privately, and more mature players may wish to ‘return’ to the piano after a few years of absence.
Even if your hands and fingers feel a little ‘out of practice’, I hope these ideas provide some inspiration and food for thought during practice sessions.
It can be a major issue, particularly for nervous performers, because there is often a tendency to ‘ride’ the sustaining or right pedal.
It’s a real a shame to work so hard with the fingers, playing accurately and beautifully, with clear articulation, only to hide under a cloud of pedal. Admittedly, it’s not easy to judge acoustics, especially if you aren’t used to the hall or piano; however, if in doubt, stay away from the sustaining pedal!
It can be a good idea to practise your piece completely without pedal.
Most of us sectionalise pieces when we practice, generally without pedal, and we get used to this, but try to become accustomed to playing through any piece sans pedal. Once confident with the sound, add smaller amounts of sustaining pedal, for a cleaner performance.
Listening is crucial. Aim to know your work inside out so you can think only about the sound and how the pedal changes that sound; particularly observe ends of phrases, rapid passagework and chordal passages.
The knock-on effect of a heavy right foot, that is, the sustaining pedal, can be a lack of smooth, legato playing.
It’s too easy to forget to join notes effectively when the pedal is readily available to do it for us. Once students are stripped of the pedal ‘security blanket’, they can be upset by the sheer clipped, detached nature of their playing. Bypass this by preparing a piece using fluent legato fingering from the outset, adding the pedal only once notes have been fully assimilated.
You may be pleasantly surprised by the sound of the fingers alone, once legato has been achieved. If you have already learned your piece, go through it without any pedal, checking you have used adequate legato fingering, creating a smooth contour, which is usually vital in melodic material.
Beginning and ending in the same tempo can be an issue for some, and this ties in with the problematic matter of thinking before you start playing.
Once seated to play, resist the urge to start at once. Instead, take a few seconds to think; ten seconds should be ample – although it will probably feel like two minutes! This will not only provide time to collect your thoughts, but it will also allow space to set a speed which is both comfortable and realistic.
To be sure about your pulse, count two full bars before playing – think of it as an introduction! Use this time to think about the fastest passages or smallest time values in the chosen work; semi-quavers or demi-semi-quavers can be negotiated with ease at a carefully chosen tempo.
Feeling the pulse religiously can also be helpful, and can stem the compulsion to rush or slow down.
4. Body movement
As many know, too much movement – whether nodding of the head, exaggerated arm movements or swaying around on the stool – can be detrimental and distracting.
However, even more debilitating, is not to move at all. Rigidity can be the cause of a harsh sound and wrong notes. But this can also be caused by nerves, or perhaps lack of preparation.
In order to play in a relaxed manner, it’s important to develop freedom in body movement and cultivate a relaxed stance at the keyboard. Start with mindful observation; watch posture, hand positions and wrists, during practice. Try to focus on how you move around the piano.
Basic tips are to keep shoulders down, wrists free and use arms to transport hands easily around the keyboard. If this issue is worked on consistently and consciously in practice sessions, it will become a good habit, and one which will continue to linger in performances too, even under pressure.
5. Staying close to the keys
It might seem contradictory after reading tip number four, but a good plan is to keep fingers close to the keys as much as possible, even if body movement is considerable.
Whilst wrists and arms must be flexible and able to shift around if necessary, fingers and hands are best kept hovering over the keys ready for action; this may sound obvious, but many don’t adhere to it.
Moving, that is, being in place a split second before playing in order to prepare fingers, and thinking ahead all the time, particularly at the beginning of a performance, will help instil confidence and proffer accurate playing.
These points are fairly easy to implement; try to work at them one at a time, and slowly if necessary, building them into weekly practice routines.
They will instantly improve piano playing, helping to create an assured performance.
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.