I love to scan the Boards at Piano World, UK Forums, Piano Street, Piano Addict, and other stop-off points such as My Music Life Blogspot and Color in my Piano to get a feel for the concerns of piano students at all levels of study. This form of feedback that flows in and out of cyberspace is invaluable given a growing population of individuals who are immersed in their piano practicing in solitary confinement. Many don’t have teachers and depend on the Boards for guidance as well as kinship.
Blogging about hot topics
On the day I had dismissed the metronome as a viable practicing tool, I received a well articulated opposing opinion from the lively hostess of My Music Life Blogspot. A cellist, she posted about her piano studies with refreshing candor.
From her Cybersphere to mine, came the following:
“I have to confess, I love practicing with the metronome — but not using it as a whip to get faster. I like to set it at very slow tempos so that I really understand and feel the beat physically — main pulse, subdivisions, and so on. And of course, within that try to play musically and with expression. Without doing at least some of this, it is so easy to deceive yourself that you are maintaining the tempo you want. The other benefit of using it is that you don’t have to even think about where the beat is and can concentrate on other things.
“Amateur musicians I know seem to hate it, though. It’s sad, because it’s really one of the best tools for self-teaching. That, and a good digital recorder.”
My Music Life Blogspot’s last few words jumped out at me.
I could endorse her use of the digital recorder in the piano learning environment, with a specific recommendation to aim the camcorder at the hands, with an intent to capture raw, uncensored musical footage.
The process amounted to mirroring back what transpired in auditory space, not necessarily matching up with what the player thought he had he heard while playing. The revelation, to be helpful, might require a bit of self-protective depersonalization.
Self-analysis would spring from this face-to-face confrontation with musical reality. It would require the piano student to step back, listen, evaluate, and notice what needed improvement.
Perhaps a series of conspicuously accented notes might have disturbed the flow of legato phrases meant to be played smooth and connected. Or a poky, percussive sound might have registered loud and clear on a videotaped replay. These alerts reminded a player to re-do, refine, and revisit a passage or two before the next take.
Action, Roll it!!
I admit that last night, I sat in the eye of my Sony Camcorder for hours, trying to successfully up the tempo of my current obsession, Chopin’s Black Key Etude.
While letting the tape roll for its 60 minute run, I played through the lightning fast composition time and again, only to tumble like Jill, down a hill of careening octaves at the end. Did I really want to re-live my own personal calamity on re-play? Well, I capitulated, because out of 25 attempts, two squeaked through as possibly satisfying playings. If I had to grit my teeth through the other mishaps, I would still learn from them.
Self-analysis turns out to be the best friend of the piano student between lesson times. And for those of us engaged in an addictive learning process fed by our love for the piano above all other instruments, we can spoon feed ourselves some words of wisdom with the help of digital technology:
1) Notice what jumps out at you as not pleasing to your ears. What doesn’t sit well as an auditory experience, will usually spill into the visual realm. You will inevitably SEE something about your playing that affected the sound.
Log your observations on paper or store in your memory bank.
Experiment with a set of adjustments that might yield a better playing outcome. Explore what works, and what doesn’t.
2) If a passage was tangled or disabled, decide if it was a fingering issue. If so, revisit and revise.
3) Cue into any tension in your arms, wrists, or fingers that might have glitched a bunch of notes. With a reminder to step back as an audience member would, be sure not to vilify yourself. Negative reinforcement has no place on the learning stage.
If excess tension locked a passage, go back and try to enlist an image to relax yourself. Let go of your arms and wrists, feeling like a marionette dangling from puppet strings.
Sing through passages and shape with your arms.
The vocal model, even embraced by a student with an imperfect voice, can help contour a line, in the company of relaxed, deep breathing.
Go back to the camcorder with a raised consciousness and re-record, re-evaluate, and re-integrate.
4) Check the tempo of your video sample. Was the playing too fast? Did it “choke” passages you could more easily navigate with a slower approach? Was the pace erratic, not consistent throughout the piece? Such rhythmic related irregularities will come into sharp focus as the camcorder rolls through replay. Taking the information offered and processing it in baby steps is part of the analytical process.
5) What about dynamics? Did you get a digital composite of flat liners, or was your range of louds (fortes) and softs (pianos) fleshed out? Follow through on what needs amending, and make those revisions. Record again with an awakened consciousness, and re-assess.
Finally, as living proof of an eternal student (me) who relies on my digital recorder to flesh out what needs improvement, I’m coming out of the closet with my latest reading of Chopin’s Black Key Etude, Op. 10, No. 5.
In the aftermath of God knows how many crash and burns captured in living color, I decided that this piece had reached a technical and musical plateau but would grow incrementally in the future. (It’s about 20 seconds behind tempo)
If I could toss my Ego aside, I would share out-takes that would be amusing and ring chords of recognition among piano players. But for the moment, I’ll reserve those for another time.
In the last analysis, I allowed myself more than a birds-eye view of what was going on through each playing, assimilating what I saw and heard as my reference for improvement. It amounted to having a spying, in-house teacher, 24/7
If you’re a piano student taking instruction, or one who doesn’t receive weekly lessons, the time you spend alone in your individual practice environment is probably best utilized in a mirrored process of self-evaluation. So grab the video camera and keep it as your steady musical companion.