It may seem counter-intuitive, but spending structured practice time away from the instrument can reap rewards for pianists, improving memory and visualisation skills. Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers five tips for piano-free practice.
Practising away from the instrument can be a beneficial practice technique. Taking the music off the page is a most valuable facet for any pianist. If you’re able to hear it, imagine playing it, and visualise or recall any passage, you are more likely to be at ‘one’ with the music, thereby producing a performance of integrity and musical depth.
Here are my five suggestions for how to organise your time.
- Instigate a happy positive mind-set before practice begins; it’s amazing the effect this can have on learning capacity. Before practice commences, aim to sit at the instrument with a relaxed posture: shoulders down, hands hanging freely by your side, breathing slowly, and thinking positively.
- Consider the piece you are about to practice: how does it make you feel? Feelings take on a new meaning when practising away from the keyboard, and this may be what produces deeper expressivity. As you observe the score, note what happens in each hand: the movements, fingerings and gestures required to play the patterns. It can be particularly helpful to pay special attention to the left hand here too. Aim to do this without the piano.
- Some find it helpful to write the piece out on manuscript paper (recalling it from memory). As you work at the piano, begin to test your memory during practice sessions; by repeatedly returning to the same phrases and passages over a period of time, the thought responses become stronger and clearer. Now do this away from the instrument, hearing each passage in isolation.
- Play the piece through in your mind. The effort and assimilation required can come as quite a shock, but once you become accustomed to the relevant mind-set needed, a calmness and stillness is acquired, and it becomes possible to ‘think’ through the music increasingly accurately. And you can do this anywhere at any time!
- Visualise watching yourself play your piece at the keyboard, as an image in your mind. It can be a good idea to envisage every detail: fingerings, movements, and everything necessary to play the piece from beginning to end successfully.
If you can work at some of these suggestions frequently, memory and visualisation skills associated with practising away from the keyboard will gradually develop, and this method could eventually become a worthwhile part of a practice session.
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.
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