10 Top Tips to Improve your Practice Schedule in 2017
By Melanie Spanswick
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I hope you had a fabulous Christmas and 2017 brings much joy, good health, and happiness.
New Year’s resolutions? You’ve probably been mulling over what the next year might hold. Perhaps you’ve also been wondering how to fruitfully work on your piano playing?
An issue on many a pianist’s lips; how to secure a helpful, attainable, enjoyable, and productive method of ongoing practice. As we know, many begin their practice with great vigour and dedication (whether at the beginning of the week or a new year), but very soon, old habits surreptitiously creep in; finding enough time is nearly always at the top of the ‘can’t practice’ list, and for a sizeable proportion, acquiring the right type of motivation can also prove tricky.
Finding the right weekly practice schedule for you is a largely personal affair, so in this post I merely aim to throw a few ideas your way, shedding some light on a continuous dilemma.
1 Many prefer morning practice, but sometimes working late in the evening can be beneficial. Irrespective of the time, set yourself a workable goal. I have only a couple of adult students, and they both practice before going to work, starting at around 7am. They manage to focus for one hour, and then much later in the day (after work), occasionally find the energy for a further 30 minutes. Considerable dedication is required. This might not be an option for you but, depending on your level, aim for 45 – 60 minutes 5 days per week. Allowing a couple of days for rest and relaxation! Serious students (and advanced diploma students) will, of course, need and want to work for a much longer period if time, and for 6 or 7 days per week.
2 When you sit down to work at the piano, have a structured routine in place; one which encourages some freedom, but keeps work on track, doesn’t feel onerous, and still manages to pique your interest as well as preserve concentration. I suggest a few flexibility exercises as a warm up (away for the keyboard), letting your arms swing loosely by your side; stretch out your arms and hands, freeing each muscle. Take note of how relaxed the upper torso feels (then if tension arises as you play, you can revert to this feeling when necessary). Prior to this, sit still, and quiet your mind for a couple of minutes. Clear your thoughts and decide on a positive practice session (you’ll be surprised at just how effective this mini-meditation can be).
3 Once you’ve warmed up your muscles, some five-finger exercises might be helpful; begin on middle C going up to G (and down again) with the right hand (and an octave lower for the left hand), slowly key-bedding (playing with each finger, heavily into the keys), and as you play, ensure your whole arm, hand and wrist feels relaxed, loose and flexible between every note. Aim to do this a couple of times with each hand separately.
4 Now you’re ready to go! My students tend to begin with a 10 minute sight-reading session. Sight-reading is a multi-tasking challenge, so to make progress, implement at the start of a practice session when concentrating powers are at their strongest. Have plenty of material, and choose exercises which are well below your true standard of playing, so this element feels easy and enjoyable. For more sight-reading ideas, go here.
5 For those keen on exercises and studies, now may be a good time to include them in your regime. I appreciate some of you will be grimacing in dismay at the thought of Hanon, Czerny and the like (personally I love studies, but that’s just me). You can work at your technique on scales and arpeggios, or via sections of your pieces, but I find it easier to isolate technical difficulties and work on them away from the music. Whatever you do, make sure you are actually improving your playing, as opposed to repeating old habits of stiffness and tension (a good teacher is paramount here!).
6 Turning to your repertoire, it may be advantageous to rotate pieces i.e. rather than work at each one every day, practice one or two pieces (or movements) at each session, then leave them the following day to work on something else. This keeps your mind fresh and motivation, high. But it can be helpful to ‘play through’ areas (or whole pieces) you worked on the previous day, just to keep them in mind, and establish what was successfully achieved at your practice session the day before.
7 Give yourself a deadline. If you are learning a particular 5 minute piece, aim to have it fluent and under your fingers in a week (or maybe two if practising regularly is a real challenge). Goals can really help the learning process, whether for an exam or performance, and you will profit from the extra effort required to make sure you can play it quickly. It’s always possible to learn ever quicker, but this takes a cool, level-headed approach which generally precludes copious ‘play-throughs’; instead focus on small sections, speedy finger precision and a constantly attentive ear.
8 When learning, apply a totally methodical approach to mastering a piece; careful fingering, hands separately, then hands together with a metronome to a very slow tempo, until fully grasped. If you use a ‘standard’ approach when learning a work, it can be employed for most repertoire, therefore learning will be progressively swifter.
9 As soon as you lose focus, switch your attention elsewhere; move to less challenging music, or work at a piece you already know. The beginning of the learning process is generally more demanding, so try to have several pieces already secure, enabling you to hone interpretation and tonal quality.
10 End your session on a high note, and play something which is securely learnt, and which you enjoy, Aim to do this at every session – this will aid positivity and bode well for future efforts. Good luck and happy practising!
With kind permission from Melanie Spanswick.
Melanie writes a ‘How to Play’ column inside every issue of Pianist, aimed at the beginner. She guides you through a beginner level piece inside the Scores section, bar by bar.