What would you focus piano practice on if you could do it all again?
August 27, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

You play the piano fairly well, you've had lessons, you enjoy it and when I tell you that I'm learning the piano you tell me that looking back on all the years of lessons and practice, the one thing that helped you the most of all was ________, and the thing that you felt was a biggest waste of your time was ________.

Can you fill in the blanks for me? I'm just trying to find out what things people, in their personal experience, felt helped them the most in getting to where they are as a piano player, and what helped them the least.

Very personal, I know there's no secret trick, just curious.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
This talk by Benjamin Zander might be helpful, in terms of how to think about music as you're playing. The more you can absorb the piece as a whole while you play, and the less you have to worry about hitting the right notes, the more enjoyable your time will be.
posted by singularian at 10:44 AM on August 27, 2009

Discipline is paramount. I didn't understand that as a kid, and so I didn't practice much and always muscle-memorized my pieces. As a result, I'm now an adult who can play intermediate-advanced pieces, but I still stumble through the sight reading at an embarrassingly slow pace. It makes me feel like a sub-literate adult mouthing the sounds of words while reading "Dick and Jane". Very frustrating.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:46 AM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Out of laziness, i always practised my pieces off by heart to avoid having to sight read.

One thing that helped me a lot is splitting the vulgar term "practising" into four stages: Slowly sight reading a piece but stumbling through it, slowly sight reading the piece and playing it flawlessly (this i would repeat until i had mastered it at that speed before progressing further), sight reading it at original tempo, playing it by heart
posted by freddymetz at 11:05 AM on August 27, 2009

For me, it was sight reading as much as possible. This allows me now to easily sight almost any piece put in front of me and makes learning new music easier. (At the same time, I have a very hard time memorizing pieces).

The biggest waste of time were Hanon exercises. I think doing scales and arpeggios were worthwhile in small doses, but my strength and dexterity were not helped significantly by those exercises.
posted by imposster at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: Full disclosure: I am a classically trained pianist who has played since the age of six, sometimes competitively and as a (part-time) profession. I no longer take lessons or work as a pianist but I do still play in my leisure time and have remained somewhat proficient. I would recommend that you:

1) Play every single day, no matter what. Your fingers get lazier and clumsier with long breaks between practice sessions. 30-60 minutes should be your minimum if you're serious about steadily improving.

2.) Learn basic theory beyond sightreading. It's a lot easy to play something like, say, Pachelbel's "Canon in D" if you know what D Major is.

3.) Do scales at the beginning of every single practice session. I know they're tedious and boring. Do them anyway.

4.) Get some really good, progressively harder exercise books and do them to a metronome to make your fingers more acrobatic and your coordination better. Examples: Burgmüller, Czerny

5.) When learning a new piece, play each hand separately at first, over and over again, to make sure you understand the rhythm and fingering. Divide each piece into small sections and tackle those one at a time instead of trying to take on the whole piece at once. Don't be afraid to mark up your sheet music with penciled notes to help you keep things organized.

6.) Make yourself memorize pieces as you learn to play them. This will cement your understanding of the piece itself as well as train your hands to automatically go where they need to be without having to think about it, which is crucial for speed and smoothness.

7.) Be realistic and try to have fun! If you've never played before, it's pretty unlikely that you're going to sit down and bang out "Maple Leaf Rag" after a few weeks of lessons. But if you keep at it you'll get better and better and soon you'll realize that you're actually playing the piano, which is like, whoa.
posted by balls at 11:28 AM on August 27, 2009 [14 favorites]

My parents tried reverse psychology on me. They told me I could ONLY practice 5 minutes a night (I was a kid of around 7). But please? I was in the middle of the piece. Oh, allright--if you're good. I had lessons with the friendly but not too demanding teacher across the street. I never did so well in more serious lessons later in a conservatory setting, but since then I bought a good electronic piano I keep in my room and can play at all hours (and I DO--because I was trained to enjoy it I play for hours at a time.) I'm sure I could be better. I can play Mozart sonatas, a good chunk of the Well-Tempered Clavier, selected movements of Beethoven Sonatas, that kind of stuff. I'm not the fastest as sight-reading, but I think the fact that I keep my enjoyment pure makes me keep going back and playing more.
posted by Schmucko at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I had it to do all over again, I'd put more emphasis on theory* -- learning the structure of the music, rather than just following notes and then playing them through muscle-memory. I still pretty much play like that, and I think I would learn pieces faster if I played with greater understanding of how the music works.

