It happens regularly to all of us musicians, and as a piano teacher I hear it frequently from my students: ‘this is just TOO HARD’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I get stuck here’, and all variations thereof of this main theme. Whether you’re an advanced student or the parent of a young student who’s past the elementary stage, I will share here some thoughts and strategies on how to best tackle those seemingly insurmountable passages.
This entry is aimed at my older students – grade 5/6 upwards – and also my younger students’ parents.
So you’re just through with your school homework and, between now and dinner time, you worked out you can spare 20 minutes of practice time. GOOD. However there’s this nasty bar with a complex rhythm, strange fingering, angular up-and-down melody, complicated coordination between right and left hand that is just not coming out right, and every time it gets to that you just stumble over and over again. First thing to do is…
… and do something differently!
if you just go over and over the same troublesome spot at the same speed, in the same exact way, stumbling mindlessly, that’s exactly what you are learning: to stumble mindlessly! You cannot expect a different result if you do something in the same way over and over. You cannot hope to bury a problem under a big pile of repetitions in the hope that it’ll go away. The problem will still be there, unsolved, under that big pile of repetitions.
You want to make this passage MANAGEABLE. At the moment, as it stands, it is UNMANAGEABLE.
In order to make it manageable we must do something differently by removing some layers of complexity, in no particular order, but usually the first culprit is too much speed so, please…
2) SLOW DOWN – and enjoy it! Enjoy being slow and musical, enjoy the sound you’re making
… and try again. Still unmanageable? Then it’s still too complex yet, and we must remove another layer of complexity, so now try
3) HANDS SEPARATE
Take away either the left or right hand. This will allow the brain to concentrate on one hand only and usually dramatically improves the situation (and the morale!). At this stage things might start look up and you might want to see if you can add back a layer of complexity – by reintroducing the other hand and/or increasing back the speed a little without losing sound or musicality; however, if the passage still represent a problem it might be time to
4) CHECK YOUR FINGERINGS
This entry might as well been number 1… Using the right fingerings is THAT important! You know the spot where you consistently stumble? Well, check that your fingerings are right from few beats before, right up to that point: your problem might not lie there where you get stuck, but just before. In other words: if you fall down to the ground, do not look where your face hit the pavement, but rather look back where the feet might have caught on some unseen obstacle.
Make sure that you are using either the fingerings indicated in the piece OR the ones that we agreed on during the lesson. I believe working out your own fingerings, trying them, experimenting and questioning them is an essential stage of the endless circle of problem-solving that piano practice is.
Problem-solving, yes, what we are doing here is peeling back all these layers of complexity, one by one, breaking down the problem to its main components and working them all out separately. If you’re still not happy it might be time to
5) REDUCE THE SIZE OF THE PASSAGE
If you are a student of mine you already know that it is beneficial to practice your piece in manageable snippets: sections of few bars each, phrase by phrase, etc. Sometimes we even begin practicing a piece starting from the very last bit! If the passage you’re dealing with is still problematic you might need to split it in two halves or smaller parts and try them separately. If you need to get as small as just two notes/events then do it, and build up from there, glueing the smallest into increasingly bigger snippets as they get more fluent. As you do this, please DO NOT TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE PIANO KEYBOARD: you’re working towards building a continuity of coordination here, and if you take the hands off the piano you interrupt the – extremely slow – flow of movements and events, and thus your thought process stops and must be restarted later. Only take the hands off the piano if you really must annotate a better fingering that you discovered during the process, then test again look at here.
Finally, sometimes it might be time to just
6) TAKE A BREAK
Remember when I talked about a ‘pile of repetitions’ earlier? While it’s somewhat undeniable that practicing an instrument requires a certain deal of repetitions, we must take care not to overdo them. Personally I think 10 GOOD (no mistakes) repetitions of anything in the same guise is enough. There should be NO REPETITIONS at all of anything with mistakes (otherwise you’d be practicing the mistake, not the right stuff!); in other words it shouldn’t take more than two repetitions to decide whether you need to remove a further layer of complexity from the passage you’re practicing. So, if it’s still not right, then take a break, look outside, do something else and take your mind off it for few minutes: sometimes music just needs to settle.
You are now on the way to turn this passage from UNMANAGEABLE into MANAGEABLE: when things start to look better, do not dive back into full overdrive, but rather
7) ADD BACK LAYERS OF COMPLEXITY ONE BY ONE
until you restore the whole passage into a beautiful flowing unity. If you look back at what we’ve done so far, all we did was taking all the components apart, we looked at them, and after we understood how everything works we started putting things back together. Just like you do with toys sometimes, and you want to know what’s inside and how they work.
PARENTS OF YOUNG STUDENTS, please read: if your child is practicing in the next room and you hear him/her struggling, you can take on board any of the points above and, in a slightly less technical language, you might make him/her feel that you’re participating by saying stuff like “TRY A LITTLE SLOWER” or “TRY WITH JUST THE RIGHT/LEFT HAND”, “TRY JUST HALF THE BAR” etc. Please remember that I NEED YOUR HELP. Without your precious help at home during practice time, half of your hard-earned money might as well be going out of the window!
Oh, there is one last thing, but it’s so important that it might as well have been entry number ZERO! Yes, it’s more important than using the right fingerings. Are you ready? If you get stuck…
8) SMILE ?
it works! Getting upset or angry serves no scope whatsoever. It’s damaging to learning and everything and everyone else. Smiling works magic, just trust me on this one.
What do I always say at the end of my videos?