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Piano Instruction: Out of a Rut with Spot Practicing

I’ve discovered a way to advance a piece that’s found itself in the doldrums –held back by the same snags that most students dread and want to avoid. The remedy boils down to spot practicing with a generous serving of patience.

We all remember our teacher’s mantra to separate the hands and play very slowly as the best route to making pianistic progress. For some reason we thought the approach was too pedantic and bogged us down from learning quickly and moving on to the next flavor of the week piece. If our teacher indulged our quick gratification interests, we probably suffered in the long term, not advancing through our assigned selections. They reached a complacent plateau and we moved on.

Many plateau-plagued students return to the piano years later, feeling that something was missing all along. And like a bolt out of the blue, it hits home that they might be ready for a pianistic renaissance that includes slowing down the cosmos, and getting more deeply involved with each composition studied.

One of my adult students who’d taken piano as a child, returned to lessons with a determination to stay with a piece as long as it took to feel like he’d mastered it to his full potential. And if the realization of this goal involved staying with the same selection for months at a time, he was game for it. In fact, he’s been working on the last (Presto) movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for over six months now, picking out the most challenging sections that get him into knots, and patiently unraveling them. He’s making progress. (Later today, I’ll post a video, highlighting phrases we’ve worked on together, and how particular strategies of separating the hands, blocking out chords and using rhythms have helped these along)

I apply this same attitude and approach to my own practicing as I keep revisiting pieces with particular technical challenges. I spot practice where needed and make sure I stay upbeat and positive in these efforts. It’s easy to get discouraged when an isolated phrase or a few measures don’t reach a particular goal on a set deadline, but a “deadline” should be completely banned from the whole undertaking. It’s not a companion to the learning process and will more often than not, stifle it. As the great Artur Rubinstein said to a student in one of his masterclasses, “every piece ripens in its own time.”

(I’ll return with excerpts from the Beethoven Sonata in C# minor, last PRESTO movement with its interminable challenges) In the coming weeks, I’ll also pick pieces at Beginner and Intermediate Levels that have areas of difficulty requiring isolated practice.

For the moment, here are my spot practicing suggestions for pieces needing resuscitation:

1) Isolate the most difficult measures before playing through the whole work. (postpone gratification)

2) Take some long deep breaths and slow yourself down. (Turn off the cell phone and metronome)

3) Practice your selected measures in back tempo with separate hands at an “MF” (medium loud dynamic-getting connected into the keys) I usually recommend starting with the Left Hand since it’s the most under-practiced hand known to mankind. Think of the bass line as equally important as the treble. Flesh it out, and sing it back as if you were in a choir in the bass section. Shape your phrase or phrases with an awareness of the harmonic underpinnings. These will suggest notes that are leaned on and then “resolved.”

4) If you’ve tabbed a section filled with rapid 16th or 32 notes in the treble, play them in the slowest tempo you can imagine, making sure to use a practical fingering. Shape your phrase(s) and play expressively. Think of a thread of melody permeating the many notes played. If there are continuous snags, apply rhythms to your practicing such as the dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure: long-short, long-short, long, etc. My teacher often had me reverse the rhythm as an alternate routine.

5) The last stage of spot practicing is playing hands together VERY SLOWLY, again resisting the temptation to go back to the beginning, playing the entire piece in a haphazard tempo without a second thought.

As for observing dynamics, I consider this part of the refinement process. If you choose to play your difficult passages “pianissimo,” you’re likely to be on the periphery, not being fully connected as you would otherwise be in the remediation process. This is not to say that a student who plays very soft cannot be connected. The best silky soft playing is indeed a connection from the heart and requires a physical depth in the keys that should be explored.

Above all, savor your practice time and make the journey meaningful and personally rewarding.

Before long, you will have integrated the formerly difficult passages into the whole, taking your piece to a new level of enjoyment.


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