Some Thoughts On Practicing, by Jane Allen

Monday, March 12, 2018 by Dr. Hillmann Hillmann | Uncategorized

          The dictionary definition of practice is “to exercise or perform repeatedly in order to acquire or polish a skill,” or “to form a habit of acting in any manner.” I prefer the second definition. Too many students practice by reading through a piece repeatedly in whatever way they can manage, usually carelessly and without any attention to detail, and then endlessly repeating this carelessness until it is firmly embedded in mind and body. Aimless, mindless repetition is not only fruitless--it is actually harmful. The single most important aspect of practice, by whatever method, is concentration. There should never be a time in the practice procedure that the mind is not as actively engaged as possible. One of my favorite quotes to students is, “Think ten times--play once!”


          First of all, let’s consider some of the physical factors involved that influence practice conditions.Many factors are beyond the control of the student, but to whatever extent possible, an ideal practice climate should be set up.This list includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Choice of an adequate instrument
  2. Type of room and acoustical properties of the room
  3. Temperature of the room--not too hot or too cold
  4. Adequate lighting
  5. Correct bench or chair height
  6. Controlling distractions such as the telephone, and other sound or noise either within the room, or intruding from outside

          In a music school or conservatory practice room, many of these factors are difficult to control; however, in the case of younger students studying piano and practicing at home, it is important that the parent provide as ideal a practice situation as possible.


          The next important consideration is the desired goal to be achieved, and determination and selection of the practice method to be used.Is the purpose of this practice segment the beginning of learning a new piece, or is it in-process practice--trying to master the musical and technical difficulties involved? Is the purpose polishing final details--maintenance practicing to reinforce everything-or refreshing and relearning after an absence or rest period?


          I frequently remind my students that performance is when one tries to perform a work the way the composer intended, whether they are in their practice room, my studio, or in a concert hall. Practice is when you consciously use some method designed to learn a work accurately and securely, or to make the performance better. Practice is building the piece carefully in your own mind and body. Performing is transmitting this completed, living whole. At a certain point in the procedure, the performance becomes more and more important--that is-actual performance practice, so that more of the practice time should be divided between practice-method practice, and performance practice with a “This is it!” attitude. I always feel that this is one of the most important considerations throughout our practice life--to find the right balance between these two aspects. It can vary from piece to piece depending on the other factors involved; however, there is one important note to observe here.In the beginning it is all practice, but at the other end, it is never all performance. Don’t be deluded into a false sense of security by pieces you have played all your life. These can frequently be the most dangerous kind.

          Basic procedure in practice is to break the whole into parts, or dissect it--examine and try to perfect the parts--and then put the whole together again. One should always practice in organic units that make sense, a two or four measure phrase, a single measure if necessary, or a technical grouping of notes. Then begins the process of taking the musical units and determining their grouping as to fingering, phrasing, and touch or articulation. Of course, there is considerable leeway here for individual taste. Experimentation and choice of fingering is most important at this point. Godowsky said that good fingering is seventy-five percent of technique.There are basically three viewpoints or aspects to consider in the choice of fingerings. The first would be comfort, hand position, and balance. Frequently, whatever is physically the most practical will be artistically more effective, although accurate determination of this depends on experience. Any experimentation or testing of fingering at this point should always be done at the finished tempo, or close to it. Effectiveness of fingering is closely related to the tempo involved. The second aspect of fingering to be considered is artistic expression, dynamics, and phrasing. The third aspect is fingering for rhythm or articulation. This aspect in particular is directly related to speed and also dynamics.


          Good practice means establishing a great number of good habits. These habits include faithfulness to the composer’s indications in the score, habits of correct musical thought, correct rhythm and tempo eventually, correct fingering, appropriate technical correctness, and attention to all details of articulation and dynamics. It is also essential to have ample time for consideration and reconsideration of all of these aspects, for only in restful concentration does control, ability, and maturity grow. Nothing can adequately replace the ripening process that time provides. Repetition is essential, of course, but only when it is done on an intelligent basis.

