Filtering by Category: Practicing

Stay Present

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I've been playing piano for about a year now and have advanced well. I can play Chopin and some of the more easy Liszt now, but I feel that there is something missing in my playing. I think maybe its my phrasing or rhythmic drive or dynamic stratification. I thought another one could be that my fingers were still not muscularly developed. Do you have any advice on how to rectify any of these problems? Should I do Hanon or something like that? It would really be appreciated, or better yet tell me how you got so phenomenal?
Mark A.C. Warner

Dear Mark,

Phrasing? Rhythmic drive? Dynamic stratification? I couldn't tell you what needed the most work from a simple message, but if you are aware that these may be problem areas for you, then you're likely right.

The most straightforward advice I could offer is the following: BE PRESENT. Be in the moment, be aware, be centered, be you. It's the only way to really listen and concentrate.

The second piece of advice is a bit more clever, but essentially the same thing: play as if it were the last time you were ever going to play the piano. It's similar to the concept of living every day as if it were your last. There's something to that notion of "no second chances" that leads people to do what I wrote above: value the moment.

Somehow, Hanon has never inspired me to "be present" in the same way Chopin has. I've never practiced scales or exercises and I don't regret it. Call me spoiled, but I'd rather enjoy myself at all times than work hard for no reason other than the the payoff later. That's how I stay motivated.

Happy practicing!

- Greg

Memorization Tips

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Mr. Anderson,
Sometimes it's hard for me to memorize pieces. Am I just stupid or is it hard for everyone? I feel like killing myself when I have a memory slip. Please help me soon.
Desperate in Denver

Dear Desperate,

Memory is something I've struggled with for as long as I can.....remember. Desperation and threats are certainly no way to solve the problem - in fact, the more you think about memory while you perform, the more slips are likely to happen. There are a couple tips I can offer:

  • Practice! The more you play a piece, the easier it will be to engrain the music in your memory.
  • Think harmonically. Remember the key scheme of the piece - For example, know that your piece is in d minor and that the middle is in F major.
  • When you memorize music, connect every musical phrase in the piece to images or feelings. The brain is better at retaining visual thoughts or emotions than it is at recalling numbers and words. It's this fact that allows us to "remember a face, but not a name!" Comical images help it stick even longer. For example, if there is a heavy, fast, and low passage in the music, try thinking about an elephant performing ballet while you are learning it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you think about the elephant during performance rather than every note name, you are more likely to recall the right notes. - Or if some of the music recalls the feeling of a really good hug, think about that while you learn it.

Good luck!

- Greg

Chopin's Coda

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
I am 16 and have been learning piano for 10 years and i am a chopin lover. I have just completed his 1st ballad but i am having trouble with the ending (my hands get tired). Are there any exercises that i could do to loosen up my hands or maby a good etude that could help. thanks.
 - Ara

Dear Ara,

Aw man! Exercises! Etudes! Those are no fun! The first time I learned the 1st Ballade, I had similar trouble with the coda -- my hands got really, really exhausted. I worked really hard on it, always making certain my hands were relaxed and rotating properly (don't try to do it all with your fingers; use your arm and wrist to your advantage!) and always listening carefully to the beautiful textures and harmonies. In the end, it wasn't perfect and I still struggled.

A few years later (and many pieces later) I worked the ballade up again for a concert. Low and behold, the coda came very easily to me! My technique had improved sufficiently to render the coda's difficulties obsolete. Soooooo -- work hard, but be patient as well.

- Greg (Oct. 23, 2009)

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!

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)

Love Life

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
My love life sucks. I haven't been on a date in over a year. I find the piano more interesting than any of the guys I've met lately. What should I do?
Desolate in Deutschland

Dear Desolate,

Good grief! I'm not a psychologist, nor do I pretend to be!

Regardless, I can offer you two bits of common sense. 1) Be authentic. If you'd rather interest yourself with the piano, no one's stopping you. If you'd rather be out on dates, get yourself out there. 2) The piano is there to enhance real life, not supplant it.

