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The Bigger Picture: A Personal Perspective on Practicing Routines

In the third and final part of the series on building a career as a professional pianist, Alexander Buskermolen gives a personal perspective on practicing routines at the piano with practising tips by Dutch pedagogue Jan Wijn.

The previous parts:

Part 1: Master Teacher Wijn is Growing Flowers and Plants

Part 2: Hannes Minnaar: The Path to Becoming a Concert Pianist


I remember watching the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition when I was about five years old. Deeply impressed I told my mother I wanted to be a pianist. It still took me some five or six years before I started my first piano lessons. Now, 16 years later, eight different teachers, several masterclasses and with a Master degree in Music on the wall, I try to summarise all of my experiences. What stayed with me the most after thousands of hours of practising and hundreds of hours of lessons? What knowledge is essential in becoming a skilled and confident pianist? Let’s find out!

Assuming pianists from all levels and backgrounds aim for the same goals, generally technical perfection and musical freedom, maybe it’s wise (and fun!) to have a look at how the pros have established their skills and expertise. Technically speaking, I’m still often baffled by the simple fact that today’s concert pianists can play full recitals without missing a single note. So, how do they do it?

Before I get into the practical insights of studying an instrument, I just want to mention the following. What you need to remember is that most of today’s professional performers have started playing their instrument at the age of four or five. The lucky ones have had excellent teachers throughout their educational path, who provided them with essential knowledge on key points in their development. The flexibility and eagerness of the young mind is part of the reason for their steep learning curve.

Ok, back to you and me. How can you intensify your daily practice and general musical approach in such a way, that it will result in (more) clean playing and (more) musical freedom, maybe even deeper musical understanding and well founded interpretations. First it comes down to a proper reading of the score. Not just the notes, not just aiming for ‘the right’ tempo.. A thorough reading and recognizing of all articulation notations, even the suggested fingerings. They all contribute to a better understanding of both the technical and musical requirements.

Practice tips

For example: staccato markings help you tremendously in quick and efficient jumps and general movements of positions, simply because you can (and should!) let go of the keys as quickly as possible. By landing on your next chord/position, you’ve saved precious time.
Another example: playing fast runs as required in for instance a Mozart sonata or Czerny etude. I’m sure you’re aiming to play these runs as smoothly and as clean as possible. First, choose a solid fingering as a basis for your technique: try avoiding thumbs and 5th fingers on black keys, simply because they’re short and require your hands to make time consuming movement.

After choosing your fingerings, play your semi quavers –or fast quavers – in groups (normally per four) and focus on linking these groups. Also, use syncope rhythms to create an equal quality of sound throughout the run.

A practical tip by Jan Wijn (Piano Street, Frebruary 28, 2013) regarding runs: When you keep making the same mistake during a run (or jump or other technical challenge), focus on the note or group of notes prior to the mistake.
Mistakes are the consequence of some kind of bad preparation. In a way, it’s all about the right focus for the right challenge.

Also, actively look for inspiration by your personal musical heroes. This will put some fire in your daily work but will also help you determine your personal sense of style and musicality.

A great suggestion by Jan Wijn: You need to find out when you should work on technical details or when you should simply play through the entire piece to get a sense of proportion and get used to playing non-stop for 30 minutes or more. Recording these ‘playing through’ sessions will give you an even better perspective on where you stand with this composition. Very confronting, but very helpful.

Another tip by Jan Wijn: playing slow, at least 30% under the concert tempo will help tremendously in getting a clean execution of the piece. My basic rule is: if you play half tempo, play four times as musical and well phrased. This will help you understand and feel the music better, and will have significant effect in learning the piece by heart.

Memorize and analyze

Jan Wijn on memorizing a composition: Many pianists will find it difficult to play through certain pieces without so called memory slips. I always advise my students to do more intensive mental practicing. Sit down in a chair and bring up the entire composition in your mind. If there are any sections in the piece that you can’t visualize or imagine the movements of your fingers and hands that go with it, this is a section that you’ll need to study more closely. Also, don’t neglect the left hand! It’s often to blame for these memory slips.

