Practice Strategies for Piano Players
When it comes to improving your piano playing, the only way to master it is to play, play, play! The old cliché “practice makes perfect” is true!
However, good practice strategies, knowing what and how to practice, are key to success. Here are some top tips:
Set aside time each day if you can to dedicate your time to playing. It doesn’t have to be hours of frustration, if you know exactly what to work on. If all you have spare is just fifteen minutes, that is much better than playing the wrong things for an hour. But the key is regular and frequent thought out playing. Once a week just before your piano lesson is not going to cut the mustard!
Set yourself a target to work on, if your teacher hasn’t already given you something specific. It could be the first four bars, or the first full phrase. It could be the last page. It really doesn’t matter what, but the point is not to tackle too much too soon. Time spent dealing with small chunks and getting your fingers around that is far more productive than grappling through pages and getting nowhere fast!
Be a Detective – Identify Repeating Rhythm Patterns
Check out the music before playing it. You don’t have to sight read everything! Look out for repeating patterns. Patterns appear everywhere in music. It could be rhythmic or melodic. Spending time identifying where the patterns occur will better prepare you when you get to that part of the music. Chances are you’ll already be able to play it because you’ll have nailed it in a previous bar.
Improvise! Mix Up The Patterns.
If you have identified some repeating patterns, but you’re finding playing them tricky, try taking the rhythm away and just focus on the notes and how to get your fingers around them. Then mix up the rhythm! Try it in as many made up rhythmic combinations as you can. Once you can do that, go back to correct rhythm. It’s a great way to build up that muscle memory. But make sure you have the rhythm spot on this time by clapping it, preferably in time to a metronome. This is a great way to cement it in your mind. Once you’ve got the rhythm right, and your fingers know what they’re doing, play it again but really slowly. To get a really good grip on it, try playing it forte, or piano, legato or staccato too.
Spot The Melody
Chances are the opening phrase of the melody will appear again at some point in the piece. Or perhaps a repeating riff or phrase. Look out for it. Again, you can try playing it in a different rhythm to what is written, changing the dynamics or articulation, just to get it cemented in your mind and under your fingers! Plus you’ll also get to really know the structure and story of the music.
Fix Tricky Bars
Quite often the transition from one bar or phrase to another can be tricky, and our playing doesn’t stay in time with the beat. It’s really important to set your internal metronome carefully, or even better, set a real metronome to a slower beat than is required. Without starting at the beginning, play the tricky bars slowly, really slowly!
Then try it again, but start from the bar immediately before without breaking time. You can break it down further, beat by beat… start on the last beat of the previous bar and stop after you have played the second beat of the tricky bar.
5 Bar Challenge
Once you feel you can get through the piece, challenge yourself to play from a random start point, and play just five bars. It’s a real test that you can play what you are reading, and that you really know the piece well.
Start At The End
If you always start from bar 1, the first 4 bars will probably be great, but consistency is important for making the piece come alive. Working from the end of the piece is interesting. It’s good for sight reading too as you don’t really know what the melody sounds like when working backwards. Let’s say there are 30 bars in the piece. Start at bar 30. Then start from bar 29-30. Then 28-30, 27-30 etc.
Identify The Story – Live The Character And Emotion
If the piece you’re playing was a book, or a film, what would the storyline be? What images does the music conjure up in your mind as you play? Does it stir any emotion in you? What’s the character of the music? It’s important to make all of these things come alive in your playing. In the ABRSM Grade 2 Piano 2021-2022 syllabus, there is a lovely piece called The First Flakes Are Falling, by Helen Madden. It’s soft and gentle, mysterious and calm, exactly how I image snow to “sound”. Let your fingers be the snowflakes as you play. In the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano 2021-2022 syllabus, Opening Night Jazz by Martha Mier is cheeky, fun, flirtatious. Playing this is great if you have a cheeky grin on your face, and let your flirtiness flow through your arms! So rather than just stomping your way through a piece, think about how to tell its story and bring out its character in your playing. Try it in different ways to find what is most suitable.
Record your playing
Listen back to an audio or video of your playing and critique yourself. Listen out for slips or any places where the music doesn’t flow. Make a note of the bars as you listen so you can go back and work on them. But also listen to your style – are you too heavy if the piece is supposed to be light? Are you too soft if the piece is supposed to be bold? Is your playing too detached where the piece is supposed to be floaty? Is there light and shade in your piece, dynamic contrasts, an obvious character? Think about hat could be stopping you from bringing the piece the life. And if you need help with that, hopefully your piano teacher can help you more.
These are just some things to try. I’m sure the list is endless and you probably have lots of other ideas you already put into practice. But it’s fun to try other things too.
Enjoy playing today!