          Each time you practice, think of the goal to be accomplished, and keep it in mind as you work. Set a realistic goal at first, easily within reach, and as you improve, you can set the limits higher. Some practice methods ensure technical security and accurate playing of the notes. Other practice methods consist of searching for the musical thought. If you use a practice method that alters the passage physically from the original, it is more productive to return it to the original form immediately after the alteration. This cements the perspective you have gained from the method. The possibilities of practice methods are endless. Only your imagination will set the limit to the number of ways you can practice. However, always have the end result in mind, and use common sense in choosing the method. Take the method of repetition, for instance:Suppose a piece consists of one hundred measures, of which four are very difficult, requiring a lot of attention, and the other ninety-six measures are relatively easy. A surprising number of young students (and some not so young) will practice the whole piece hundreds of times in order to conquer the four difficult measures--or in reverse, will continue to practice the ninety-six measure and avoid confronting the real difficulty.

          One of the most obvious methods of breaking down the parts for pianists is separate hands practice. This is almost indispensable, especially for young students in beginning the learning process of a piece. The idea is to take short sections, two or four bars at a time, and carefully teach each hand its part in all detail; but, it’s very important to immediately put the hands together and to make sure that all the detail is retained. This needs as many slow repetitions as it takes for perfection before going on to the next section. I consider separate hands practice also very important later on in the development of the learning process for polishing detail, even in subordinate sections.


          Another of the most basic and indispensable practice methods is working in rhythms. My students are familiar with basic rhythmic patterns because I have used them extensively in scale and arpeggio work at an early stage in their study. I prefer using rhythms appropriate to the material in question--that is, a triplet pattern for a triplet or sextuplet figure, and dotted rhythms and those involving groups of four, for groups of sixteenth or thirty-second notes. There could be many combinations, growing ever more complicated, but I find these basic ones the most efficient. To use this method effectively, I think it’s important to play all of the notes at the same dynamic level; that is, do not accent the long notes, and practice the patterns in order from the least to the most short or fast notes.It is important to play precisely and concentrate intensely, and to exaggerate the long and the short notes. It is an exercise for the mind as much as the fingers. While holding the long note, always mentally play to, or aim for, the next long note. By playing the short notes fast, you learn to go fast gradually in sections, preparatory to playing the entire passage fast. You also train yourself to think of groups of notes in various ways, much as putting letters into words, the words into phrases and sentences. Many times with this method, you discover inner phrasings that enhance both the musicality and the ease of execution in difficult passages. This method is particularly useful in the early stages of learning a piece, and it establishes a foundation for evenness and control.


          A similar practice method, which many people find very beneficial, is practicing in alternating accents. Divide a passage into groups of two, three, or four notes, with one accented note and the rest soft. Shift the placement of the loud note to create a variety of patterns.In using either rhythm or the accent method, it is important not to interrupt the procedure at any point.

          Another basic, and, in many cases, indispensable method, is practicing with the metronome.I prefer to have the metronome mark the main beats, that is, the quarter note in 2/4 or 4/4 time, the half note in 2/2, and the dotted quarter in 6/8, etc.There is no more efficient way than this to gradually increase the tempo of your playing.Set the metronome at a comfortable speed--a speed at which you can play with no mistakes whatsoever. Divide the material into reasonable, logical sections, and repeat the section, advancing the metronome one notch at a time (using standard metronome markings of increments of three or four numbers), perfecting the material at each notch before increasing again. Don’t cheat! You only cheat yourself. Eventually, you find your top speed for the time being, and then you advance to the next section and begin again. Be careful not to take too large a section at first; but, eventually, you will combine the smaller sections into larger and larger sections. This method is also useful in memorizing in slow motion and building up speed gradually from memory--a process of accurate recall with gradually increasing speed, combining larger patterns into one complete unit. This gradual advancement should be done as musically as possible. I frequently caution students to do their slow motion practice like the slow motion camera replay on TV of football or baseball action. Everything you saw at the original speed is still there, but it is slowed down to the point where you can really observe every detail comfortably. Another benefit of the work with the metronome is establishing a steady tempo; however, I don’t advocate this method only for that purpose. It does not replace counting for internalizing the beat. I use the metronome more as a practice method in the earlier stages, especially in the baroque, classical, and contemporary periods, and for much etude practice. I think it is important to know when to turn it off and when not to use it. I rarely advocate taking a piece completely to the finished tempo with the metronome--or forcing it to top speed, in other words--but it is important to know the top metronome speed of the pulse at which you wish to perform.

