How do we practice effectively to improve our piano playing and perform well in concerts and exams?
Here is a simple guideline anyone can follow in every piano practice session.
Five Steps To Effective Piano Practice
Tone is the quality of sound, which is different from the volume of sound (when we talk about “dynamics”, the softness and loudness of sound, the piano and forte).
How do we achieve the different qualities of sound? By applying the right technique. Mastering the varieties in attack, touch and weight transfer is the key to a whole new world of sound. Therefore, working on gaining a solid technical control and variety in technical skills is of tremendous importance.
Sometimes my students say to me, “I don’t know what to do with the piece! I just keep playing it through to make it sound more smooth.” That is not a practice. That is simply playing through a piece.
Don’t know what to do? Find out what the important elements in the music piece are. What is going on in the melody? Listen to the different leaps between notes (“intervals“): a third is very different from a sixth or an octave, and a minor third is different from a major third. Pay attention to the subtle change in the melodic contour and show the nuance in your playing.
In the case of a fugue, where is the subject and what are the elements in the subject? Where are the beginning of the fugal entries in various voices? Are there any motives (melodic /rhythmic patterns) that recurs in the song in different voices/registers? And how about the tonalities? Are there any significant key changes? Or perhaps some special sounding chords (dissonance vs consonance)? It would be good for you to be able to identify the chord nature such as diminished /augmented /minor /major /dominant 7th/9th etc., but the first step is train your ears to differentiate the subtle nuance among different chords and harmony first.
One element many piano students neglect is rhythm. Really try to pay closer attention to execute the correct rhythm, for example, dotted rhythm is very differently than an even rhythm, and triplets or quintuplets need to be treated differently than regular eighths or sixteenths. If you can’t play them, clap them first. It’s about getting the rhythm in your body rather than at your fingers. Sometimes I ask my students to dance or tap to the music (of course I do that with them!) . It’s a fun way to practice and get the rhythm naturally easily.
3. Dynamics and phrasing
In general, it should be easy to show the dynamic changes and phrasing in your playing simply by following the markings on the score. But in order to give a more expressive performance, you need to interpret the piece yourself. Where is the beginning and ending of each phrase? After you have found the melodic sequences and the harmonic changes, what do you do to show them clearly to the audience? An expressive and musical playing can only be done by, on top of all the technical analysis, putting your heart and soul into the music, and that means feeling the music emotionally and physically. What do you feel about the rise and fall in the melody? Do you feel the difference between a rising minor third and a falling octave? How do you feel about them and what would you do to show them?
Articulation expresses the more delicate nuance of individual notes while phrasing gives life and clarity to each musical phrase. Paying attention to articulate each note is like making effort at speaking every word so clearly that your listener understand exactly what you want to express. And remember, it’s not just if it’s “legato” or “staccato”: there are many ways and combinations to “say” what you want at the piano!
Having a steady tempo that you can control well under pressure is a major contribution to your success in a performance, a competition or an exam. One thing any piano student should definitely pay attention to is establishing a steady pulse. Again, pulse is not the same as tempo, but without a steady pulse no one can hear exactly what your tempo is!
Sometimes it is wise to take the tempo down a few notches in order to present a well controlled and confident piano performance. And when it comes to a piece at a slow tempo, you might find playing it at a slightly more moving tempo helps the music flow along better. There is no hard or fast rule to the decision at tempo adjustment, certainly it’s best to express the music at its desirable speed (or marked tempo), but it is something a performer needs to think about from time to time. Moreover, even the “desirable speed” can be flexible in some cases (note: maybe not so much for standardized piano exams especially at graded levels): go listen to some recordings of the same piece (say a Beethoven sonata or Bach toccata) by different artists (or even same artist at different periods of his/her career), compare the tempi of the recordings, and you might be surprised just how different each artist’s approach is.
This is just a very general guideline to give you as a piano student some pointers on how to have a more effective piano practice session. But if you really pay attention to start following these few rules, you would be pleasantly surprised by the improvement you make at your piano playing!
Have fun at the piano!