Slow practice at the piano
I've had teachers advocate slow practice, in fact, most of my piano teachers advocate slow practicing.
But I've known a few people who advise against it: our technique works differently at slower and faster tempos. Even fingerings can work at one tempo, but not at another. One of my former teachers, Paul Barnes, used the analogy that you can't water-ski under-speed! The alternative-because these teachers don't expect fast tempos upon sight reading-is to practice small sections of a new piece at performance tempo.
I'm sympathetic to this idea. Ultimately, I often have to catch myself, and many students, in getting 'trapped' at a slow tempo. Many of my piano practice strategies are geared towards practicing in small sections, and building towards performance tempo as quickly as possible.
But I do value slow practicing for pianists, in the end. But I always try to frame it this way: Practice slow in order to think fast.
If our fingers and our brains are slow, we aren't pushing towards the goal of perfecting a piece for performance. We're not ingraining it in our minds. We aren't doing slow practice, we're doing slothful practice.
If your fingers are moving slow, but your brain is moving fast though, you're still making progress. Your brain needs the chance to make connections between new notes, to chunk information into efficient modes of memory. Practice piano so that your eyes and fingers are working at a pace that allows your brain to do that crucial work.
Many learning strategies include setting goals. There's lofty goals like winning an international piano competition and landing a full-time University teaching gig in 7 years. Or one might look more at the short term. A piano major at the beginning of a university semester might set the goal of performing a senior recital in 8 months time with a certain set of repertoire. Then working backwards, they decide what progress needs to be made and at what point in time.
I did this with preparation of my Choosing Joy Recital. A few months out, I decided how many complete run-throughs from memory I'd like to do in the weeks leading up to the first performance. I decided which pieces or even which sections of pieces would be most difficult to memorize. I decided where the most pressing technical challenges were and I made set goals of when to manage these goals. I thought intently about how much time I needed to solve the most difficult sections, but also how I could spread these out so that any one or two weeks wouldn't feel overwhelmed with work.
In the end, I had a week by week list, and in some cases, day by day breakdowns, of what practice accomplishments I needed to make. And I didn't follow any of it.
Really by the second week, I was off track. Inevitably something got in the way, and probably something legitimate. I didn't practice when I wanted to, I didn't get done all that I wanted, and soon my schedule was worthless.
This article helps explain why. It states what's perhaps on obvious trap (but one we always fall into) which is that unreasonable goals are so easy to make. You can decide on a goal to become a millionaire in 5 years, even break it down into smaller savings goals of $30,000 every two months, you're still probably not any closer to reaching your goal.
I'm lucky that my failure to reach my goals never made me unhappy. In fact, while perhaps a little behind, I was well prepared for my recital, and it went off rather well. This is likely because I followed the suggestions in this article, namely that I set rules, and enjoyed the process.
I'm very keen on a keeping a set schedule (I'll probably write about some of my routines in a future post). As I prepared this program, I had set days and hours that I practiced. I tested myself regularly (see Monday's post), and I adopted daily or weekly goals based on those results.
The work got done, and I enjoyed myself. I didn't feel guilty about not setting an arbitrary schedule which had no flexibility for life to get in the way. The older and more advanced a performer you become, the better to trust your instincts. Have deadlines, and have routines in which the work can get done. Work, and let the results happen on a smaller scale.
Make everything a test
This post is a direct follow-up from last Friday’s post, “Two types of practicing”.
Today I’m again drawing inspiration from The Bulletproof Musician, and specifically a post called “When is the Best Time to Start Memorizing a piece for Fast, Accurate Results?”.
I’ll let you read the article for yourself, but I want to highlight some of his practical applications:
The best memorizers began testing their memory much sooner, by trying to sing at least a few bars of the song from memory in their very first practice session. And this self-testing ramped up even more in their second practice session… while the fast memorizers made many more errors in their early practice sessions, they fixed them, and made fewer and fewer errors toward the latter practice sessions. The slow memorizers avoided errors early on by singing from the score, but had more and more memory issues as they began testing themselves in the latter practice sessions, ultimately making a ton in their final session when they were furiously trying to cram the piece into memory.
