Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – offers MUSIC:ED readers guidance to on practising the piano.
I’m delighted to be contributing to the MUSIC:ED website. Learning the piano takes time and practice, but after the hard graft comes the sweet pleasure of being able to play a piece, which hopefully proffers enormous enjoyment. The early stages of playing any instrument takes some perseverance and patience, and, in this post, I offer a few practice tips for those at the start of their musical journey.
1. Beginners, particularly teenagers and adults, might benefit from setting goals.
Decide what you wish to achieve by next week, next month and next year. When goals are in place, you are working towards a tangible outcome. It will help focus your mind and encourage you to keep going during those less than fruitful practice sessions.
2. Stick to that routine.
Find a time of day which works for you, then you can look forward to practising at the same time every day or whenever suits your timetable. Piano practice might not always be possible, but if you can mark it in your schedule and are keen to do it, then you’ll be sure to make it happen.
3. Little and often can work well.
A beginner really doesn’t need to practice for more than 20 – 30 minutes a day. You may find it easier to work in two sessions. Aim to practice regularly as opposed to a couple of rushed sessions before your lesson (if you have one).
4. Studying with a teacher is much more productive than learning alone.
Find a suitable teacher and a beginner’s tutor or method book which is user-friendly and well organised (your teacher will probably advise here). Use this alongside other resources; it’s best to explore a variety of material as opposed to relying on one piano method book.
5. Try to start your daily practice with a brief memory session on note testing.
Practise writing the notes on manuscript (music) paper, and follow this by naming and locating them on the keyboard. Repetition will prove key. Learning to read music is a prerequisite when studying the piano. In my piano course, Play it again: PIANO Book 1, there is a music theory section at the back of the book with note-reading and rhythmic exercises.
6. Begin your practice with a few relaxation exercises.
Relax your shoulders as much as possible, and try to ensure they don’t rise up during practice. Keep your wrists loose, and arms, light and fluid. Fingers need to be firm, but the hand, wrist and arm should ideally be loose and flexible.
7. Rhythmic reminders are vital.
Clapping or tapping on the piano lid may prove beneficial, as will counting out loud along to your playing. Always keep a steady pulse, and aim to ‘feel’ a regular beat which might be described as similar to that of a ticking clock or heartbeat. It can be helpful to clap along to either a metronome or stop watch in order to become aware of the regularity and steadiness required. Clap or tap the pulse and rhythms in your pieces before learning the notes.
8. Find and play the notes in your piece (or pieces) without the rhythm.
Learning to coordinate both hands whilst grasping note patterns can take time, so try to do this before you add the rhythm. Write your fingering into the score, and ensure you use it! Take time moving around the keyboard and aim to find the notes with your fingers before you need to play them. Name the notes as you play, and keep your wrist and hands loose and relaxed.
9. Repetition is important when getting to grips with note patterns.
When combining the notes and rhythm together you may need to work at each bar many times. Keep your fingers close to the keys, eliminating any possible errors. Set an extremely slow pulse at first. When confident, add speed and repeat the phrases using a different tonal colour (try playing softly, then much more powerfully, for example). This precludes mindless repetition, encouraging focus on dynamics, phrase shape and other important musical features.
10. Spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes on each little piece
(similar to those in length in a piano method or tutor book), and in that time, concentrate fully until you can play fluently. The sense of achievement will feel monumental when you can skip through your piece with no errors. Play each piece from beginning to end after your practice session. This will channel your concentration, and illustrate what needs to be done at the next session.
And finally, make a note of each practice session in a notebook. It can help to write down what was achieved and how you did it. Good luck!
Melanie Spanswick demonstrates her Drop roll technique from book 1 of Play It Again, published by Schott Music. Practise these techniques for relaxed, effortless slurs and clear articulation. Learn how to practise and perform clear, expressive and accurate trills on the piano.
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.