Essentially, you need to analyze your scores on how to deal with every challenge. During a practice session, altering the score in terms of articulation, dynamics, tempo, register of the keyboard, everything is allowed if it helps you to get a grip on that specific challenge. In other words, strip it down to the core problem, fix it and only then incorporate all the original aspects that you’ve previously altered.

What’s between the notes?

To end my part of this quick summary on tips for practicing, I want to share the following experience. Whenever I heard a musician talk about “the story between the notes” or “the composer’s meaning” I could only vaguely relate to their experiences. When listening to a good performance, I do get carried away into a completely different world. For me it’s about atmosphere and personal associations with sounds, colors and gestures. Becoming a professional pianist myself, I felt the need and responsibility to go deeper into this personal ‘language’ that is linked to the composer whose work I was playing. In other words, what makes Beethoven typically Beethoven, Schumann typically Schumann..?

These questions don’t end with a technical analysis, though it is the start. It’s about understanding what needs to be said musically on a deep level. It’s like getting to know a new person in your life: only by asking this person many questions, having conversations and spending sufficient time with him or her, at some point you can say you really know them, even relate to them. With the score in front of you, it’s about knowing which questions you need to ask in order to get to a fundamental (and still very personal) interpretation of the piece. Don’t look for right answers first, look for the right questions. It is my conviction that this process can be learned and will increase your overall musicality tremendously. Just stay open minded, inspired and curious!

PS: I’d love to read about all of the challenges you face during your musical activities. Please post a comment!

Alexander Buskermolen,
Piano Street Guest Writer



/nilsjohan

  1. Peter Caldwell Says:

    Last Year I learned Bachs Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B flat Major. I studied it carefully and learned it to a point where I knew the fingering intimately and could play large sections for memory. In the exam in which I played it, the examiner noted that I had not interpreted well enough the various voices, particularly in the fugue. I was at a loss to understand why. Can you help?

  2. Alexander Buskermolen Says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can imagine it felt frustrating to hear you “didn’t think it through” enough, Even after such careful preparation. Don’t get me started on auditions and exams…it’s highly subjective in many ways. Let me try to suggest a couple of things:

    When playing polyphonic music, you should be aware of all voices, their direction, their role in relation to the other voices etcetera. When practising a Fuge, try to play several combinations of voices, for instance just the soprano and bass, or only tenor and alto. Play everything except the soprano. Play only the theme, in whatever voice it’s presented. Also, only play the counterpoint / counter theme in every voice and be aware of all modulations. I’m sure that you know…with Bach there’re a lot of modulations. I always tell my students that harmony is the most important guide for phrasing when playing Bach. Awareness of the harmonical plan is essential.

    Maybe this will help you? Let me know! For inspiration and good example, I’ve copied a link to a great (and a bit weird) video of Glenn Gould while practising the 2nd Partita in c minor. From 1.58 min. something important happens: he walks away from the piano and starts singing a certain voice from the Fuge in the first movement. He walks back to the piano and starts playing again where he stopped singing. If you can do that, you really know the score inside out. Good luck!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB76jxBq_gQ

    Alexander

  3. Jim Says:

    Hi Alexander
    Like your practice comments, however my question is specifically about performing. I feel confident when playing alone to the extent that I can enjoy focussing on interpretation, phrasing, feeling, etc, HOWEVER (you knew that was coming eh?) I just cannot seem to play in front of anyone. I seem to quickly when performing get into thoughts like, I hope I don’t make mistakes, I hope they think I am playing well, I hope I can get through this piece, etc., and it all then quickly falls apart for me, I tense up and forget the piece, make a mistake then stop, etc. any thoughts on how can get over this?

  4. Sandy Arbuthnot Says:

    I have that problem too! I have retreated to play only for myself. Any ideas would soles like us. Thankyou.

