Thursday, May 5, 2016

Discovering Effective Practice Techniques


Another semester is over. Juries have been completed. Many were successful; others were not. Across the board -- at all levels of study -- I'm coming to realize that teachers don't always effectively teach students HOW to practice. Once instructed in the art of practicing, I'm not sure the students are always confident in the effective ways to go about practicing without supervision.

I certainly don't have all of the answers. There are lots of times that I feel like the little guy in the picture above. I'm daily learning how to practice smarter and more effectively. I am also learning how to teach my students to practice. I thought I would share a few of the practice techniques that I have suggested to my students (ranging from late elementary to college levels) this semester. Hopefully some of them will be helpful to you as you continue to discover the practice techniques that are most effective for you.

  • Three pennies game. When it comes to practice, there is no substitute for repetition. However, mindless repetition will not be beneficial in the long run. To use the three pennies idea, isolate a passage that is giving you trouble. Then work through it and DO NOT MOVE ON until you are able to play it flawlessly in three consecutive repetitions; two correct plays followed by a mistake means you start the process over from scratch. Three pennies are used as a visual aid for young students to keep track of their progress and can be placed on the lip of the music rack. (To keep it fresh, substitute seasonal items -- pumpkins, hearts, flowers -- so students remain excited about the activity.)
  • Practice backward. No, I'm not suggesting that you learn the retrograde version of your repertoire! (I'm really not that sadistic!) What I have found in my own practicing is that challenging passages begin to fall apart as I get further into it....and things spiral downward from there. By looking at the passage from the end, I am able to figure out fingerings that allow the transition out of the challenging passage to work a little more smoothly. It also means that I'm practicing the end of the passage more than the beginning.....so the music becomes stronger and more secure as I move through it! Still confused? Break the passage down into chunks -- maybe each beat -- and work out the last one. When that beat is secure, add the preceding one. When you have conquered the two beat figure, continue working backward -- adding one beat at a time -- until you have mastered the entire passage. (I know it sounds strange, but it is one of the most effective rehearsal techniques for me personally. I encourage you to try it out before you completely give up on it.)
  • Work hands separately. As pianists advance, we often forget how helpful it can be to work on one hand at a time. The same concept applies to other disciplines as well. Singers are often encouraged to separate the text from the melody and rhythm. Addressing each aspect of the piece individually ensures that your full attention is on that part of the music and gives you a greater chance at learning it correctly from the beginning.
  • Slow down! Grab your metronome, set it to a slow tempo, and play slowly and accurately. Once your hands have mastered the choreography of the piece accurately, muscle memory will make the process of speeding up much more easy. How do I suggest speeding things up? Turn the metronome up a few clicks at a time and let your hands gradually become accustomed to the new tempo.
  • Play tricky rhythmic passages as dotted rhythms. Why? It will re-enforce the overall rhythmic structure and solidify the technical demands in your hands. If the passage is running eighth notes, begin playing each pair as a dotted eighth follow by a sixteenth. When this becomes solid, reverse the dotted figure. When you return to the original pattern, you should find that things are much smoother and more rhythmically accurate.
  • Reverse hands. I don't recommend this very often, but it can be helpful when voicing issues arise -- especially in an inner voice. By playing each clef in the opposite hand (moving the tones to different registers; not crossing hands), new thematic material emerges to the ear. Once the pianist hears the theme clearly and has developed a basic shape for the line, it becomes easier to bring it out when found in the inner voice. This can especially be helpful with works of the Baroque masters as well as choral accompaniments.
  • Practice away from the keyboard. Far too often, we forget to remind our students that time spent away from the piano can be just as helpful in preparing their pieces. What should I do? Analyze the score and see if new harmonies or melodic lines emerge that you have ignored before. Sing the melody or counter melody -- and let the shape of the sung line influence your interpretation at the piano. Listen to recordings of professionals playing your repertoire. Review recordings of your rehearsals, making notes in your practice journal of issues you want to address in future sessions.
What practice techniques do you find most helpful to your own development? Please add your suggestions in the comment section below.