Do you have the question in mind all the time after endless hours of practice, “Why am I not playing better?”
I have students come to me day in and day out about their playing issues. When I ask them how they practice at home or better still, have them practice in front of me, then I understand perfectly why they don’t get better even after much practice. In fact, they are wasting their time on practicing on something that just doesn’t make sense and would never help them play better.
First thing is the way they practice. They practice without a plan or a goal.
As I have stressed many a times before, mindless practice gets nowhere. How can you tell if there is no plan in your practice? If you keep playing a piece from head to toe many times, or even just a section or a phrase without thinking about what you are trying to solve, how you are going to improve and what sound you want to make, then it is a mindless and non-constructive practice.
I think a lot of players understand this quite well, only they still keep doing the same old practice over and over again. My guess is practicing the way they are used to comforts them, with the faint hope that it might eventually get them somewhere in their playing, only they know deep down it is not happening any day soon.
Or simply, they just do not know how else to practice.
So the second thing I want to point out is: technique.
I have some players drop in and take some consultation lessons with me. Sometimes it would be just about viva voce or interpretation in general, but eventually they would ask me to listen to their playing and tell me about their struggle in the pieces they have been working on for a while. When I see and hear them play, I can tell one thing: technical problem. I believe a lot of people do not understand they have technical issues: they think when they cannot play fluently or fast enough, it is because they have not done enough practice (that is also most likely true, unless they are performance major and spend most of their hours practicing in a tiny room at music school light in and light out).
Yet I know for sure, the core issue is still technique.
So, how can you play better after your practice? (I would think that is your goal of practice isn’t it?)
THREE STEPS to practice more efficiently and effectively (and build a new technique):
1. IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
2. FIND THE SOLUTION
3. DRILL THE SOLUTION
Sounds quite simple, no?
In fact it is that simple.
To be able to identify the problem in the playing is a big step to success. A lot of the times people keep playing without thinking WHY they have a problem, only knowing that they cannot play fluently. A smart player would analyze, “What’s wrong here? Is it the pattern I don’t understand (intervallic, harmonic)? Is it fingering? The execution (technical issue)? If it’s the execution problem, what is it? Is it the finger, the wrist, the arm movement, or the usage of wrong motion?” etc etc. To play well needs a lot of data processing and analyzing with the brainwork, yet sadly many actually believe they can play something beautifully and logically without using their mind to think about it.
After having the problem identified, one needs to find a solution. This might be a bit harder than the first step. It would be great if you have a teacher to help you with this. Otherwise, there are a few things that you can do to help you: one, read technique books. I highly recommend Gyorgy Sandor’s “On Piano Playing”. He identifies the five basic techniques that can help you to understand which technique you need to apply in your playing. In the book he also explains the whole human body performing mechanism and especially, the anatomy of the hands which information I believe is crucial for any pianist to fathom in great detail. I have talked about his book here and here. As I said earlier, the core issue is almost always technique, so look out for any tension, excessive force or misalignment in your fingers/wrists/palm/forearm/upper arm. Then choose and apply the right technique.
Next is to drill the solution to the fullest. Make it sink in so it becomes autopilot to you, that you can play it without even thinking about it, like you are doing it with reflex action. Drilling a solution needs focus, time and most of all patience and persistence. Don’t think you can get it after 10 times, 100 times, or even 10 days. If you can get it after such a short period of time, congratulations. However, be prepared that it would take longer than that most of the time. So, be diligent and steadfast to drilling the solution, and don’t stop at the 999th time, because, it might just be the 1000th time that would get you there.
Effective practice and technique building are two very rational aspects in one’s piano playing. A lot of learners have the illusion that because playing music is such an emotional thing that they don’t need to think and plan about how to practice and improve their playing. Totally wrong! Piano practice is very similar to training in sports or athletic events: both need target specific training by analyzing one’s playing, then looking for the exact trouble spot, finding the right solution and drilling it so that it becomes automatic and reflexive to the player. In this sense, in our lessons, I am the coach to my students, who need to do the work themselves as well during their practice and performance, just like the athletes/sportsmen do when they are out on the field playing the game. They are both on their own, whether people are watching or not.
This is the start of a whole new series of posts on technique, I hope it would help you all understand how this “myth” works and how you can improve this aspect that can drastically change your playing, for-ev-er.
Until next time,
Teresa Wing-Yin Wong