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Practice Tips

Posted By: Amy

Practice Tips - 08/19/01 03:11 AM

I want to make a list of all the effective things to do to practice. Here is my list...
To get things "up to tempo" I go up click by click on a metronome. I use different rhythms to make it harder so that when I try to play it correct, it will be easier. I do the "pencil game". Its kinda long to explain so if you really want to know about that i'll tell you later. I isolate sections of pieces until they are perfect and then put it all together. Those are pretty much all the things that I use often.
Does any have anything else to add?
Posted By: Jemima

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 04:36 AM


please, do explain the "pencil game"...
i have not heard of this before!?

Its funny you know, because i use both the metronome and rhythm methods to help improve difficult phrases of a piece...

Soon hope to hear from you!
take care,
Posted By: Amy

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 01:58 PM

Ok, the "pencil game"
This is used to learning difficult passages. Put 5 pencils (I use candy) and put them all on one side of the piano. Play through the passage and every time you get it right you move one of the pencils (or candy) to the other side. If you mess up the passage, you must put ALL pencils (or candy) back on the side they started.
Posted By: magnezium

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 02:50 PM

that sounds like a never-ending game to me...=]
Posted By: Rachelle

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 03:00 PM

Hi, using metronome is something I dislike, and I sometimes asked if there is any other way to master the piece without using it. I normally start playing slowly and naturally increase the speed but I know it can be out of timing somtimes.

[ August 19, 2001: Message edited by: Rachelle ]
Posted By: BruceD

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 04:15 PM

Amy: re pencil game:

I do the same things with pennies, but only because I have trouble counting up to ten. After the 5th or 6th repetition, I can't remember whether I've done it 9 or 10 times, and the pennies confirm I still have a way to go!

But once - don't tell him - I did this on a friends 7' Mason & Hamlin and a penny fell off the music stand and into the action!


Using a metronome may not be a fun way of going about learning a passage, but it does help me keep everything at relative speed. Otherwise, in spite of my attempts, I find I speed up the easier passages and slow down on the harder ones.

Posted By: PianoMuse

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 05:44 PM

Ohh, the metrenome may not be any fun, but i think that it is soooo essential to any pianist. it was said that the metrenome never left Chopin's piano.

As for another idea: i play a passage as many ways as possible to get it into my fingers. I will play it legato, then staccato, Forte, then piano, slow, fast, etc... let me tell you, this method has really really worked for me, especially in memorizing or working on a tricky rythmic passage.
Posted By: ChemicalGrl

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 06:32 PM

I find the metronome to be an essential part of my practice regimen, especially when I'm learning something new. Helps keep me in rhythm, and then once I'm able to play a piece (or a portion of a piece) up to tempo, then I wean myself off the metronome. Sometimes if I find a piece to be very challenging, then I'll tackle it a couple of measures at a time. But I like to divide a piece into sections, learn those sections very well, then put it all together at the end.

As far as the pencil thing is concerned: a variation I've used is push-pins on a bulletin board. I have 5 push-pins at 3 levels on the board. They're all at the bottom level when I start. As I'm working on a piece, the push-pins get moved up to level 2 and then up to level 3, and I work toward getting all my push-pins up to level 3. Of course, if I make a mistake, then the push-pin gets put down a level. I can never get my pencils to stay still, and sometimes I might end up picking it up to write on the music, then I'll forget where it was.

Enough of my blathering; I hope this helps!
Posted By: ZeldaHanson

Re: Practice Tips - 08/19/01 07:34 PM

For practicing, I spend a certain portion of my time studying techincal stuff, then another portion practicing difficult passages of pieces in my repetoire until I'm sure I won't forget them or lose my touch for them, another portion spent on the new piece that I am learning, and then I spend the rest of time playing pieces straight through to just enjoy my playing and relax.

Posted By: Samejame

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 10:12 AM


If I were practicing on a 7' M & H, I'd forget the pennies, deliberately lose count, just so that I could keep playing on such a nice piano. laugh

Posted By: Mike Pappadakis

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 12:16 PM

For excellent practice tips, try this site: http://griffon.mwsc.edu/~bhugh/


[ August 20, 2001: Message edited by: Mike Pappadakis ]
Posted By: ryan

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 03:33 PM

I do not play along with a metronome - it constricts the freedom in my playing. I imagine the metronome is like wearing a corset (I have not experience here :)), it does not allow me enough space to breathe with the phrase. You can't even use subtle pushes and pulls through a phrase or section with the metronome keeping a constant tick. Also, I find that playing the with metronome stifles spontenaity and takes away the fun in playing. Trying to stay with a metronome increases tension, because it does not allow the music to feel natural. Rather, it tends to make music sound forced, pinched, dry, and dull.

