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  • Courtney Ellian

When Working Hard is Hardly Working

The concern I hear the most from piano students--and other amateur and professional keys players--is that their preparation doesn’t always produce reliable results. It’s the story of every musician’s life, right? You could spend what feels like hours slowly practicing through a riff or passage, time after time, note after note… only to have it sound irritatingly untouched afterwards. Are you studious at your instrument, but wish you were a quicker study? You’re in luck! I’ve compiled six of my own studio practice tips and

techniques for you to make the most out of precious time at the keys.

  1. Break it down. This may feel like common advice--and it is. But here’s a twist: breaking something down can take many forms: hands separate, a page at a time, only transitions and jumps, etc. It’s easy to think covering a whole piece or group of pages, or an entire chord progression, is the key to get it under the fingers and memorized quicker. But--you could spend a half hour crawling through two pages with both hands once, or... instead, just half an hour practicing one page twice, or even half a page four times! Which grouping is more likely to encourage familiarity within a timeframe? Additionally, you won’t be wasting valuable time not getting the rest under your belt: scan your music and identify patterns, repeats, bass lines, scales, whatever--you will then laser-focus your sifted efforts on the complex bits that need more time and repetitive practice, and better identify the overall structure, or form, of the music you’ve got in front of you.

  2. Play it slowly (so you can play it fast). My students (especially my younger ones) roll their eyes when I whip this advice out for their muddy playing. This applies across the spectrum, though: to learn something up to crazy-fast speeds, ANY pianist, at ANY level, must set both their brains and hands to their music at a level learners’ speed, so either can account for any margins of error until they are operating synchronously. In simpler terms: you gotta give your fingers and your brain the time to think of where to go and what to do. My process for building up speed? First, pick a steady learning tempo for a passage and then bump it up in small doses (you’ll probably want a metronome, or a metronome app for this). “Temper” your tempo as you go: if the speed is brought up too much too fast, your playing will “spoil”. Keep increasing it by little groups of beats-per-minute each time, and soon you’ll be coaxing your brain and your fingers to collaborate in perfect sync with each other. I used this trick with a student during a lesson last week, and after we did several BPM bumps, she was pleasantly surprised to see that she worked up to playing her music almost TWICE as fast as the tempo she started at! Stretch this work over practice sessions, and don’t sweat it if it feels slow--staying relaxed and unhurried is the best possible stance to cracking the speed code.

  3. Overcompensate everywhere. Fingers uneven? Chords rushed? Jumps not landing? Can’t hear your melody? Don’t hesitate, just overcompensate. If techniques aren’t hitting the caliber that they need to, practice them by taking them to the EXTREME. Be as extra as possible: play a delicate sixteenth-note passage like the notes are heavy, “swung” eighth notes. Set your rushed chords to an achingly slow tempo. “Hit-and-run” your jumps so you can better stick the landing, and then go back and forth. Visualize and play your melody as loudly as you possibly can (and your accompaniment underneath as hushed as you possibly can) to bring out your tone and balance. Don’t be afraid to make your problem spots as over-corrected as possible, because the key to this practice is that you will, after this exaggerated playing, go back to these passages and play them as you normally would. Because you worked harder to get that exaggeration, the normal amount of effort and technique afterwards will feel like a walk in the park as a result. The best part about overcompensating? You can apply it to ANY music, technique or interpretation that isn’t working well enough for you. It’s almost like you’re tricking yourself into doing it right by… doing it TOO right.

  4. Stack your notes. If you need to play big chords or voicings and the notes look overwhelming, pretend you’re a middle school choir teacher and play the notes as if you’re giving starting pitches--one at a time, from the bottom of the bass to the top of the treble. Stack them up, and don't wait until you have every note in place before playing any of the notes in the chord. They might sound like messy rolled chords, but that’s ok for now! This is such a valuable way to save time, because when you stack your notes, you’re training your eye to read from the bottom of the staff to the top of the staff on the page, and that will result in quicker note allocation and correct fingering for each note in the chord. Pretty soon, you won't need to stack the keys--you'll be building them up that much faster!

  5. If you’re reading music, never stop relying on it--even after memorization. Even when you learn repertoire for fun or performance, the process doesn’t just end when you can play it by memory! Many players will go completely off-book once they feel they don’t need to rely on their music… and that’s precisely where they can go wrong. Muscle memory is only one facet of truly knowing music; what I’ve come to call “brain” and “sight” memory are just as important as well! Brain memory is being cognizant of what is being played and when, what comes after and before; sight memory is being able to know exactly where you are, sheet-music-wise, in a piece. When you make a mistake, you will need to rely on all three ways you know your music to stay true and smooth it out. The fail-safe rule of thumb is: play/perform by memory, but practice by music.

  6. “Block” groups of notes to identify movement and speed up fluidity in passages. If you have a left-hand part with lots of small arpeggios, or batches of beamed, moving notes that string themselves into harmonies underneath a melody, you can learn how to play and smoothly move around those passages by “blocking” the notes together. Much like how theater productions “block out” stage movements to effectively use space in scenes, pianists can effectively judge space and transitions by taking those batches of notes written separately and play them all at once, as if they were a block chord instead of an arpeggio. For example: If measures of quadruplets in eighth notes are written as a rhythm, then the “blocking” can occur by combining each note in a quadruplet and playing each set of four as a block chord. This can be effectively done with triplets, pairs, and large groups of notes beyond four as well. Blocking doesn’t just help the player allocate movement and fingering efficiently--it also helps with surveying the overall scope of tonal harmonies, harmonic rhythm and noticing the beautiful movement of a chord progression.

These are just six tips out of my toolkit of dozens of ways to wring more effective moments out of time spent practicing our instruments. I hope you find wisdom and inspiration to rejuvenate your piano learning :) If you have any ideas of your own to share, leave a comment below. Happy playing!

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