How can I improve my sensitivity to how I am playing piano?
November 6, 2014 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I am an adult intermediate piano student. Lately I've started taping my practice sessions and I hear the musical shortcomings (rhythm, dynamics and shaping). But I find it difficult to catch these flaws while I'm playing. I have no trouble hearing wrong notes when playing, but it's the other musical dimensions that I'm not paying attention to. My rhythm is not grossly wrong but it sometimes can drift just a little. What exercises or techniques do you know that would help improve my sensitivity while I'm playing?
posted by storybored to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Keep taping yourself and listening. Also listen to others playing the same pieces that you are playing.

Play the songs backwards measure by measure. That is, play the last measure of the piece. Then play the last two measures. Then the last three. Etc. So often when we practice we go from the beginning to the end. Building backwards lets us catch things that normally drift away as we get into playing.

Are you working your scales and arpeggios etc? Finger strength is a very important component of shaping and dynamics. I really find running through some Hanon exercises at the start of practice to be helpful. Bach's inventions are also excellent pieces to learn for finger strength and dexterity etc.

Finally, metronome - play with the metronome! The metronome is a friend. Especially when doing exercises.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by sockermom at 8:37 PM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

While you're playing try to listen out for when you get something right, and "bookmark" (consciously remember) the moment.

Working on one thing at a time when you're practicing a piece can be helpful too - work on dynamics in one session and then rhythm in the next session and so on.

For dynamics and tone, I had a teacher who would make me play the same scale over and over and would just call out different things at random: "forte! stacatto! mezzo piano! sonore! Spiritoso! make it sing! make me cry!". Perhaps you can get someone to help you replicate that.
posted by girlgenius at 8:57 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Metronome +1.

Working on one thing at a time when you're practicing +1

One exercise I like is to begin *very* slow, like 3/4 performance tempo. Then, playing the piece at every notch, slowly move to 1 1/4 performance tempo. Of course, listen carefully as you play each run through. Then, play the piece at performance tempo. Something may become available.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:04 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another thing you can try to get a better feel for rhythm and dynamics is listening to a professional recording and following along either on your sheet music (optional pencil in hand) or air-piano fingering.
posted by ana scoot at 9:07 PM on November 6, 2014

You might find some value in this book, The Art of Practicing (by Madeline Bruser), which deals heavily with becoming a more focused and sensitive pianist/instrumentalist. I read it when I was a more serious piano student and got a lot of value out of it.

If I remember correctly, her suggestions mostly boil down to deliberately increasing your mindfulness while practicing, instead of just going through the motions and relying on muscle memory. My memory is that her tips include:
1. Slow WAY down when practicing. Slow enough that the piece becomes totally unfamiliar to you and you can think about every bar individually.
2. Focus on listening to the actual sounds coming out of your instrument. It's too easy to listen to a "recording" in your head of what you think your playing sounds like, rather than what the sounds actually are.
3. Similar to point 1, deliberately make the piece unfamiliar and new to you in some way when you practice, so you're not just going through the motions. Play the same notes with a different rhythm -- syncopated, with the "wrong" emphasis, all notes the same length, whatever works.
4. Sing the notes. Try playing the harmonies in the left hand and singing the main melody in the right hand (without playing it simultaneously). Do the same with different musical components.

These techniques have the side benefit of cementing your memory of the piece so you can more easily recover from mistakes.
posted by beatrice rex at 9:08 PM on November 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Break down your practice into smaller tasks. Shorter portions of the music. Go slower. Focus on one element at a time. Spend time imagining how you want things to sound then listen carefully. Find out if there are technical reasons for any lack of dynamics, rhythmic faults and so on, then address those.
posted by Coaticass at 1:31 AM on November 7, 2014

The thing about practising music is that so many parts of your brain end up doing so many disparate things that until the whole shebang has become properly committed to muscle memory (or when improvising, you achieve the correct meditative state) your subjective sense of time gets knocked about something shocking. Brains just don't come with a reliable fundamental clock that works independently of processing load. You have to grow that in.

That's why handing off the master timekeeping task to a metronome works so well; the metronome substitutes for the consensus of the rest of the band.

The thing about metronomes is that they're authoritarian little bastards, quite disturbingly immune to emotion and really, really, really attached to their own little groove. That makes them awful to play actual music with, because they have no generosity whatsoever. But for practice - when what you need is something external that you can't even suspect of having an ego investment in your timing ability or lack thereof - they're completely invaluable.

Every practice session needs to include at least ten minutes of just playing something very simple against a metronome while paying attention to your own internal state. If you're paying enough attention, this will be hard.
posted by flabdablet at 2:43 AM on November 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Quite a lot of such timing apparatus as we do have, by the way, is in our language processing centres. If your recordings show you making consistent timing slips in certain places, try playing those again while singing the beat count out loud.
posted by flabdablet at 2:46 AM on November 7, 2014

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