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Five tips for keeping in time at the piano

It may seem counter-intuitive, but spending structured practice time away from the instrument can reap rewards for pianists, improving memory and visualisation skills

Keeping time, or playing rhythmically, can be a challenge for many, and particularly for pianists, as they are often playing alone and therefore have the opportunity to change the tempo as often as they wish! Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers five tips for the rhythmically challenged.

In your piano playing, do you sometimes need to curb a tendency to rush or linger? Here are a few ideas to implement at your practice sessions.

To create the best tempo in any work (for you), locate what you feel is the most taxing area of the piece being studied and decide what speed is most comfortable in order to achieve clarity, fluency and a musically coherent performance.

It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision when notes are separated from the rhythm

Once you’ve instigated a speed, when learning a new piece, go through the piece and tap the rhythm of the right-hand part with your right hand (on the lid of the piano), and the left-hand part with the left hand (also on the piano lid). Try hands separately at first, then both hands together. Ensure that you count as you do this, thus establishing a firm, steady beat. It’s easier to attain rhythmic precision at the start of the learning process when notes are separated from the rhythm.

For fluency and rhythmic accuracy, consider using a metronome at the beginning of the learning process. Listen to the ‘tick’: both the speed of the tick and the ‘space’ in between. One of the most useful methods to attain accurate pulse keeping is learning to ‘sit’ on the metronome tick. This skill can be acquired by playing exactly with the tick every time it occurs – as opposed to just before or after, both of which can happen with alarming regularity if you’re not used to attuning your ear and mind to decisively following a pulse. To do this effectively, it’s best if notes are securely learned, so you’re free to focus on time-keeping.

Count out loud as you play

Once the metronome has been used for a period of time and you’ve got used to playing along to an omnipresent beat, aim to count out loud as you play, or count along to the beat you have established. It can be a good idea to sub-divide the beat for this purpose. If your piece is in crotchets, count in quavers, and if it is in quavers, count in semiquavers, and so on. It may be exhausting, but by playing along to your verbal counting, you’ll quickly become accustomed to where you are in the bar and should eventually be able to ‘feel’ the pulse. As a general rule, the smaller the sub-division, the more accurate your pulse keeping.

Finally, curb any sense of rushing, or slowing down, and encourage excellent articulation (or touch) by paying attention to the ends of notes; experiment by employing ‘active’, strong fingers, placing every finger precisely, producing a full, rich tone, paying special attention to the fourth and fifth fingers. Each note (or chord) must ideally be in its rightful place at any time, and shouldn’t be ‘cut’ or brushed over.

As with many facets of piano playing, listening will prove to be a vital element when learning to play in time. If you can train your ears to be really aware of what is being played, then you’re on your way to honing rhythmically sound performances.

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

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.