Practicing Creatively At the Piano
As I mentioned in my last post, slow practice is very helpful in many situations to improve listening skills and raise overall awareness at the piano. On the contrary, there are certain instances, however, where employing other methods such as practicing at faster speeds, reducing the score to its bare qualities, and distorting rhythms can yield better results. Let us examine two specific situations:
Solving technical problems
I say this all the time to my students when they encounter a passage that is uncomfortable: at first, practice how it feels, not how it looks.
Often times, when we see a passage where there are several hand-position crossings (notes that require the fingers to go underneath/over the thumbs) or large skips and leaps that encompass multiple registers, we immediately think that slow practice will help us best to understand where our fingers need to go. This type of work usually includes playing slowly with the metronome, accenting the beats of each measure, and making sure everything is clean and clear before gradually increasing speed. While utilizing this approach can be helpful in small doses, too much of it is unproductive.
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain by using an example outside of music: when we encounter a difficult word to pronounce while learning a foreign language, what is our first reaction in trying to master it?
Okay... let's break it down syllabically and repeat it slowly over and over until it feels comfortable.
Through my own experiences, this process did not help me all that much when I was learning German, in which the words can be incredibly long at times! Instead, I would try to understand how the syllables connected with each other and the phonetics of the language. I was only able to achieve this by repeating the syllables quickly and smoothly so that I could not only teach my brain how they sounded, but more importantly, to understand what I was doing physically.
Like speaking, when we encounter difficult musical passages as I mentioned above, try breaking them down into hand positions (see annotated example below) and practice delivering them in semi-rapid, singular impulses. When that feels comfortable, move on to the next part, before combining everything together. Hopefully, you will find that this approach teaches you rather quickly how the passage "fits" to the hands.
Chopin Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, "Revolutionary"
Note: Red vertical lines indicate hand positions groupings
Listening for a larger phrase structure
Slow practice is also not very useful when it comes to determining how to shape a long phrase, especially if this larger structure is built upon a series of smaller iterations. Take for instance, Chopin's Scherzo No. 3 in C# minor.
The chordal melodies at the beginning of each system are interrupted by decorative arpeggios. Producing a continuous phrase can be achieved by practicing the melodic gestures quickly. I would even recommend omitting the arpeggiated figures to provide further aid in this particular exercise.
After reading my last two posts, I hope you can agree with me that practicing is a highly creative activity––employing a wide variety of approaches, techniques, and speeds, as well as putting your problem solving skills to use! While I have provided some guidelines as to the appropriate application of each method, keep in mind that how you practice varies on the context of the passage.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed reading this post, please subscribe here to receive monthly email updates on my performing activities and blogs on lesser-known works and teaching.