Now, if your some reason, you are intimating that pianists (myself included) are stuck in the practice room and have no love lives, I suggest you reconsider! "Us Weekly" could easily devote an entire issue to the torrid romantic records of the great pianists.


Tango, Sight-Reading

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
When you sight read a piece or look at a piece, do you first break it down as to which key it is in and which modulation etc. etc...? How do you learn to do that fast? Do you know of any simple not-too-hard tango duo pieces? I would love to obtain a copy of your take on Piazzolla, but currently, it is not available, right?
 - Olga

Dear Olga,

The more you sight read, the easier it will be. As a child, I would loan piles of music from the library - whatever interested me really - and play through it all at home. At Juilliard, I often checked out the maximum number of items from the library (45 items) because I was curious to read through music unfamiliar to me. The piano repertoire is like a giant treasure trove - there is so much good stuff out there, and the only way to become familiar with it is by listening or sight reading.

I'd recommend you start with what feels comfortable and go from there! Buy an "easy" classics book, or read through the Mozart sonatas, move on to the Chopin waltzes, etc. Gradually the process will become easier. For me, it is not a matter of analysis (keys, modulation, etc.) but recognizing visual patterns in the music (arpeggio figurations, chords, stylistic tendencies, etc.).

As for your other questions: I'm not familiar with any tango pieces for piano/four-hands, although I'm sure there must be something out there. Keep searching! And you are correct, my arrangement of Piazzolla's is not available yet.

- Greg


Added on by Greg Anderson.
Hey Greg!
In your bio, you are described as a gifted musician who was able to tackle some very tough works in a matter of months within you're beginning. I ask, did that ability come from long hours of practice and dedication, or did it simply come to you?
 - Chad Aboukaram

Hi Chad,

The bio is playful and humorous, but it is true -- I devoured my teacher's first four years of piano study books in a few months.

Many concert pianists begin playing the piano at a very early age -- 3 or 4 years old. I began when I was 8 years of age: comparatively I was "old!" I believe that during those first months of study, I caught up with those who had started much earlier. It definitely came naturally to me; I wasn't practicing much longer than 30 minutes a day. By the time I was 9 I was learning at a more reasonable rate, even though I started practicing longer hours. I worked very, very hard -- long hours of "practice and dedication," as you say -- later in elementary school, high school, and college. Liz always refers to me as a "voracious practicer!"

- Greg (Oct. 25, 2009)

Practicing Four-Hands

Added on by Greg Anderson.
Dear Greg,
Our four hands of fingers get tangled when playing the "Waltz of the Flowers" from the Nutcracker. Any suggestions??
Muddled in Mahtomedi :)

Dear Muddled,

That's the fun of four-hand playing - tangled fingers, limbs, feet, etc.! Liz and I routinely become weak from laughter during our rehearsals!

The element of physical navigation is unique to four hands at one piano, and it is helpful to isolate the issue and practice it separately. When you practice your parts individually, make sure you practice as if the other pianist is there. Drill things like "going over" or "under," "around" or "elbow in," so that you remember everything when you and your partner practice together.

That said, there are a couple tricks you may want to consider:

  • Try placing two benches in front of the keys at a slight angle to one another so that the pianist make a "V" (facing each other). It gives you more elbow room.
  • Instead of cramming your elbows into your sides (the top player's left elbow and the bottom player's right), try elevating or lowering your elbow so that it sits above or below your partner's elbow. Although it is awkward, I find it to be much less technically restricting than playing with my elbow stuck in my side!
  • In particularly nasty points, consider switching the left and right hand parts of the two pianists. Although it may not make musical sense (and "goodness!", you'll have to cross the invisible line many composers insist on drawing down the keyboard), it's frequently easier. When the two pianists cross hands, it forces them to utilize "Trick #2."

Four-hand playing it very similar to dancing - the hands and fingers are like a pair of dancers' feet - it can be just as beautiful to watch as it is to listen!