I have known people who used the metronome technique to increase speed while keeping the music note-perfect. Their recitals were indeed note perfect, but their wasn't much life in their playing. The thing is, if you practice a section 10 times, it will get faster and better, whether or not a metronome is used.

Don't get me wrong, the metronome is a valuable tool. I use it to spot check my tempi, to make sure I start and end sections at the expected tempo, etc. Also, for beginners I think that playing along with a metronome can be useful for developing an internal clock. But as that internal clock begins to developing, continuing to play along with the metronome can easily become a crutch.

I also do not try to set goals of playing a section perfectly 10 times in a row. When I do this I find myself focusing too much on the end result and I don't enjoy playing the piece very much while I am still learning it. The result is that the piece doesn't sound very musical, even after I have it finished. I try to play pieces as musically as possible, even when I have to take them at a slower tempo. This way I enjoy playing the piece throughout the process, and by the time I am finished I have a much more mature view of the piece from an interpretational standpoint. If there are trouble spots, I take the time to break them out and learn them seperately. Above all, I just try to enjoy playing the piece.

Being so totally focused on the end result knocked me out of music school. I could not live with failures and mistakes, and the pressure and tension became too much. Fortunately I avoided injury, but it was close. I would sometimes end marathon practice sessions with wrists that were so sore I could barely turn the door knob to leave the practice room.

The fact is that mistakes are inevitable. Note perfect performances are also often boring. I now focus less on being perfect and spend more time enjoying the moment.

Another thing I avoid is exercises. The problem with exercises is that too often the brain disengages and the fingers go on auto pilot. Exercises are useful, but only if your full concentration is on the exercise. Once your mind starts to wander, exercises lose all of their usefulness. What works better for me is to play etudes and make exercises out of difficult passages in pieces I am working on. I will add, though, that I believe scales are very important. I don't think any of us know are scales so well that we can play through the entire set, in octaves, thirds, and sixths, for four octaves, in parallel and contrary motion without thinking about it smile

Posted By: ZeldaHanson

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 04:02 PM

Ryan, everything you said is completely true. =0) Way to go.

I think "note perfect" performances are also extremely boring. I LOVE when a performer improvises, changes the song to suit his needs, or isn't afraid to make a small slip while just continuing on.

I don't use a mentronome at all and never have. I have never seen use for it. Maybe I will try one some day, but as of now, I see no use for it.

You're also extremely right about perfecting sections. In concentrating too much on perfection, one loses their sense of artistry, they try to be mechanical instead. Pianists are not machines and never have been. If everyone enjoyed absolute perfection and a piece that was absolutely correct in every techincal possible way, robots would've taken over performers long ago. (this is one the reasons I can't stand player pianos)

Posted By: Amy

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 04:21 PM

I like what you said about the note-perfect performances vs. the musical performances. I always try to play as musical as possible but, I also believe in note perfection. I use a metronome when I am first learning a piece to make sure that everything is exactly right. Then, I make the piece more musical once I have gotten the notes and rhythms perfect. I think that in the long run, pieces are played more accurately and equally musical if a metronome is used in the beginning. I'm not saying that it should be used for long. Maybe 3 times through the piece.
I think that it is necesary to use a metronome when playing Mozart. His music needs to be more exact than musical. Don't get me wrong, it still has to be musical but not to the extent of lets say Lizst.
Posted By: BruceD

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 04:22 PM


In principle, I agree very heartily with everything you have said in your interesting post, although I don't agree, entirely, on some of the details. Or perhaps I see the details differently. It amounts to, perhaps, that what works for one person doesn't necessarily always work for another, or not to the same degree.

You say that you never play along with a metronome. Neither do I, ever, but I fairly regularly practice with a metronome. There is a difference.

For me, slow practice - at every stage of learning a piece, even after I've learned it well - is important. What I often find, and this is where the metronome helps me, is that I don't always have the discipline to play as slowly as I know I need to, in order to place each note, to weight it and to voice it properly. The metronome will keep me reined in and will actually help me to focus on evenness of execution, particularly in passage work. And sometimes, in spite of the admitted tension that its constant (annoying!) ticking creates, I use it to try to push me just a shade beyond what I feel is a comfortable tempo for a given passage, but again, only for practice, and only occasionally. One of my teachers who, in my memory was indifferent as far as the regular use of the metronome was concerned felt that it was occasionally good to practice under slight tension. If you can successfully get through the passage (piece, whatever) under controlled situations where tension is intentionally created, then, was her thinking, you'll better be able to get through performance situations where tension regrettably comes with the territory.

