03 March 2022
It's vitally important that our mind and body are in constant collaboration with each other when playing. Anthony Cheng gives three top tips on how we can improve the fluency between the two
The most important aspect of playing fluently is to train both fingers and the mind to be on par with each other. They must strive to become partners and to collaborate. Piano playing is equally about the mind and the body – something that many of us may be unaware of.
There are a multitude of practice techniques - or tools, if you like - out there in piano playing to strengthen the bond between mind and body; the trick is to know which tools to use at which points.
Legendary piano pedagogue Gordon Green once said, “You must never practise until you can get it right; you must practise until you can never get it wrong."
And he is absolutely right. Below outlines three ways to help you along your way to never getting a piece of music wrong.
1. Practise the melody line with one finger - any finger
Choose a piece that you are currently practising. Let's strip down the melody line to its fundamentals: the melodic contour and geography.
Take whatever piece you’re learning – it could be Mozart or Debussy - and isolate a melody. Now, do away with the recommended fingering in the score. Pretend those don’t exist. Next, take any finger you’d like to use, and with only that finger, play the melody of your choice from the piece.
Notice what your mind and fingers are doing.
The mind no longer relies on muscle memory of recommended fingerings for it to find its way around. Mindless practising, or ‘autopilot’, is a 'cardinal sin' in practice. Examine your hand movements closely: your hand will be jumping around a lot more to accommodate the shifting melody of differing intervals.
This movement is beneficial. Once we practise it with one finger, we train the mind and fingers to become much more familiar with how the melody moves left to right. You focus on what the individual notes are since you’re not using muscle memory to find your way around.
Give this a try on other pieces you are learning. Feel the contour of the piece and relish in the geography of the melody on the keyboard. Once you have explored this extensively, put the proper fingering back in and watch your shaping become more fluent.
Once you've put the proper fingering back in, it's time to perfect that hands separate practice. Teacher Graham Fitch gives his advice below.
2. Practise the melody with opposite hands
Take the exact same melody you just played in the previous practice technique, and play it both with one finger and with the opposite hand.
Why switch hands? Going back to what I said earlier about having the mind work just as hard as the physical, the unfamiliarity of having the melody in the opposite hand will expose the contour of it further. It’s like seeing a view from a standpoint you’ve stood at many times, but this time you look at it from a point further down or up; it’s a way of assessing the same thing from a different perspective. It’s an effective strategy to cement your understanding of the melodic shape. Give this a try.
3. Ghost the hand positions of a piece of music
This technique was something I learned from the great British concert pianist, Philip Fowke, during a lesson with him last summer: ghosting notes and hand positions.
What do we mean by ‘ghosting’?
It means moving your fingers above the keys as if to play, but never actually depressing the keys at all. You’re hovering above them hearing sounds, not externally, but internally in your head.
But there is a difficulty in this practice strategy. Since no sound is coming out from your silent playing, your fingers can become complacent. They turn lazy by hovering above the wrong key, possibly from this simple diagnosis: you’re too focused on the act of not pressing the key that your fingers become passive.
Towards this we must pay extra attention. Despite not depressing the keys to make a sound, we must still assert finger discipline. Make sure you play the keys as if you’re sounding them.
What can help with this is manipulating the tempo. Play the piece a lot slower. Don’t be afraid to come to a halt. Then, ask yourself, 'Are my fingers and hands in the right place right now? And do I know where my fingers are going next? What are the flight paths for the fingers and hands to the next notes?'
These questions must be running through your head when you are ghost playing, otherwise it’s pointless. This deliberate removal of sound is to focus the mind on physical movement, positioning, and seamless transition of hands.
Give this a try. Don’t forget to question and examine yourself as you go along.
I hope these tips are helpful to you on your journey to becoming an effective piano practitioner. Practice should be fun. And we must keep in mind Gordon Green’s wise maxim: Practise until you can never get it wrong.
Feel inspired to continuing your learning journey? Come along to our online piano masterclass: How to Return to the Piano as an Adult. Pianist Alisdair Hogarth will give practical advice on piano fitness, looking at how to develop flexibility and strength through a concise technical exercise regime.