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Five tips to improve your piano playing

Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers MUSIC:ED readers guidance on practising the piano.

Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers MUSIC:ED readers guidance on practising the piano.

Discipline and motivation are prerequisites for significantly improving piano playing. I write a ‘5 tips’ style article for Pianist magazine’s bi-monthly newsletter, and this format has proved to be a popular one, so I thought I’d adopt it for this article. The following suggestions are intended to inspire and invigorate practice routines – I hope they will precipitate enjoyable, fruitful practice.

New repertoire. Why not explore alternative piano pieces?

  • Something a little different from your usual repertoire. Irrespective of whether you are studying for graded exams and diplomas, preparing for competitions, or simply working towards achieving smoother, more fluent playing, the discovery of unknown piano works can be a revelation.
  • Begin by listening to what, on first site, may appear to be the least attractive works on various exam lists; you might never consider such options, but they could become favourites if given a chance.
  • And then branch out further, consulting lesser known composer’s catalogues. One of my professors loved to play Victorian music (especially works by female composers), introducing a wide range of composers whom otherwise I may never have known about.
  • Contemporary piano music continually offers interesting options too, and can really interesting options for those who fear they are stuck in a practice rut.

Setting goals is another profitable concept.

  • Not everyone likes being ‘goal orientated’ but when working with my students, I find they all respond favourably when pursuing a tangible objective. Over the past year each student has had a particular objective; from playing more frequently in music festivals and concerts, to learning a suitably complicated diploma programme from memory, or even taking part in a piano course for the first time. Rapid improvement has always followed. What are your piano objectives?

For those who have a tendency to skip a piano warm-up, maybe now is the time to implement this beneficial start to your sessions.

  • Warm-ups take a few minutes, but can make the world of difference to your focus, concentration and finger power (you can enjoy many warm-up exercises in Play it again Book 3).
  • If you prefer not to play exercises or scales, experiment with a few simple chords or cadences (or chord progressions) very slowly with a full sound, paying attention to each finger and finger joint, ensuring they are working optimally, with the finger tips (or pads) connecting fully to each key, ready for practice.
  • Careful practice, i.e. watching every hand and finger movement can prove exhausting, needing absolute mental absorption. This may be a new way of working for you, but it is sure to keep your attention and renew interest in the fundamental physicality of movement needed for successful piano playing.

If you have never had a desire to sit down and play a piece from memory, maybe now is the time to explore this option.

  • Playing from memory is not necessary for most piano exams and diplomas, but it is usually a requirement for those thinking about auditioning for a place at a music college or working towards taking part in a piano competition.
  • Start small; take a short piece and work at memorising each hand separately, without the score. When you can play both hands through confidently without the score, practice hands together.
  • Learning memorisation skills will help to direct your attention to the music and to the sound you are producing, therefore sharpening your listening skills and polishing your interpretative powers, too.   

It might be time to seek out new pedalling solutions.

  • The use of the sustaining pedal (right pedal) and una corda (left pedal) are de rigueur for pianists from elementary level right through to advanced.
  • But how many explore the Sostenuto pedal? The middle pedal (on a grand piano) is fun to introduce. I’ve been working on implementing this pedal technique with two of my advanced pupils; we are learning pieces by Bartók and Takemitsu, but it can be a beneficial addition for French repertoire as well.

You can find out more in the technique section at the beginning of Melanie’s piano course, Play it again: PIANO, published by Schott Music. These volumes contain over 60 piano pieces from a wide range of historical periods, and each piece contains copious practice ideas and suggestions.

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.