The following are excerpts from the video Piano Practice That Pays Off – Part One. You can watch the video on YouTube.
Here’s a common situation. You have a piano piece that you’ve been working on. You’re playing it pretty well — except there are a few rough spots that you just can’t polish.
It’s pretty frustrating, isn’t it? My students and I have the same problem. It’s just part of being a pianist, or any musician, really. But in this article, I’m going to show you how to polish those rough spots — once and for all.
When a rough spot just won’t polish up for me or my students — even after lots of practice — then I know it’s time to take a good look at how it’s being practiced. If the practice routine doesn’t include lots of perfect repetitions, then the practice routine needs an update. And, that update needs to include enough perfect repetitions in order to establish dependable muscle memory.
You may not be familiar with the term, but we use muscle memory all the time. We use it when we drive a car, work in the kitchen, or find a light switch in our home. The motor skills we use to perform these tasks were practiced — until they became automatic. And, that’s the same thing we need to do in order to polish rough spots on the piano. We need to practice effectively in order to establish dependable muscle memory.
Pull Out the Rough Passage
The first step toward developing good muscle memory is to pull out the rough passage to isolate it and to concentrate our practice energy on the areas that need the most attention. . We have to break apart the rough spots into pieces and then put them back together again. Isolating the rough passage will allow you to focus your attention and your energy on the passages that need the most work. Once those have been worked out and passage, you can insert them back into the piece, where other sections may not be a troublesome for you.
After isolating the rough passage, one of the techniques to make your piano practice more effective is to look for patterns in the notes. I do this every time I isolate a rough passage because patterns in the music can often be seen again and again in the piece. So, if you can work out the pattern, you are on your way to fixing any rough passage that has the same or similar pattern.
Use Intense Repetition
After isolating the practice spot, the first thing I am going to do is work on the notes through a process of repetition — intense repetition. Practice the rough spot over and over starts the process of developing muscle memory. We call this form of practicing repetitively “jackhammering.”
I’ll repeat the passage twice, then three times, then four times, then back to three, two, and one. I find that this kind of repetition slows down my hands so I can think before I play. Then, I’m able to set the pattern in my eyes, my memory, and my muscles.
Close coordination between the eyes, hands, and the brain will work to ensure that the passage won’t be a surprise for very long. And the next time it’s played, assuming that you have baked-in enough repetition, the passage will seem more familiar and less difficult. If you do this process of intense repetition, rough spots will soon be polished spots.
Perfect Three Times
One final practice technique is really just a test to make sure there has been improvement in the way I play a practice passage.
When I am working on a section that needs polish, I will repeat the passage until I can play it perfectly — three times — in a row. If I make a mistake, I’ll start over. And, if I keep making mistakes, I have to change something — if I expect a different result. I start with slowing down.
Why three times? Well, because in over forty years of teaching piano students, I’ve found that three is the magic number. If you can play something — three times in row — perfectly, then you’ve probably got it and can go on to practicing your next rough spot.
Putting Hands Together
The final step is to test the newly-perfected passage by playing it with my hands together. Getting your hands to work as a team is foundation to the piano and it may take you a bit to get the passage to work perfectly. If you need to, slow down the passage with hands together and even divide the passage into smaller portions. Then, you can test by increasing your practice tempo. When it is perfect in both hands, you can put the practice section back into context and test it again.
Let’s go over what we’ve learned.
- Practicing is made up of perfect repetitions of rough spots.
- It’s important to pull rough spots out of context to work on them.
- The rough spots need to be in digestible portions.
- Find patterns, if possible.
- Jackhammer the rough spot into muscle memory.
- Use long and short rhythms to smooth out the passage.
- Test for perfection by playing perfectly; three times in-a-row.
- Insert the practice section back into context and test again.
- Review for the next few days.
I hope this article will help you smooth out your rough spots. We talked about several different techniques like finding patterns, blocking, jackhammering, using long and short rhythms, and testing for perfection. You can also review my YouTube video on this topic by clicking here.
If you find you need additional techniques to smooth out a rough spot, you can also try applying different articulations, like staccatos, and two-note slurs, and accents. These practice techniques and others are covered in this video on YouTube.
Just remember, only perfect practice makes perfect performing.