There are practice times when I am concentrating on just getting all the notes right and when, as a consequence, interpretation does take a back seat. And while I agree that note-perfect performances are boring and fairly worthless if the interpretation is dull, I'm not talking, at this stage of the process, about performance. Wouldn't we both agree that practicing and striving to get all the notes right - in other words, as perfect as we can within limits - is not a senseless goal, maybe even an admirable one?

I would agree with you that setting goals of playing a passage perfectly ten times in a row is a purely futile one, at least for me, since I can rarely play a passage (if it's a difficult one) perfectly four or five times in a row. But, just as I am told that the ten reps of an exercise that I do in the gym during my exercise program helps develop muscular strength, so I believe that repeating a passage several times - even if I end up putting a number on it - helps strengthen the fingers and helps develop what some people call the "finger memory."

Since the Winkel/Maelzel invention was what seems to be driving much of this thread, let me add that there are weeks on end in my house when its absolute silence is the order of the day. The piano, the music and I do get along without it quite nicely, thank you.

And to conclude, to show that we do agree at least in the ultimate result: if I ever feel - or worse, am told - that my playing is not musical (don't get me wrong, most of my "practice" time is "playing" time wherein I concentrate on being as musical as I can be) then I think I should give up playing the piano. I'm not prepared to do that, yet!

Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas.

Posted By: ChemicalGrl

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 05:56 PM

I guess what got me off playing the piano for many years was that my playing had sounded too mechanical to me whenever I tried to play it after a long lay-off. Of late, I am striving to sound more musical and less mechanical. Ryan, I do like the points you've made, and yes, I admit to using the metronome when I'm practicing a piece, but once I feel I know the piece then the metronome gets shelved and I try other techniques to make the piece sound more musical. Admittedly, I've had Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine in the brain for the past few weeks; liked it so much I decided to learn the accompaniment part to it, and I find that once I learned the piece, it started to sound far more musical once I dumped the metronome and started singing along to it. I've tried that with other pieces I've learned or are learning now, and find that to be very helpful as well (singing them, that is).
Posted By: ryan

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 06:09 PM

Bruce and everybody,

Thanks for the feedback and comments. I hope my first post wasn't too convoluted - I wrote it in a hurry. I agree that different things work for different people, and I tried convey in a manner that showed that these were things that work for me. As such, they are subject to change as I learn more smile

I think the key points are: relaxation and concentration. In the gym, my trainer tells me that if my mind is not engaged in what I am doing, I will not get the full benefit of my workout. He also tells me that if certain muscles aren't relaxed while certain other muscles contracted, then I will also not get the full benefit of the workout. I believe this is true of playing the piano or any other instrument. If I play a passage ten times while my mind is off racing cars or skiing, then those ten repetitions were not of much benefit to me. I know this is true because I have experienced it first hand. Playing with expression/interpretation and without metronome help me keep my mind engaged.

I have to concentrate a lot more on what I am doing when the metronome isn't keeping time. This is especially true during slow practice. I have to really concentrate to hold the slower tempo all the way through. I believe that this concentration helps me learn the right notes, not the presence of the metronome or even the number of repetitions. What I do is check the tempo at the start and end of the passage in question, and if I sped up, I try again. When I speed up, it is always because my mind wandered.

Focusing on expressive elements and interpretation also helps keep my mind engaged. Again, I believe that the extra concentration this requires helps me learn music faster. Another facet of this is that my hand motions change depending on the expression I am trying to achieve. How I play the note is as important as which note to play, and learning both early on help me learn to play the piece in a shorter amount of time.

Of course it is impossible to have the full range of expression and interpretation down at the very first - it is always a work in progress. But you have to start sometime, and I like to start from the beginning smile Plus, I enjoy listening to what I am playing a lot more when I play it expressively.

Bruce, I think your teacher had a good point about playing a piece through from start to finish with the metronome once in a while. It can be pretty revealing as to what is going on in between. But I use this more as a check than a constant method of practice. And it doesn't work very well if there are tempo changes - I have to keep stopping to reset the metronome.

Anyway, interesting discussion

Posted By: BruceD

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 06:32 PM


Please quote where I said that my teacher thought it was a good idea to play a piece through "from start to finish with the metronome."

Is there a gremlin in here who is actually changing my text after I submit it?

