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Piano practise tips you need to know: four of Canada’s top artists weigh in

Piano practise tips you need to know: four of Canada’s top artists weigh in featured image

I’ve taught piano for a really long time, and dealt with all kinds of parents – some who hand their kids over to me with blind trust and don’t say much, to helicopter parents who ask lots of questions and anxiously wonder how their kid is progressing. So far, no parent has offered me gobs of money to bribe RCM officials to ensure they get terrific marks on their piano exams, so that’s good. Anyway, I spoke with a few of the country’s best-known keyboardists to get some practise tips from them. I hope this article helps either you or your child with practising, or if you’re a teacher, gives you new ideas!

First up is Janina Fialkowska, who’s known for her Chopin playing onstage, and her devilish sense of humour offstage. She takes into account the party animals:
1) Mornings are usually the best times to practice. A good idea is to go for a brisk walk right before starting, either around the garden, or the block or somewhere nice to look at. This activates the little grey cells which, if we are dealing with a young person, have a hangover, or, with an older person, are suffering from cranial cobwebs. If you intend to memorize , this is the optimal time to do it…mornings, first thing after a walk.

2) Speaking of memorizing, I advise you to do it immediately when you are starting a new piece. Memorize first the notes, but also activate the visual memory, then the muscle memory will kick in, and finally and most important, learn the piece harmonically and structurally…that way you can never get really lost. And practice it in your head away from the piano, knowing it so well that you could write it all down easily.

3) Once in a while, record yourself; a lot of the time when you are practising, you aren’t fully concentrated … so you tend to hear what you wish to hear, and not what is really happening – so things go awry. Listening to a recording of yourself can be revealing and a bit scary.

4) Practice technical passages (and sometimes even lyrical passages) often without pedal and at 3/4 speed.

5) Always warm up with exercises or a nice easy piece before you start. You can do real damage if you begin with something technically damage and your muscles are still cold.

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David Jalbert  is an incredibly lyrical pianist, and an all ‘round lovely person. He is a professor of piano at the University of Ottawa. You should visit his website – loads of clips of him playing, including a gorgeous Clair de Lune ….
When I put out the call for this Q+A I offered up suggestions like “the importance of time efficiency, such as score study while travelling”. He replied accordingly:

Practice tips then… since I’m writing this on a plane:
1) Score studying on the plane is excellent. But this is better yet: get all your emails done on the plane, so you can ACTUALLY practice once you’re back on solid ground.

2) I always recommend slow practice, but slow musical and inspired practice, which allows you to find more music between the notes and discover new aspects of the piece.

3) At the opposite end of the spectrum, I recommend practicing all passages in loud staccatos, in order to clarify the articulation and to train the ear to pay attention to every single note.

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Not wanting to leave out other keyboards, I approached Tafelmusik for some input from harpsichordist and organist Charlotte Nediger. Her advice is definitely applicable to any instrument, let alone the keyboard.
1) When learning a piece, decide on your fingering at your first or second practise session. If you waffle, your fingers are constantly having to re-learn passages. This bit of advice is found in the wonderful treatise by C.P.E. Bach, “The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments,” and it’s saved me countless hours. Another intriguing suggestion from C.P.E. is to play memorized pieces in the dark in order to become better at sight-reading. Seems backwards! But what he’s trying to accomplish is breaking the habit of always looking at the keyboard, which is what we tend to do when playing by memory. For a harpsichordist who spends most of her time playing continuo, often from full scores, my eyes never have a chance to look down. Thank you, C.P.E.!

2) The closer you get to a concert of difficult music, the less time you should spend practising at the keyboard. Drill all the tricky passages early in the learning process, methodically and thoroughly, and then place your trust in your brain and fingers. The days just before a big recital, exercise the fingers with routine things, but little more. Spend time with the scores, going over the music in your mind and hearing it as you want it to sound. Then at the recital let your fingers produce the sounds and shapes you imagined.

3) Wash dishes! When I was a child and whined about having to practise after dinner, my mother would give me the option of practising or washing the dishes. I always chose practising. Then as an adult, avoiding the dishes wasn’t an option, nor was avoiding practising – but I figured out that they’re perfect partners. After immersing my hands in warm dishwater for 10-15 minutes, my fingers are nimble and relaxed, my brain has cooled down, and practising is so much easier! I’ve never owned a dishwasher – if you have one, ignore it! Now if only there were dishes to wash backstage at the concert hall …

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Gryphon Trio pianist (and brother) Jamie Parker is active on Facebook who regularly posts humorous videos such as “Professor Parker’s Practise Tips” (where you learn now to not look bored during the cellist’s solo and other helpful tips). He also films under his alter-ego, “Jim Parker of PNN News”. Unlike Janina, he prefers to practise very late at night. His answers also brought back a teenaged memory for me – I heard him practise Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata at an absolutely insane, breakneck speed and I ran downstairs to ask what the hell he was doing, and why were the lights out?? (Guess he’s not the only one who practises in the dark.) He explains in his tips below.

Practice Tip #1:
Turn out the lights!
I spent a lot of time in my undergrad practicing in the dark. You start to hear so much better without the distractions of sight. You hear bad sounds and want to stop making those. You want to hear more beautiful sounds, more clarity in your textures, a better voiced melody – so you start working towards that. I even decked out my practice room at UBC with all sorts of glow-in-the-dark stars so I had a little galaxy above me while I practiced.

Practice Tip #2:
The need for speed!
We all do slow practice. (Right?!) It’s great. But sometimes you need to kick it into another gear and do fast practice. Like, crazy-insane-way-too-fast-I-hope-nobody’s-listening-to-me-right-now-it’s-that-fast. You need to get things faster than you’re going to perform them. This will partly make up for the fact that typically, going from practice room to stage, things like heart rate, respiration, perspiration, blood pressure, stress hormones – all of these will increase, so practicing fast gets you out of your comfort zone and forces you into a higher speed of being. Do it! There will be wrong notes. After a couple of fast runs of pieces or movements, then go back and do perfect slow practice.

Practice Tip #3:
Adapt and challenge yourself!
I always make practice harder for myself. If I have a difficult two-octave jump, I practice a three or four octave jump instead. Any unison passage I practice hands-crossed. Even non-unison passages. It’s great for Bach. If I have a small repeated note section in one hand, I’ll practice repeated notes in both hands for a few minutes. If there’s a couple of beats of three triplets against four 16th notes, I’ll practice 3×4 scales. Find new ways to practice the challenges you come across in your pieces. Make it harder so that the actual passage doesn’t seem so bad anymore. If I were a hockey coach I’d have a rink slanted at a very small angle and get my skaters to practice skating uphill. After training that way, they’d fly on flat ice.

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Walking, doing the dishes, and hockey – who knew? Thanks to all the keyboard virtuosi for offering these tips!

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