As I describe in my e-book “Pianist’s Guide to Practicing”, I differentiate between memorizing as just playing without the score, and memorizing implicit cues necessary to perform a piece; by this I basically mean “choreography”. Last post I emphasized that pianists should practice small sections in depth, and my point really is so that they’re building implicit memory early on. They should take risks, they should mess up.
In doing so, they are testing their memory. In my experience, testing my practicing early is essential to guide my next steps. Testing my implicit memory means deciding on a predetermined section of a piece, at a predetermined tempo (one that is reasonable to achieve, but not too comfortable), with a certain set of decided interpretive decisions in place. Then I play the section, and try to execute everything, without stopping, until the end of the section. Then I analyze the results.
It may be messy, it may sound horrible. But I’m testing my implicit memory, and I’m getting a lot of information I use to decide on my next steps.
I’m a huge advocate of active practicing. Too many university performance majors practice passively, without taking risks, without testing wherever they’re at.
Two types of practicing
Through years of graduate work, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in my office overhearing other piano students practice. One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency to perform, instead of practice, in the practice room.
Maybe put another way: some students practice with the intent of performing, while others practice with the intent of learning.
In the first category, students run through pieces, constantly. When it’s new, they run through the piece slow, eventually they try it faster. When they’re perfecting a piece, they’re simply performing, performing and performing. I’m not sure where the nuances of interpretation are addressed in this process; presumably they analyze issues in their performance in bulk at the end of one run.
In the second category, a students practicing doesn’t exactly sound like the final result. They work in short section which they repeat often, one right after another. They manipulate passages of the score, working in a variety of ways to create challenges for themselves within the text. On a certain passage, they may go from a slow practice to performance tempo in a matter of 10 minutes, but they’ve covered just a small patch of ground.
I’m highly in favor of the latter approach. I would always rather make a lot of progress on a small section of music, rather than a small bit of progress on a lot of music. If I dig into a passage intensely, I’m going to make observations, solve problems and test solutions incessantly. More than likely many of the strategies I use in the first one or two sections are going to inform how I work on the rest of the piece. In the end, I’m going to have a much deeper understanding of a piece that’s going to make the rest of the learning process much faster.
I also think it’s going to be more secure, but more on that on Monday.
Well that was easy
I've always had the best intentions to get to know The Bulletproof Musician blog. If you don't know it, you owe it to yourself to visit. Here a musician-turned psychologist-turned musician/psychologist posts weekly studies on cognitive and behavioral practices and finds deep and insightful conclusions meant to bring out best practices in performing musicians.
Going through some archives, I was recently intrigued by this post about how easy or how difficult our practicing feels. He’s studying the difference between practicing “to make things easier” and “wanting practice to be easy”. There’s a slight difference: in the former, our practice goal is to start with something hard and progressively make it easier to play; in the latter, we start with something easy and end with something easy, in fact, we avoid difficulties altogether.
The article is based on a study of people playing a simple control game; some were allowed to practice at consistently difficult levels, others were held back. Both groups practiced the same amount of time. Tested at easier levels, both groups performed well. When the stakes were raised, the first group performed significantly better.
The author suggests this is an obvious conclusion (“well duh”). But he’s concerned about the practical application to us as musicians. When we learn a piece, we know what to do, but at some point we plateau (as he says, when we need to get from “good to great”). His suggestion is that things not be perfect before we make our practicing difficult, to avoid plateaus where our practicing is easier. Think about applying this principle to practicing your repertoire, where he’s saying it’s okay to move on before something is perfect as the more we challenge ourselves, the better the finished product:
“Like assigning a set of scales at quarter note = 60, but asking a student to increase the metronome by 2 clicks as soon as they can play it  times in a row with < mistakes. As opposed to simply asking that they play the scales at quarter note = 60, and not increasing the tempo until they’re 100% mistake-free.”