  5. Sebastian Says:

    Hi Alexander

    I passed my grade 8 14 years ago. I have been playing intermittently ever since.

    I have grown to very much like Liszt, particularly the Hungarian Rhapsody. I’m aware it’s probably above my level but I can play much of it (almost all the first half and up to page 3 in the Friska) and I’m happy if I don’t play it perfectly but just get to hear a cool sound when I play to myself (thereby keeping me motivated to continue playing).

    My biggest problem I’m having is with the Liszt long and fast jumps. No matter how slowly I practice them, break it down into bits, play them in syncopated rhythms etc, I still end up hitting the wrong notes.

    Do you have any practice techniques that can help?

    Any assistance you can provide would be much appreciated.

    Many thanks

    Sebastian

  6. Nancy Says:

    Nancy Says: Thanks so much. I am new to Piano Street and appreciate articles such as yours. This article is very helpful to me because it confirms that I am getting something right. As a Christian, I like to play piano solo arrangements of worship hymns, specially arrangements by Mark Hayes. Last night I was practicing his arrangement of IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL and was trying to determine “between the lines” how he really intended it to be played as I did not have a CD of the piece. I had listened to a YouTube video version, but was not satisfied. Thus I was attempting to figure it out on my own. All your comments are helptul as it has been quite a while since I have had lessons. I do a little teaching on the side, and your comments can be passed on to my students.

    Like Jim, I get nervous playing in front of others and make mistakes as a result. I, too, would appreciate any comments on how to overcome this problem.

    Thank you very much, Nancy

  7. Maria F Says:

    Hi! I am a piano teacher, and due to my ADHD I always had (and still have) concentration problems, and therefore memorising is nearly impossible. If I played a piece many many times my fingers will know what to do and when, but my mind goes miles away while playing. I found out that the only way I can play paying attention to the style is to have the score right in front of me, and to see the notes while playing them. In that way I block all sort of unrelated ideas that fill my mind. I know I am not really reading the score. It’s more like I follow the score as an excuse to be there, instead of letting my fingers do the job while I think about almost everything from shopping lists to what will I prepare for dinner. The thing is that I have some students that are really good at memorising, but I also have other ones that are like me, and I wish someone would suggest me how to help me to help them, since I have never been able to solve the issue nor even for myself. To give you an idea of how bad it could be, once I had to play a Granados piece (la maja y el ruiseñor) in a concert, while being on my last year of the music teacher program. I sat in front of the piano, and I couldn’t remember in which note should I start, so I walked to the front of the scenario, since my teacher was sitting on the first row, and asked her which was the first note. She was sooo pale… And I wasn’t worried at all. It is not about fear of being at the stage, it is just that quite often important info slips my mind. I played the piece without incidents, but my teacher was ready to kill me… So, any ideas?

  8. Alexander Buskermolen Says:

    Hi Jim and Sandy,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and unfortunately, frustrations. Believe me when I say I know exactly what you mean when you talk about lack of concentration, getting more and more tense during a performance and in the end…giving up. I hope my following suggestions will have some positive effect on your performance and confidence as a musician.

    First I’d like to emphasize that getting more and more experience in playing for other people will help tremendously when dealing with stage fright. Have you guys ever played a piece or even full recital multiple times within a short period of time? Have you organised small try-outs for 3 or 4 people and asked for feedback? Have you done much recording on video or audio? How was that working out for you?

    So, having said that, here’s my “philosophy” on learning to perform. My former teacher Klara Wurtz once said that your mind can only focus on one thing at the time ( yes men AND women! ;) ). So if during a performance, you’re thinking about grocery shopping, there’s no room for music. The other way around is also true. If you’re truly focussed on the music, there’s no room for anything else. So, focus is where you need to put your attention to. Yes, easier said then done…sorry!

