Why do we practice music? Your answer may be something to the effect of, “well, we practice so that we can play the music,” which is pretty much correct, but can be stated a little more succinctly: whether you’re planning to play in front of a blowout crowd at Carnegie Hall, a modest gathering of friends and family at a holiday gathering, or simply for yourself in the privacy of your own home, the goal is the same, we practice to perform.
Ok, but what exactly is practicing? Or, more importantly, how do we practice? What are we supposed to do when we practice?
You’ve probably acquired some practicing habits through your studies thus far, but how would you explain your practicing process if asked?
As a piano teacher, I ask this of my students fairly often, and all too often I get some pretty indistinct answers. Many of these answers involve starting at the first note and ending at the double bar, with whatever happens in between left up to good fortune and dogged determination. While this may seem intuitive, it describes what is probably the least efficient version of practicing, and students who do little to expand the breadth of their practicing strategies often fall prey to a range of similar issues.
In this article we’re going to explore six of the practice strategies commonly overlooked by pianists. This list is loosely prioritized from front to back, with the strategies at the end being more consistently valuable to the practicing process, but any of these can take priority depending on your specific practice needs. As an added caveat, this list is not meant to represent all of the important strategies a practicing pianist might neglect. Your teacher, or another experienced musician, may be able to help you further if the strategies herein don’t seem to help.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Really? Listening? What does listening have to do with practicing?”
When was the last time you listened to a piece of solo piano music? More to the point, when was the last time you listened to a piece of solo piano music that was not a piece you were working on? For some the answer will be, “quite recently,” but for many listening misses the priorities list, which is a shame because it really is an essential part of improving our musicianship.
Nearly all of the best musicians you’ve ever heard have one thing in common: musical saturation. They eat, drink, and breath music. Their lives (and ears) are constantly saturated by the sounds of their art, such that even when they’re not practicing, the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of their music are perpetually swirling around inside their heads. This is part of the reason why performance majors in colleges and conservatories are pushed to seek out as many performance opportunities as possible; there are few better ways to absorb the sounds and performance practices of music than to be absorbed by them.
For musicians not in a collegiate setting, daily listening can be the best way to create a musically saturated environment. This is a different kind of listening than concentrated listening, where you sit and listen to a piece you’re working on to get it in your ears (though that too should be a part of your initial musical research). Here we’re referring more to the practice of general daily listening, in which you try to engage in music-listening whenever you can throughout your day. This is listening as much for your subconscious mind as for your conscious one, and you may find that the benefits of it appear unbidden as you work on your music.
Here are some tips you can use to help you get the most out of your listening.
First, don’t be afraid to put on music in the background of your daily activities, even if you can’t spare the brainpower to listen to it directly. Cleaning the house? Put on some music. Taking the train to work? Put on some music. Cooking dinner? Put on some music. While being able to concentrate on the music you’re listening to is important, you can still reap the benefits of getting the sound in your ears through frequent, less formal listening.
Second, try to listen to styles of music that are related to the music that you’re practicing. While you can certainly gain some worthwhile musical insight listening to the Beatles, doing so is probably not going to help you internalize the sound of Chopin. You can also listen to music that is similar in style, but different in genre or theme. Working on a Mozart sonata? Listen to other Mozart sonatas, as well as to his symphonies, operas, and chamber music. You can also benefit from listening to composers from the same period, even those whose styles may not be particularly similar. Practicing some Debussy? Check out some Ravel for music in a relatively similar vein, and some Mahler for something totally different.
Finally, be sure to listen to different recordings of the pieces that you’re working on. The range of interpretative variations of a written piece of music when played by different players can be astounding. In addition, don’t forget that some older works were written for keyboard instruments other than the piano, and that listening to them performed on those instruments can be illuminating. Ever heard Bach played on a harpsichord? It’s a very different experience than listening to Bach on a piano.
In no particular order, here’s a short list of piano works for your listening pleasure. Input one as the radio station on a streaming service like Spotify or Pandora and see what else comes up!
Focus on the Details
Here we’re talking about all the piano’s, the forte’s, dots, and the lines; anything that describes what is supposed to be done to a note when it’s played falls under this category.
One of the biggest differences in the performance of music between more and less experienced players is that less experienced players tend to neglect the execution of details, while more experienced players emphasize them. There are two parts to this, recognition and rendition, both of which contribute to making performance more musical.
Recognizing details in the music is when we are able to identify the articulations and dynamics in the music. This can be challenging when the music has a large number of articulations and dynamics to identify, or when it doesn’t. Have you ever had your teacher raise an eyebrow at you because you missed one of the few dynamic markings in the first movement of a Haydn sonata? Indeed, it can be easy to overlook these details if you’re struggling to get the notes under your fingers, which is why detail identification should be a process unto itself when learning a piece of music.
Going through with a highlighter or colored pen and marking all of the details is probably the easiest way to make sure that you’ll be able to see them as you continue working on your music.
The second part of focussing on the details, rendition, has to do with the performance of dynamics and articulations. Have you ever marveled at the way your teacher brings so much life to the music when demonstrating the piece your practicing? Much of that performance energy comes from realizing articulations and dynamics.
To work on the quality of your rendition, try emphasizing each detail to a greater degree: make your louds louder, your softs softer, your staccatos shorter, and your legatos smoother. Try rendering your piece a caricature of itself by making every dynamic and articulation super extreme, and then dialing back to a more moderate version once you’re confident that you’ve infused your performance with the details.