Another habit in my students that I’ve been trying to combat has been “stuttered” practicing…Where the student plays a few beats, stalls and stutters, collects enough information to play a few more beats, before stalling and stuttering again.
I’m okay with intentional pauses, in fact I encourage students to learn music in small, isolated, predetermined sections. But within that section, students need to keep going no matter what. This way, we start to get a sense of the choreography needed to play a piece.
But of course most student stuttering at the piano doesn’t work this way. They simply sight read a little, stop, and sight read a little more. There’s no intentionality, there’s no organizing of the physical technique needed to internalize a passage. This kind of practicing yields incremental results. Intentional practice yields exponentially greater growth.
I’ve been saying to these students: “The keys aren’t going anywhere. It’s our hands that have to figure out where to go. We only have 10 fingers but we have to convince our audience that we have 88. Practice so that you can trick your audience.”
Right now, of course, the music is tricking the student and it’s obvious to anybody listening.
Teacher sayings: Reading analogies
Occasionally I find that a certain theme shows up in my teaching, with all my students, whether they're little kids or college performance majors. It just happens to be one pedagogical or performance idea that I'm thinking a lot about that ends up applying to a majority of my students. Eventually that idea either becomes a mainstay of my teaching or it disappears.
Sometimes it's a saying, but this week it's been an analogy.
I always try to shift how my students practice, especially older ones. I talk endlessly about strategies and techniques. I talk about isolating sections. But I find it really difficult to break their mentality that practicing means starting at the beginning of a piece, playing through till they make a mistake, stopping and restarting at the point of the mistake. I could go on about the errors here, but the point of this post is to discuss the analogy I've been trying out.
I've been comparing this kind of practicing to reading a book, but not really reading. We've all experienced having words in front of us, knowing that our eyes are going over the words line-by-line, but our conscious brain isn't receiving any of it. We're 'reading', but we aren't processing; our mind is on something else.
At the piano, so much of student practicing is skimming the piece, and allowing little conscious processing attention until we realize there's been some kind of error.
In the past, I've asked students how they would go about memorizing several paragraphs from a book. Would you read it through, starting at the beginning and going to the end? Then repeat (not even any washing or rinsing).
Of course not, they would study one sentence at a time, repeat it, review it, think about the point its making. When they can recite it, they add another sentence.
If it's academic writing, we need to be able to track the argument the author is making. Study the thesis, the background evidence, and weigh that against the process of study, analyzing application of the results. Paragraph by paragraph, we can break down and analyze the overall structure.
Even my young students understand this at a gut level, when it comes to reading and learning or understanding a text.
I'm not sure why students have trouble applying these reading analogies to piano practicing. Perhaps seeing the final musical composition as a whole creates a desire to approach learning and practicing a piece as a whole. Maybe with text it's easier to see individual moments and practice and rehearse as such.
I've had success with students breaking this habit, make no doubt. Sometimes they make the connection and change their habits drastically. Sometimes I force students to practice only individual measures by covering all other measures up with sticky notes. Sometimes I point them to a random number generator app, have it dictate the single measure number that they focus on. Or, number every system of the piece and practice just one line at a time.
But so often, we talk about why it's so important to practice in small, isolated sections. They understand these analogies. We pull a random number generator and declare we're going to play one single measure. We talk about the difficulties in this measure, and what the student needs to pay attention to. Then the student goes to play it, and they try to continue past the measure. They don't seem to believe me that I mean literally, stop at the barline, or at a predetermined section.
I wonder awareness of stopping points comes from a general mastery of piano playing. Maybe it's easy for me to practice this way because I've synthesized piano technique, artistry, theory and history to such a degree that I can become aware of good isolated practice segments at a metacognitive level. I'm still exploring the best way to instill this practice in my students. I'd welcome anyone's input on this issue!
