How to Practice

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Hello Greg!
I visit often since I discovered your page last year. You have, many times, given me the motivation to practice by watching just how INCREDIBLE your musical and technical skills are. You and other amazing pianists gave me the personal urge to pursue this level for myself, too. I have always wanted to ask you questions, but I suppose now is the time after coming home from an embarrassing performance -- a harsh wake up call to not rely on motion memory. (Oops!) I'm 17 years old and have been playing piano for ten years. I'm a "late bloomer", as in I didn't take piano seriously until the past year. It became a frustrating, but somewhat rewarding journey of learning what works and what doesn't. So far, I've made huge strides with a new teacher, learning how to play relaxed, and relearning how to play dynamics in a relaxed manner which helped my playing tremendously on top of what I already know. Now here are the questions: What makes "quality practice"? What about practicing that makes it enjoyable for you? And out of curiosity, what are your stages of learning a new piece? I know the importance of practice, but for years I've been doing so by playing notes over and over without much thoughts into them. I now know it won't work in the long run if I want to advance, which I would very much love to do. I'm also slowly discovering how the instrument works, limitations and all, in order to apply them into my playing. This is the most difficult challenge for me because I have all these wonderful ideas in my head, but have trouble projecting them through the piano. I assume it's also a difficult question to answer through the internet, but if you have any tips and suggestions on this, I would greatly appreciate them. Thank you for your time!
 -Shirley

Dear Shirley,

How should one practice? Aw man! How am I supposed to answer that one in such a modest forum!? You effectively described how NOT to practice ("I've been doing so by playing notes over and over without much thoughts into them"), but it's terribly difficult to describe how one should practice. Every piece needs a different approach.

I suppose I have four general tips for you:

1) Your practicing should mean something. Don't waste your time with auto-pilot drill work.

2) Always be "present" when you practice. Effective practicing requires 100% of your attention. If I can't focus, I don't waste my time practicing; this means I sit down at the piano only when I'm well rested and willing separate myself from the rest of the world for a few hours. Challenge yourself to see how focused you can be. How dramatically can you improve a single line of music? How beautifully can you voice a single chord? How effectively can you create an entirely new universe? How colorfully can you shape a single line of counterpoint?

3) I almost always endorse slow practice! Take your music apart -- and I mean, really take it apart. One of my favorite things to do is to play the music one chord at a time. I stop on each chord and listen to its beauty. What makes it beautiful? Is it the third? the seventh in the bass? the wide spacing? Try voicing the chord in different ways; unlock the potential of the chord. I also like working out passages one hand a time; using both hands to play the single staff of music. (For example, I use both hands to play just the left hand part.) Essentially, I want my ear to hear the potential of a passage without the technical obstacles. Once the most beautiful sound possible is in my ear, I work out the part in the correct manner. My ear then guides my solo hand to create the sounds I just created using both hands. You can also turn fast passage work into slow, exaggerated, breathtaking music; that always offers me hours of fun!

(Slow work helps your ears discover more nuances and uncover new layers of detail, so that by the time the music is racing by, you have a solid understanding of what's going on. However, all of your slow work should never contribute to a calculated performance at full tempo. In performance, you toss everything to the wind and play freely.)

4) Related to all of the above, I recommend practicing away from the piano. Listen to the music in your head. (Don't listen to a recording! Literally conjure the sounds in your head.) Shape the music exactly as you want it to sound at the piano. This is surprisingly difficult, but it is efficient and effective. As mentioned above, the more you know how you want to sound at the piano, the more your hands will know what to do.

- Greg (May 10, 2009)