    Mental practise (like Jan Wijn suggested in my first part of this triology) is crucial. Not only when you play by heart, something I recommend when playing solo repertoire. Also, when you feel your focus is slipping away during a performance, force yourself to plan ahead, sing the melody in your mind as loud as you can, as to eliminate any other thoughts. All that matters is music…your music.

    Finally I’d like to say that preparation, determination and the willingness to learn and improve have helped me personally. When ever I’ve messed up or feel I could have done better, I get even more focussed and eager to face my own challenges. And there have been many. And yes sometimes the feeling of disappointment or wanting to give up this quest comes first, but never wins. Don’t let this negative chain of thoughts influence your love for the piano and music. Keep up the good practise, musical greetings from The Netherlands

    Alexander

  9. Alexander Buskermolen Says:

    Hi Sebastian,

    Here’re some very practical tips for playing virtuose passages such as jumps, octaves and fast chord progressions.

    Stay very close to the keys, and take a very horizontal approach as you increase your tempo. In fast octaves, let your thumbs lead the way, your fifth finger will follow :)
    Practising slow will often create slow fingers and movements. A slow tempo should not mean slow movements: it simply enables you to think ahead more so you can execute your coordination better and more efficiently.
    Standard practise should include many repetitions of short passages, expanding this passage with only a few notes at a time. Build up your long virtuoso phrases.

    Also, how much time have you spend on analysing your hand-eye coordination? In short: look at your next landing place, not at the position you’re currently in…that won’t serve your technique. This implies that in big and fast jumps, your eyes are always countering the direction of your hands.

    Let me know if this helps you. Maybe you can give me another example of your repertoire to illustrate your difficulties? Best,

    Alexander

  10. Cindy Says:

    Hi Alexander,

    I have two questions if you have time:

    (1) About Beethoven op 49, No.2, first movement. I’m studying this piece a second time now because I’m taking it to the exam. When I was studying it the first time, my teacher said I did well on rhyme, articulation, music etc. But what I felt at that time was that everyone probably play this piece the same way I did (because all I did was follow the “rules” that my teacher set for me, mostly the written notations). I feel that’s the first step. I wasn’t satisfied because I feel lack of imagination. Of course, without sending you my recording, you can’t give me too much suggestions. But I don’t really know how to work on imagination. For instance, in this piece all I feel is its grandness, it’s rich in music, and some places lyrical. I’ve listened to both Barenboim and Andrea Schiff’s master class on appassionata. And found them picking those small details to further refine the student’s articulation. And those suggestions make a difference in their performance. So I know for my Op.49, No.2 I have a long way to go, only don’t know how.

    (2) I met with a few professionals (I’m an amateur) they all said I have shoulder and finger problem, meaning I play with my fingers, but not my big muscles. So in the long run it will not only hurt my self, but also limit my progress. I’ve been trying to relax when practicing and remind myself very frequently. Everytime I remind myself I found I have a shrugged shoulder or sticking out elbows. I want to know is this something that I can work on on my own, like just telling myself to relax every now and then, maybe more and more frequently, or does it have to be fixed by a professional? I currently don’t want to change teacher (it’s not easy to find a good teacher) and my teacher actually never said this to me. My last teacher would remind me to let my elbows hang naturally close to my body instead of sticking out, but that’s all she said. No Alexander techinique etc. And I found myself actually having tension in everything I do, not just playing piano. I don’t know why my shoulders want so much to be shrugged all the time.

    Thank you,
    Cindy

  11. Alexander Buskermolen Says:

    Hi Nancy,

    Great to hear you enjoy playing the piano and that you’re able to combine that with your Christian repertoire. In the town where I live, there is a very large Christian community and I therefore have a couple of students myself that enjoy playing Hymnes and songs for “revelation”.

    I feel that with this kind of music it’s more difficult to interpret the composers ‘deeper meaning’, simply because there aren’t as many layers as let’s say, in a Beethoven sonata. The scores that I get to see are generally nice accompanyments with a melody (for both voice and piano) and are based on quite standard and popular chord progressions.