But I stuck with it longer. I moved to a new teacher when I was 13 who, step-by-step, began to make changes to my playing. No longer were piano lessons a matter of learning notes and rhythms correctly while holding my wrists up. How I approached the keys, listening to the sounds I made, being expressive, thinking about historical contexts and incorporating theoretical analysis. All of these things were instilled in me.
At some point I began to be interested in classical music at a higher level and I decided to pursue it in my post-secondary education. I’d had some success in local competitions, but despite my excellent teacher in high school, I had a long way to go to catch up to students who had serious teachers like her from their first lesson. At University I was a small fish in a small pond, and as I’ve discussed in other posts, while the pond grew bigger around me, I had a hard time keeping up.
Early in The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle relates a story of a British soccer coach studying soccer training grounds for young players. Rather than playing the normal game but with great passion and natural skill, Brazilians were obsessed with a version of soccer “played inside a phone booth and dosed with amphetamines.” (pg. 25). Congregating on a tiny field, with a heavy, dull ball, the pace was much faster than soccer. Player’s reactions were much quicker given these constrictions, and the ball moves around more often.
Transfer someone who has learned to manage in this game to the expanse of a soccer field and the ease of a soccer ball while keeping the quick decision making ability and you’ve got the makings of a great soccer player.
Coyle focuses much of his book studying the phenomenon of deep practice. When you practice a skill just beyond what you’re presently capable of, you are more likely to succeed. The reward is in trying, failing, trying again until it’s easier. It’s how our neurological system is built, making connections in our brain between foreign ideas then reinforcing.
Even Mozart was likely exposed to enough music that he achieved deep practice from a very early age. Up to the time he was touted as a child prodigy, he still amassed an impressive amount of deep practice to build the illusion of natural talent. And make no mistake, as impressive as he was at a young age, the true genius of Mozart wouldn’t come for many more years.
“When you’re practicing deeply, the world’s usual rules are suspended. You use time more efficiently. Your small efforts produce big, lasting results. You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into skills. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.” (page 19)
Think back to my post about The Perfect Wrong Note. The musical voice that was hidden behind weak technique and nerves might suggest to the reader that my musical side was natural, the technical learned, but that I still had a natural talent for expressivity.
I don’t think so. The longer I was with my high school teacher, the more of a classical nerd I became. I read message boards and though I had no claim to authority, entered vehement arguments about whether Beethoven was a classical or a romantic composer. I downloaded scores and recordings on my parent’s dial-up internet (I grew up on a farm). I bought scores if I won some extra money in the local music festival, or asked for scores as gifts. I could name opus numbers, and keys of all Beethoven piano sonatas before I’d heard more than a couple.
My point is that despite limited resources, I slowly fell into a greater study of classical music, consuming as much as I could. My musical voice was learned through a process, it happened to develop much before my technical abilities caught up.
I’m more encouraged in life by disparaging the word talent. I think of all the things I am not good at: cooking (other than a few ‘specialties’), hammering nails, auto mechanics. Sometimes these deficiencies are frustrating, but if push came to shove, I’d be able to pick up the skills necessary with lots of trial and error. Or I think about all the habits I’ve instilled over the years: Any of my success has been due to changing my lifestyle from what always felt natural. I used to think I was a night owl, practicing until 1 or 2 AM whenever I could. Then out of necessity to get access to a practice room, I switched to become an earlier and earlier riser, realizing that the morning hours were far more productive than endless nighttime ones. I even get up at least an hour earlier than I ever need to, because I enjoy sitting with my coffee before I have to do anything else.
Sure, we all have preferences, but those change and evolve despite how natural or assured our old preferences felt. I used to despise the same contemporary music I now love, and perform often. I learned to love it. While no one has time to learn everything, and sometimes new skills come with insurmountable odds, we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
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I had one epiphany when I attended a summer festival earlier that summer. An excellent program with all kinds of strong and confident performers, the faculty were even more impressive teachers and performers. I was both inspired and humbled. Ultimately, I decided that summer that my repertoire plans and performance goals for the forthcoming year were too ambitious and that I had to go back to the basics.