*That said, I didn't have much choice, as I started when I was 5, so the focus of my training was decided by someone else. And to be perfectly honest, that's probably the "one thing that helped me most of all," in terms of muscle and brain development.
posted by palliser at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: I'd second balls that one of the most useful things my piano teacher did was really push the Czerny exercises. Wish I'd practiced them as much as she recommended!

Also, starting very early she had us practice pieces a lot of different ways-- hands-separately and section-by-section, as b. says, but also half-tempo, staccato-legato-staccato, one hand much louder, sometimes with one hand in a different octave, etc. Not sure if that was a psychological trick to add variety to what was really just lots of drill, but in any case you'd often end up noticing something new about the piece in the course of one of the different iterations.

Lastly, to encourage sightreading and improvisation she had a cool exercise where you'd sit down with another student and improvise question-and-answer melodies-- always fun if you've got a spare moment with a piano-playing friend.
posted by Bardolph at 11:40 AM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Help most:
*choosing pieces/styles of music/composers I really REALLY like (and thus enjoy practicing)
*always making an effort to pay attention to dynamic directions (piano, legato, etc)
*learning to enjoy sight reading (this goes along with my first point - I enjoy trying out a wide variety of pieces, but only choose to focus on those I really like)
*paying attention to correct/suggested fingering
*practicing while alone so I feel no one is judging me or my mistakes
*but sometimes playing for other people for a bit of a confidence boost

Biggest waste of time:
*taking lessons with teachers I didn't get along with or mesh with
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 11:54 AM on August 27, 2009

The life-changing thing for me was listening to different recordings of the same piece and trying to play what they did. That's probably one for later on, though. For now:

When some bit of a piece gives you difficulty, isolate it and turn it into an exercise.

When practising hands-separately, try singing the missing part so you can feel how it fits together.

When playing scales and studies, try swinging them or otherwise playing around with the rhythm. It forces you to make some movements faster and you can focus on those.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:57 AM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: I played the piano for several years as a child, then played the trumpet in high school, and 15 years later picked up the mandolin. Here is what I would tell my younger self:

1. Practice regularly, and when you do practice, stay focused and make it count.
2. Understand music theory.
3. Practice sight reading.
4. Use a metronome.

I probably waste the most time on playing songs I am already pretty good in order to avoid new, more difficult stuff.
posted by alienzero at 12:02 PM on August 27, 2009

Best answer: Piano teacher/composer weighing in here:

Most helpful:

Theory. Knowing why you're playing what you're playing is invaluable.
Scales and Chords. They suck to practice, but trust me, when you're playing difficult music, having these in your fingertips is really important. Practice, and then practice, and then practice some more - but NOT the pieces you're already good at (I know, it's hard, but trust me). Play music you like - and play a variety of it. If you don't like playing Mozart, don't play Mozart.

posted by Lutoslawski at 12:12 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Professional harpsichordist/fortepianist speaking here.
The one thing that helped me the most of all was:
*Understanding (on top of the "practice hands separately" advice) in what ways my dominant hand remains/can be used as/cannot be denied being the boss, even in cases where it actually has less to do than the other one.

And the thing that I felt was the biggest waste of my time was:
*Teachers who didn't understand that an auditive disposition (ie. being able to play well from memory) isn't something that needs to be controlled or even discouraged in favor of "proper" sight-reading, but that it is a natural disposition that simply requires an altogether different methodical approach. People forced me "not to look at the keys" and to "play what was written" instead, when I wanted to improvise and memorize. There are in fact excellent ways of teaching memorizing and improvisation, but my teachers always wanted me to do other stuff.
posted by Namlit at 2:35 PM on August 27, 2009

I found I did much better working on music I recognized and loved. I loved musicals as a child (well, still do), so working on pieces from Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera made practicing so much nicer. My brother practices on jazz pieces. I'm not sure what his wife loves and practices on, but she's a much more dedicated person than I am. :)
posted by sandraregina at 3:30 PM on August 27, 2009

Work with a metronome. LISTEN to the music you are learning beforehand, but not too much that you get too used to someone else's interpretation of it. Get emotional about it. Start rocking back and forth or jumping or whatever your body feels the need to do, but just get really into it. You'd rather play excitingly and passionately and make a few mistakes then play mechanically and hit all the notes.
Also, practice every day. Even if you don't feel like it. If you're really not into playing your pieces just do scales or something, but practice every day.