          One very valuable practice method that perhaps isn’t used enough, or in the proper way, is blocking. This involves taking notes that form a grouping within one hand position, an interval or chord pattern, particularly passages that are fingered that way, and playing them as solid chords. This is especially effective in arpeggiated passages, but it is important to keep the hand firmly in the chord pattern, and to go rapidly, accurately, and directly from one chord pattern to the next with no preparation of the hand. When you return to the original form as written, be sure your hand retains the chord pattern feeling. Even in a legato line, you will “slip” your hand from position to position.


          Many very beneficial practice methods involve changing one thing into something else, either by doing the opposite, or by adding or subtracting. Any time you consciously change something, you develop control. Examples of this are practicing legato passages staccato, occasionally, to increase independence of the fingers and clarity of articulation, or practicing staccato passages legato for increased security and command. Practicing in rhythms has been discussed, but the opposite, taking long passages written in a repetitious rhythm such as dotted eighths and sixteenths, and practicing in even notes, can be very beneficial. Occasionally, practice loud passages softly and vice versa for added perspective. Obviously, practicing fast passages slowly is a good habit, but sometimes there is a benefit from practicing slow passages faster.

Occasionally, I advocate practicing without pedal, although the pedal is so involved in tone production--you can’t really consider one without the other--that I don’t believe in much of this. Many people feel you can hear better this way. I feel the clarity should all be there even with the pedal. In a very difficult or tricky passage, practicing backwards is frequently helpful. This involves starting beyond the problem with a few notes and working backwards, gradually adding one note at a time with each repetition, perfecting as you go.


          Many times, a student will repeatedly stumble in a passage, vaguely aware that a mistake has been made, or that something isn’t clear, but not actually taking steps to solve the problem. Remember, that is exactly what it is--a problem, or a weak link in the chain that will break under pressure.It will not disappear by itself, as if by magic.The first step in solving the problem should be to locate exactly where it is, identify exactly what it is, and start experimenting with ways to correct it. Almost always, there is a hidden solution that can be found, like a secret key that unlocks the door to that particular passage.

Practicing away from the piano can also be very valuable, that is, playing in your mind both with the score and from memory, without being distracted by the physical problems of the instrument, and sometimes conducting yourself as well. One caution, however--unless this is a normal and usual practice method for you, is that it should be strenuously avoided the night before a performance.

          To summarize, practice is what is inside of art.There is a big difference between merely hearing, and really listening intently to what you are doing.You must learn to listen to yourself as critically as anyone else could possibly listen to you, every time you put your hands on the instrument. There is never a time when what you are doing doesn’t matter. Always try to function in practice or performance to the fullest extent of your artistic ability. Your practicing can only be as good as your ear is.I feel if I can teach my students good or better practice methods, I have taught them something that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Jane Allen (1928-1998) of Missouri was a distinguished pianist and teacher and performed extensively as a soloist and chamber music recitalist in the United States, Canada and in all the major capitals of Europe. She was widely recognized as a teacher and produced many prize-winning students. She was a recipient of the Distinguished Teacher Award from the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars in 1983, 1987 and 1996. She was on the faculty of the Saint Louis Conservatory and Schools for the Arts, now the Saint Louis Symphony Music School. She also was on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Missouri at Columbia and St. Louis, and the Young Musical Artists Association Summer Music Institute. She served as adjudicator for MTNA national competitions and was in frequent demand as a workshop and master class clinician. Allen held lifetime Master Teacher Certification from MTNA.


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