I needed to play a concerto recital as part of my degree requirements, so I began learning Mozart’s K 467—a work with intricate passage work requiring just the attention to detail, both technical and musical, that I needed. At the same time, I was assigned a chamber group to play Franck’s Piano Quintet, which required a great romantic virtuosity and the technical approach to make the piano sound like an organ.
As luck would have it, one of my chamber music coaches, in a chance conversation, recommended a book he had recently read and thought so highly of that he made sure the campus bookstore carried a few copies. Rather down on myself as a performer, I checked it out and my life was changed forever. The book was William Westney’s The Perfect Wrong Note.
Early in the book, Westney writes of an illuminating experience he had playing a Beethoven sonata for a master teacher. Re-working the first measure over and over again, the teacher demonstrated, sang, conducted until finally applauding Westney for playing it correctly. Even now, no longer a student, Westney recalls, “I had no idea what made that repetition different from all the others. All I knew was that he loved it, because (presumably) that’s just how he would play it himself.” (pg. 42)
Westney suggests that there are dangers in the way music is traditionally taught. Students get bored and quit. Students learn to copy rather than create. Students are passive not active. Students gloss over instead of fixing their mistakes.
Mistakes end up being the main focal point of the book. Wrong notes can be perfect because they are information. Mistakes tell us what we need to work on, and thus, direct what we do in the practice room. Practicing should proceed in such a way that we try to make mistakes.
“Let’s say you miss a note in the fourth measure. Fine. That note now becomes the last note of a practice segment. Go back a few notes, enough to create some context, and repeat enough times for your hand to teach itself the distances involved. Let your body figure it out in its own way, and that may take several repetitions to happen…The idea is to let it happen, not make it happen.” (pg. 87)
The benefits of this approach are numerous: An engaged attitude, really listening to yourself, which leads to a more engaging and original performance. A secure physical memory of the piece you’re learning. Faster learning since you don’t have to address the same mistakes over again. More awareness of how to fix mistakes which makes you a better teacher of yourself and others.
Westney suggests practicing with big energy, an intentional approach to your performance. Here the opening quote is relevant, “Stop telling your hand what it ought to do. Find out what it is doing.” This is by Eloise Ristad, an influence on Westney, in her related book A Soprano on her Head. The practicing suggested here will not sound pretty for a long time but that’s okay. We don’t practice to impress anyone, we’re alone in the practice room anyway. If we are worried about sounding good all the time in the practice room, we are more concerned with satisfying our own ego than creating an artistic product.
The Perfect Wrong Note turned out to be an extraordinary influence on my playing. I truly believe that I would not have progressed beyond my bachelor’s degree had I not read it. This book allowed my inner musicality to finally be heard. It accelerated the path to growing my technique and my artistry which made me more receptive to my teachers and coaches.
Through this book, I revolutionized my practicing. I learned how to apply all of the practice tips I’d heard over the years in such a way that they were transformative, rather than utilitarian. I learned to self-analyze small segments of my work, zoom in and address the individual problem I was having rather than ignore mistakes and hope they disappeared on the next run-through. I learned to listen to myself and consider whether I was happy with my performance or not. I learned to be confident in my playing and interpretations. I learned how to give convincing, effective performances of Mozart’s Concerto K 467 and Franck’s Piano Quintet and how to prepare myself to perform even more difficult works with greater maturity and fluency.
None of these achievements were immediate, but the book engaged me in a process which brought far more success than I had found previously. I’d be skeptical of quick fixes. We grow and change as musicians (and people) so much, constantly, that anything that creates a quick fix is likely not going to benefit you in the future, it just happened to help in that moment. Westney’s book continues to engage my work as a performer and teacher today.