What I wrote was : "One of my teachers who, in my memory was indifferent as far as the regular use of the metronome was concerned felt that it was occasionally good to practice under slight tension. If you can successfully get through the passage (piece, whatever) under controlled situations where tension is intentionally created, then, was her thinking, you'll better be able to get through performance situations where tension regrettably comes with the territory." She was somewhat indifferent to the use of the metronome, I repeat, but she thought it a good idea to have to play under controlled tension situations, i.e., before other students and friends, to help prepare for recital situations.

Also, I thought I kept referring to "passages" which, in my vocabulary usually means small (and sometimes more difficult) sections of pieces. I, too, would see little virtue in playing whole pieces accompanied by the metronome, even while practicing.

I apologize if my writing was so unclear that it led you to misread or to misinterpret what I thought I had said.

Posted By: ryan

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 06:35 PM

I just wanted to add that I my practice methods used to be learn the notes first and then focus on expression and interpretation. My college instructor worked hard to break me of this, and eventually succeeded. I find that it works so much better to work on the entire piece as a whole from the beginning, rather than just focusing on the notes at first. I think part of what drove me to want to learn the notes first was fear. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to play the notes, so I wanted to conquer that aspect first. The ironic thing is that I learn the notes faster when I work on expression and interpretation from the start.

Posted By: ZeldaHanson

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 06:50 PM

How do you start out learning the piece expressively? I mean, what are your methods?
Posted By: ryan

Re: Practice Tips - 08/20/01 07:03 PM

I start with the obvious, looking at the expression instructions the composer put int he score, things like dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, mood, pedal, etc. I try to discover lines that should be brought out. I do the standard start softer-swell-back off phrasing and experiment to find out what works best. Architecturally I try to understand the structure of the work. I try to discover small musical ideas or themes that build up into larger structures, that are then built up into even larger structures.

Granted, this takes time. It's not like I sit down and see all of it the first time I open the music. But these are what I look for and keep in mind while I am practicing. Some pieces are difficult enough, though, that it takes quite a while to make them sound musical even if I know what I am going to do. And a lot of times it means that I can't play up to tempo, either because I can't fit everything in or I can't see things fast enough. Execution can be another problem. I think it took me a year of working on Chopin's Op. 10 Etudes before they started sounding musical at tempo. I knew what I wanted to do with them, it just took a while before I could execute them up to speed.

Posted By: Beth

Re: Practice Tips - 08/21/01 11:41 AM

As a "used to be lurker" to the forum, I want to add a thought to the lurkers and others about using the metronome. Depending on your skill level and learning style, using a metronome may be of greater or lesser value, and may truly be a timesaver rather than a distraction. Its not easy to play with a metronome if you're not used to it, but don't quit because some of the more accomplished musicians who post here find little or no value in practicing that way. Listen to your teacher's suggestions, and if the issue doesn't come up, then ask.

Posted By: ryan

Re: Practice Tips - 08/21/01 01:10 PM

Ok, the first version of this was pre-coffee smile Let me try again...

Beth, I agree totally with your point students following their teacher's instructions. Teachers use different methods and progress at different paces. However, I don't think this is a matter of "some of the more accomplished musicians who post here find[ing] little or no value in practicing that way". More distinguished pianists and teachers than I have lectured and written on this subject. I can say that I have had great results with my beginners who I do not have play along with a metronome. But I take great care to drill pulse in their lessons until they internalize it.

One last question, after you have developed an internal clock which allows keeps time for you, what possible additional benefit could playing along with a metronome have? I would argue that the internal pulse is more important than a metronome because it allows flexibility to breath with a phrase, to use subtle and not so subtle pushes and pulls of pulse to give the music direction. It's impossible to do this when playing with a metronome. These are things that I start teaching my beginners by the time they hit easy classical music, so they have to have an internal pulse by then. At this point, they need a metronome to give them a starting tempo (they always start fast), to spot check, and as an aid for places where they rush. The metronome a valuable tool, if you use it intelligently and not just blindly.


[ August 21, 2001: Message edited by: ryan ]
Posted By: netizen

Re: Practice Tips - 08/21/01 02:07 PM

I rarely use the metronome and I don't require it of students. But, from time to time, I do use the metronome with the practice of scales --edging the tempo up bit by bit. But that's it.

Something I didn't see mentioned yet, but I find important is taking time to sight-read during practice sessions. This includes not only sight-reading relatively simple works, but also looking ahead to more complex works. Here I take sight-reading to not mean "playing through" something. But really trying to play something as well as possible, keeping focused on the notes, dynamics, and so forth. I also try to spend time each week listening to music while reading along with the score (this includes piano and non-piano works).

[ August 21, 2001: Message edited by: netizen ]
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