Don't stick with a teacher you don't have good chemistry with. I had to switch about 6 times until I found the right one but he was PERFECT.
posted by alon at 6:12 PM on August 27, 2009

I think the thing that helps the most is slow practice, with a metronome. Very, very slow. Making no mistakes. I think the biggest waste of time is practicing faster than you can play with control.
posted by sully75 at 7:08 AM on August 28, 2009

Best answer: I played piano for 13 years, classically trained and participating in various state competitions and guilds. Just a few broad brushstrokes:

1. The teacher is very important--if you know of a better teacher than the current one you have, and that teacher is open to having you as a pupil, sign up asap.

2. Stages of learning a song:

A. Identify sections of the melody / theme in a piece and mark them off (ie. A A B B C B, etc.). This is critical because if you learn the sections separately and build up memory related to them, you can get the structure of the song and which parts are repeated, see the transitions between sections, as well as seeing how a repeat of the opening A theme at the end is ever so slightly different in chord structure than the A theme at the beginning of the song.

B. Always mark up your sheet music with fingering marks (1,2,3,4,5 corresponding to your five fingers). During lessons going over the music, take notes in the margins of the sheet music of what your teacher says you can improve on.

C. Once you have the themes identified and fingering down, start playing hands separately at a constant tempo using extra force in your fingers to build muscle memory. Then move to constant tempo playing with both hands, one section at a time until you can play the entire song with both hands slowly.

D. Increase your tempo until you're playing at the written tempo. Add dynamics, crescendos and dimenuendos at this point.

E. By now you should have memorized the piece. Now is when you add your own emotional expression and interepretation of the song, where you can play more with rhythm and dynamics.

3. You should not stretch your fingers while playing to reach notes, rather your arm should move first and your fingers should follow.

The one thing that helped me most was playing through Chopin's Etudes for advanced technical / finger development. Each etude is focused on a specific arm and finger motion (arpeggios, left hand bass line development, black key study, quick third-finger-over-thumb-flip movement ala Revolutionary Etude, etc.), and they are beautiful songs to play.

The biggest waste of time was staying with a bad teacher for too long. Once you get to a good teacher, you end up spending a lot of time unlearning bad arm / finger / wrist habits.
posted by chalbe at 7:34 AM on August 28, 2009

Best answer: Also, you should be practicing your scales every practice session, by memory, and doing them quickly for 4 octaves up and down, simultaneously on both hands, in both parallel (left and right hands both going up the scale), and alternate (left hand going down the scale while right hand goes up)

Memorize your scales in the order of the Circle of Fifths

Memorize the minor scales by structure and their variations (natural, melodic, harmonic). You will be tempted to play these out by ear; don't do this. Do it by memory.

Also, it's important to change the way you hear the sound of the piano. Play a single note for instance, using varying amounts of pressure and different types of weight. Play the note using mostly your finger as a "hammer". Play it as a hammer softly, Play the note using your arm weight falling from a height. Play the note with your arm weight where you land softly and push through the note "halfway". Push the note slowly and take note of that point where the key sort of "clicks" as you're pressing it down.

Pay attention to the "color" of the sound when you play the key and how the "color" and "texture" are different depending on how and when you apply pressure to the key. Learn how to control the "color" of a single note so you can truly express yourself through the instrument.
posted by chalbe at 7:49 AM on August 28, 2009

I started as an adult and soon ran into trouble with hand and arm pain. The one thing that wasn't emphasized enough in my lessons was: Relaxation. Your arms, wrists and fingers should be loose, there should be no tension in your shoulders and back. Unfortunately, it is easy to practice while tense and once you do that, tension becomes part of your muscle memory. That's bad news because you will eventually need to unlearn it to avoid injury.

Ideally, you should only need to apply enough force to sound each note. Once the key hits the key bed, you should only keep enough force to keep the key down for the duration of the note, which isn't a lot.
posted by storybored at 7:36 PM on December 14, 2009

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