I do not intend for this series to be an advertisement for my own work, but if you are intrigued by this book and would like to read further into the practical lessons I’ve learned from it, you’re in luck! Over the years I developed an in-depth document that chronicles many of the practical tips and the mental mindset I’ve developed as a result of this book. I’ve also created a series of videos, which I will always be adding to, to demonstrate my own work.
I’ve turned this document into an e-book, ”Pianist’s Guide to Practicing” which you can get for FREE, just by signing up to my e-mail list. By doing so, you can get the book and stay closer in touch with my work as a blogger, pianist and teacher. Check out this link or see the signup form in the sidebar at the top of this page.
Next in the Influential Books series I’ll be looking at…Creativity.
**This post contains affiliate links. While I may receive a small compensation if you purchase any of the products mentioned, the words used to promote them are completely genuine and offered regardless of any personal earnings**
A lot of studying the piano is learning to copy, from our youngest years through at least until completing undergraduate education. Initially, this isn’t a bad thing. We need models to learn:
But there comes a time that we want to move away from copying. Until we do, we generally only function as accidental, or perhaps unintentional, pianists. We’ve done everything by chance, regurgitating what we’ve learned instead of processing and adding value to everything we’ve been taught.
Sometimes when we think we’ve gone off on our own, we haven’t actually done so. I’ve argued that the act of performing is at least as important as the texts on which our performances are derived. I believe our ears are easily manipulated by what we hear and most of our performance decisions are not truly our own; see case studies in Beethoven and Liszt.
And so I’d like to suggest embracing what I have decided to call 'intentional pianism'. What makes a great pianist stand out? Our favorite pianists have at once a pianistic voice that is all their own, that sounds completely familiar, and simultaneously keeps us thinking and guessing. They’ve studied all the rules but have commanded the authority to break them. They have a sort of intentionality to the way they play music.
All this is not to suggest that intentional piano playing is limited to the great masters. Some of my absolute favorite musical memories are from pianists who are not famous to the general classical music population. Some of the most distinctive performances I’ve seen were by students who brought an energetic commitment rare among artists, others are from professional artists who have sought their own career path, whether to pursue unique repertoire or venues for their performances. Anyone can play with intentionality.
Nor do I want to suggest that our educational system is failing students. I’ve benefited from studying with an incredible, diverse group of piano teachers, all of whom are brilliant, and largely fall into the category of a ‘traditional’ piano teacher.
And there’s nothing wrong with role of traditional piano teacher, in fact, traditions are essential. But to step out as performers with a personal intentionality, we need to use traditions as a stepping stone, not an end in themselves. Our professors in lessons and classes only have so much time to help us reach the level of being a unique artist. My goal with this blog and other future endeavors is to supplement the great teaching that goes on in piano lessons and schools of music. I believe some of the keys to being intentional include:
With this blog, most of all, I hope to outline how one can become a truly independent, a truly intentional pianist. Over the course of this next year, I’m going to present 5 blog series along with several standalone posts. First will be Extraordinary Recordings, a series studying several of my personal favorite performances on record, focusing on what makes the performer so unique. This will be, in a sense, a series of 9 case studies on pianistic intentions. Simultaneously, I will report on my viewing of the Cliburn Piano Competition, my favorite performances as well as thoughts on the repertoire chosen, and nature of competitions in general. What better way to ruminate on the state of intentionality than by studying this competition of world-class, young talent?
Later on, with the hope of inspiring some summer reading, I will release a series of posts on Influential Books. Some of these will be explicitly musical, but several will be from outside the musical world. In the fall, I will be ruminating on the Coexistence of Contemporary and Traditional Classical Music. This will be in preparation for a project that I’m very excited about, which I will announce later in the summer. Finally to end the year, I will discuss my views on Performance Practice, especially focusing on my work studying the amazing pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi.
I hope you’re as excited about this journey as I am. Please subscribe to my e-mail list to the right, as I would love to keep you apprised as each new series is rolled out, as well as my projects as a performer.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act