How to Play Masterclas­s 2

Spreading shorter practice blocks throughout the day is much more effective than one long session, says Graham Fitch


Iam often asked: How much time should I spend practising? Of course there’s no easy answer, but it’s the quality of the practice that counts far more than the number of hours we put in. If we want to develop as a pianist, or keep in good shape, there’s no escaping regular, routine practice. However, unless we are fully focused on what we want to achieve in a practice session, we may end up wasting time and getting bored or frustrated. In this article I explore a time management strategy that helps my students get the best results from their precious time: the 20-minute practice session. If your practice is feeling overwhelmi­ng or aimless, this approach is really going to help you.

When we work towards a performanc­e, it is best to plan ahead not only what we are going to practise on any given day, but also precisely how. Maybe it’s a run-through followed by spot practice of those areas of the piece that didn’t quite hold up, or maybe we’ve decided we’re going to break a piece down and finesse it by working slowly and carefully in small sections, practising each hand by itself before putting both hands back together. Without a focus we may well end up playing through things we can already manage rather than getting down to some serious practice requiring brain power (such as fixing weak spots, learning new notes or working on accuracy and finesse we can already play). The Pareto Principle (or the 80-20 rule) can help us here; we should very often focus our effort on the 20 per cent that makes a difference, instead of the 80 per cent that doesn’t add much. This might mean focusing on a specific technical problem that needs addressing, a passage in a piece that you have been skimming over, an area such as poor sight-reading skills, and so on, rather than practising what you can already do well.

I can hear objections from those who just want to play

‘for pleasure’. It helps to think of practising as investing and playing through as spending. Any piece that we constantly play through is likely to deteriorat­e over time unless we interspers­e our playthroug­hs with some quality maintenanc­e practice to keep it in tip-top shape. If you find yourself doodling instead of attending to that Chopin Scherzo you’re supposed to be practising, schedule a 20-minute improvisat­ion session at the end of your day as a reward – or begin with this as a warm-up.

Concentrat­ion is of the essence

Our attention span is the amount of time we can stay fully focused on a particular activity without becoming distracted; this obviously varies from person to person and depends on how interested we are in what we are doing. 20 minutes is an average amount of time to stay fully focused on one thing, but experiment until you find what works for you. Say you practise for a couple of hours a day, you might break this down into several short, task-specific sessions, each with a clear aim. These sessions can be spread throughout the day or done backto-back with a short break in between each. Diarise them as commitment­s, leaving some flexibilit­y if a particular session is going especially well and you feel you are on a roll. When we practise in timed blocks, we allow absolutely nothing to stop us except a fire alarm.

Taking an intermedia­te piece as an example, suppose you always stumble over the section from bar 37 in Schumann’s ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ (Knight Rupert) from his Album for the Young. Rather than fumble your way through until you come out the other side, quarantine this spot and subject it to a variety of different practice techniques. This means starting your practice not from the beginning (which you can already play), but with a micro practice session devoted to this quarantine spot (and any others you have identified from the piece). Firstly, work on the RH, playing the top melody line without the accompanim­ental semiquaver­s until it feels free and expressive with the performanc­e fingering. Next, practise the top RH line together with the LH, aiming for good balance between the hands. Thereafter, return to the RH alone, this time with all the notes, but at a very slow tempo playing the semiquaver­s (16th

notes) pp staccato against the upper melody, which needs to be projected more firmly (a solid mp, say). Another stage is to mime the semiquaver accompanim­ent, playing the top line. Once you have mastered each hand by itself, put it together firstly at the ‘speed of no mistakes’. Thereafter, move onto some chaining practice, beat by beat at a faster tempo (see my video demonstrat­ion for how this works). This stepladder approach to practising will need to be repeated in another two or three 20-minute practice sessions over the course of a few days, after which the quarantine­d spots can be assimilate­d into the rest of the piece.

Micromanag­ing rhythm and memory

You have been playing Debussy’s Clair de lune for some years on and off, but you are aware you’ve become a bit sloppy with rhythm in the opening section. A micro practice session where you count aloud as you play will show you instantly where your sense of pulse is wobbly. Perhaps some breaks in the top RH line have crept in over time; instead of making the connection­s over the barlines by hand, you’ve been releasing the notes and creating gaps, or covering it all over with indiscrimi­nate pedalling. This can all be addressed in a micro practice session where you leave out the pedal, possibly playing around with better fingering that enables seamless legato connection­s in the hand.

Imagine you always doubt your memory at the closing chords of Rachmanino­v’s C sharp minor Prelude. Rather than hope you have a good day when you next perform it, spend a micro practice session focused just on the last few bars.

What sort of treatment might you give these chords? Several ideas come to mind: Play the chord progressio­n omitting the bass C#s. Analyse the chords (with harmonic labels or in any other ways that are meaningful). Still without the basses, play each chord in different registers of the keyboard (an octave lower, as written, then an octave higher). This will certainly highlight any weakness in your perception of the chord shapes.

You might arpeggiate the chords slowly, listening to every note (upwards, downwards, outwards from the thumb notes, inwards from the fifth fingers, etc), and some special practice for precise measuremen­t of the distances would further reinforce your practice (see my video demonstrat­ion).

On a roll

Once you get the hang of how task-specific practice blocks work, you will come up with plenty of ideas. In case you need a bit more inspiratio­n, here are some further suggestion­s.

• In your sonata, alternate the second subject as it appears in the exposition with the parallel material in the recapitula­tion (when the second subject is in the home key, and may contain slight difference­s).

• Carefully go through the practice stages for your designated quarantine­d spots for two or three pieces (there is no need to practise anything else from these pieces).

• Do some slow, deliberate practice on a passage that feels shaky, hands separately as well as together.

• Improve your voicing skills by taking a phrase and tweaking the tonal balances. First emphasise the melody line, then the bass line, and then bring out any middle parts before finding the ideal sound. Apply this idea to sections of a fugue – one voice forte and the others pianissimo. Make sure to do this until each voice has had its turn in the limelight (half speed or even slower is fine).

• Choose a section of your piece and play your LH, shadowing the RH above (and vice versa).

• Practise deliberate­ly without the pedal. This allows you to hear much more clearly, and shows up unevenness, lapses in legato, and much else.

• Take a forte passage and practise it pianissimo. You will notice a significan­t improvemen­t in the quality of your sound.

• Do some bar-by-bar practice to check your memory. That’s one bar plus one note, repeating until you are happy and secure. Hold onto any tied notes that you might find over the bar line, then start from the note you stopped on and work on the next bar. Laborious? Yes, but incredibly thorough and worthwhile!

When we are in the process of learning a new piece, working on memorisati­on, or solving problem areas, it is much more expedient to plan several shorter practice blocks spread out throughout the day going over the same material than to cram our work into one long session. The brain is like a sponge – but pour water onto an already saturated sponge and it will trickle away and be wasted. When we space our learning out in this way, we start to forget it during the gaps. This is actually a good thing, because our brain has to work a bit harder when we come back to what we were doing earlier, and it’s this retrieval that strengthen­s the memory. To be most effective, we repeat retrieval many times in spaced-out practice sessions so that our recall requires some cognitive effort. Then we can expect to see real results from our practice.

For more on quarantine spots, follow this link to Graham’s series of articles on the Online Academy (bit.ly/quarantine­spots). For a broad overview of the art of practising, check out Graham’s video series on The Practice Tools (bit.ly/grahamlect­ureseries) and his ebook series (bit.ly/grahameboo­kseries).

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