Practice makes Perfect!
Such a small word for such an important thing. To be good at anything you have to practice. I totally admit that I don’t get to practice as much as I should or want to. The instrument that probably receives the least practice is the piano, and yet this was always my first love.
I began playing the piano properly at the age of 8, when I began lessons with a fantastic teacher, Mrs Mein. Prior to that I had sat and watched my dad play the piano and was fascinated by how his fingers would fly up and down the instrument. I used to love listening to ‘The Maidens Prayer’. Dad did try to teach me the piano when I was 5 yrs. old, but it was a disaster. I just wasn’t ready.
Mrs Mein was patient and encouraging, and it is totally down to her pushing me (and the support of my parents) that I achieved my grade 8 in piano at the age of 15. I would have liked to continue my piano studies with her during my A Levels, but the college I attended wouldn’t allow it (I had to have one of their teachers), and this is always a regret, as I did not make the same progress with my new teacher. In fact I felt that I stood still (I was certainly fed up of Mozart Sonata’s, which I spent 2 years working my way through as my teacher seemed obsessed with me working through an entire book of them – not something I would do in my own teaching!). Great teachers do not always get the recognition they deserve, and I know that I never really communicated to Mrs Mein just how good she was, and how much I respected her.
But how do you practice? Surely it is just playing a piece through that you are learning?
That could not be further from the truth. Just playing a piece over and over, whether on a piano, flute or any other instrument, is not practice. It is exactly what I have said – playing it through. It means that every time you make that mistake, in exactly the same place, you are reinforcing it and engraining it into the piece. To get the piece ‘perfect’ you then have to ‘unlearn’ it and this takes twice as long.
To practice you break the piece down. Certainly, on the piano, you would begin hands separately. You then build it up from there. If you have a tricky bar or couple of bars you play that section over and over until you have it right. You then put the two hands together. This may throw up its own set of problems, and so you then break this down into small ‘bite size’ chunks. You play 2 or 4 bars at a time, identifying the tricky bits, breaking it down into even smaller sections where necessary – sometimes that might mean just 3 or 4 notes. It isn’t just about playing the right notes, you also have to ensure you are playing the correct rhythms. Once you have all this right you have to start adding in the phrasing, articulation and dynamics (the shaping, smooth/spikey sections and louds and quiets). And then you move on to the next section.
Learning a piece of music can take weeks or even months depending on its length, and in that time you are striving for perfection – something you are unlikely to achieve (depending on the complexity of the piece) but you strive for it none the less.
Teaching a student how to practice is an important part of my role as an instrumental teacher, and it is often obvious when a student has opted to just ‘play it through’ a few times rather than truly practice.
And so, to me as a pianist.
I quite often get to perform solo as a flautist and do a fair amount of pit work in that role. As a pianist my skills are often utilised as an accompanist, and this enables me to use and practice my sight reading skills, which I love to do. It is always a challenge to perform a piece you have never seen before in a rehearsal situation etc. There are people who don’t realise that I am a pianist as well as a flautist, because they have never heard me play.
Well…… I thought it only right to rectify this, and demonstrate that I do play, so please see below a video of me performing the slow movement from Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ Sonata, a piece I am in the process of practising. It isn’t perfect yet, but I will keep working on those tricky sections (I am sure you will be able to spot where) to get it as close to perfect as possible. I have to say, after recording the video I was fascinated watching my own hands play. I don’t really take any notice of what my hands do normally – I am too busy concentrating on what they need to do next – so to actually watch them was new to me.
Happy practicing everyone!