Here are some basic tips for adult pianists on how to practice the piano, regardless of what type of music you are playing.
1. Remember that practicing the piano is in reality simply repeating the hard parts until you know them. The trick lies in how to repeat them. Here’s what to do: Don’t repeat and practice the parts you know, play the parts you don’t know, the hard parts you avoid.
One trick that really works is this: as soon as you know the first half of the piece, start your practice of the piece exactly in the middle, at the point that you usually start stumbling when you play it all the way through. When this second half is as good as the first, join the two, and you have a reasonably consistent performance.
2. Break each part down into little bite size “sections,” perhaps 1-4 bars. Nothing longer than 4 bars is a good rule, and repeat that “section” until you are tired of it, and then do something else.
Think of a piece of music as a quilt, and we are going to work on each “square” of fabric, only later joining them all together to make a “quilt.”
3. Play each section hands separately. It’s a good rule that if you can’t play the part with one hand, you won’t be able to play it with two. Break down the physical motion into what each hand does separately.
The more active the movement in each hand, the more you need to isolate that part in a single hand and refine it. So if the left hand is just chords or some simple accompaniment, and the right hand is full of 16th notes and filigree, practice only the right hand for a long while (weeks?) until it is almost automatic. Then combine in small sections with the left hand (the accompaniment.) This process can be reversed, for example, in Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” you will have to play the whirling rush of 16th notes in the left hand many, many times before you attempt to combine it with the rather easy right hand.
4. Look at your hands when you practice. Memorize the music and then look at your hands. Think of any famous pianist: do you see them looking anywhere else but the maze of piano keys?
Memorization is one of the keys to mastery at the piano. You cannot possibly negotiate the movements necessary to play the piano if your eyes are staring at anything other than the keys. All the problems are right in front of you, and if you are looking away, at the music, you are driving without looking at the road.
5. Play each section slowly, far slower than the song goes, far slower than you can stand. Play it so slowly that it becomes impossible to make mistakes. Slow practice reveals things to the eye and ear that are invisible at the proper, standard tempo.
Beginners, especially talented ones, want to play the song at the proper tempo, no matter what. It is the instinct of the musician to want to make music, not play things as if one were encased in oil. But playing slowly is the key to control: when you play, and look at the keys, your brain is forming a set of synapses, and this formation is much easier if you allow the brain to see it in slow motion. In fact, I tell kids, “How do you get to play fast?” The answer: “Play slow.”
When you have finished the above five steps for each section, try the section with two hands, very, very slowly. You will see some improvement. Repeat these steps until the section is comfortable. This describes the steps for working on a difficult section you don’t know. After that, go back and play all the sections, the easy and the difficult, and see what needs work.
Distinguish between playing a major section all the way through, and working on a small section intensively.
After you work hard for a little while, walk away, do something else, and come back later.
Copyright 2000 Walden Pond Press
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