    With those particular students I focus on fluent melody lines, clean chord progressions (in combination with the proper use of the sostenuto pedal) and the balance between both hands and the balance in the right hand. The balance in the right hand should be leaning towards the 4th and 5th fingers to accomodate the proper weight for the melody. Musically, I would advice you to let the music flow as naturally as possible, think about singing as the ultimate goal in playing this repertoire. Also, look for important moments/phrases in the words of the original song, and find corresponding “sudden” changes in harmony or melody. This word-music relationship is a great way to get started on depper interpretation of the music.

    Good luck!

    Alexander

  12. Ted Jones Says:

    I am a very different sort of player in that 90% or more of my time at the instrument is spent in improvisation, which I record. It has always seemed to me that improvisation requires an entirely different technical foundation to interpretation. In interpretation we look for special technical solutions to special problems. In improvisation it is necessary to look for technical solutions general enough to cope with the speed of any spontaneous ideas, and most of my ideas are not of the easy, contemplative variety.

    Accordingly, I have maintained my technique over forty years with my silent Virgil Practice Clavier, and have found it a truly wonderful device. Why has no one produced a lighter, modern version of this, and why are these devices rejected so much by modern pianists and pedagogy ? It was also of the greatest help in getting rid of what I assume was a focal dystonia I acquired some years ago.

    Essentially, the only “practice” I do is ten minutes night and morning on around eight or nine ounces. Once I am at the piano all is music.

  13. Karla Says:

    I am currently trying to learn a piece, (which I won’t bother naming because its very obscure) and I am having trouble reaching the tempo whihc is 200BPM (Quarter) particulary in the main theme where there are this “leaps” of Bb (fifth finger) to Bb-D (first-second finger) in the next octave.

    I hope I expressed myself well, also they are in the left hand. My question is: How can I achieve more speed? I am trying to keep my hand as relaxed as possible and also as close and “horizontal” to the keys as possible.

    Best Wishes
    K

  14. Sebastian Says:

    Hi Alexander

    Thank you very much for your tips. It contained a few ideas I had not considered. I’ll give it a go and see if it helps.

    So far, it’s only the long jumps that I have thought I can never get. The rest I can play reasonably or at least “fake it” enough to get to the next section if I practice enough (eg the first fast bit in the Lassan, particularly the second bit). For those bits, I think I need to play them in pairs of 8 (or 10 for the second bit) and gradually turn those pairs into triples and put it all together.

    So once again thanks and I’ll put in a few hard hours and days and see if your tips help me overcome that hurdle.

    Kind regards

    Sebastian

  15. PianoMother Says:

    Thank you for your piano practice tips. When I was a beginner, my greatest challenge is the memorization part especially for long recital piano pieces. It took me years to overcome this challenge.

    I will share these piano tips with those who are also struggling with their piano practice.

  16. Alexander Buskermolen Says:

    Hi Karla,

    Here a quick tip regarding the speed of your jumps.

    As you are about to play the last note PRIOR to the jump, already focus your energy on the “landing area” after the jump. You should do this both with your eyes and fysical concentration. Once you play the last note before the jump, the energy should be as horizontal and close to the keys as possible. It’s about leaving the key instead of the downward movement.

    Good luck!

    Alexander

  17. Bernard Huby Says:

    Hi, Alexander. Thanks for your tips on practising the piano. I have found the whole concept of my piano practice has taken a big turn for the better as I had not involved the mental side of things to the same extent as the physical. One other point I need some help with relates to a piece I am attempting to learn – Chaminade’s concert study, Automne opus 35 No.2. In the con fuoco section there are groups of demi-semiquavers which are used by Chaminade to give the progression of chords specifying the harmonic development of this section. The first note of each of these groups is played by the thumb of the right hand and appears to be tied to the last note in each group. My question is:
    Does the thumb just hang on to the first note and tie it to the last note, or is the thumb supposed to play twice in each of the groups?
    What is the correct way to go with this? Hope you can help me. Thanks, Bernard.

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