Lesson One for Adults: What NOT to do before beginning piano lessons.
Obviously, this title has quite the negative connotation. Forgive me. But, I think it’s time to put out a fair warning to would-be pianists.
Joe is my newest (former) student. Recently retired to Cape Cod, he bought a beautiful new grand piano, placed it in his lovely new home and set to work to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams. A computer programmer in his professional life, he understood intuitively both the logic of reading music and writing computer code.
There are, however, some major differences between the two processes. Not that I understand anything at all about computer programming. (I’m happy for my computer to just hold up from week to week!) But, obviously, a computer is designed to perform the work for us. Not so with piano. We are the processors.
And we humans can only process so much at any given point in time. And, believe me, there is a lot of processing going on when playing the piano. Especially when READING music, something that complicates the whole process, adding this visual interpretation to the mix. Even if we can understand conceptually what is going on, it’s quite another thing to get our fingers to cooperate.
Back to Joe. He chose two great songs to begin with: Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. He took on Billy Joel’s Piano Man, perfect for any party, I think. And then he rounded out the program nicely with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Opus 27, No. 2. Obviously, this guy shoots high.
Now, where there’s a will, there is, I do believe, always a way. And Joe somehow managed to get both the Journey and Queen songs going in a pretty impressive way. He could play through the opening section of each quite well. And he did so in what I would label a “fast and furious” manner. He managed to accomplish this in the usual way, by first going through a very painstaking process of DECIPHERING the music and then playing the music thousands of times over. Working what is called “muscle” memory, in other words.
Managing to finally get to what I call “automatic pilot” mode. Kudos to Joe. The fact he could devote so much time to accomplishing this speaks to the level of desire we have to bring music into our lives.
OK, so now I will get to the negative aspect of our conversation.. And why this approach almost never works.
First I will say that Joe has been here for a grand sum of two lessons. We have decided to resume lessons in January, in an effort to allow Joe’s injuries, which were caused in large part by his practice methods, to heal. Did I mention Joe has chronic pain at this point? He has wisely been working with a very reputable physical therapist in Boston and also uses acupuncture to help things along. But there are certainly things we can do differently at the piano which will, I hope, allow him to resume his studies and accomplish his goals, free of pain.
And, so I would like to offer a few suggestions on what to avoid:
1. Fast practice: Fast practice does not lead to playing fast. It does, however, lead to lots of other things, namely, poor technique, poor timing, poor execution, and pain.
2. Furious practice. In other words, playing with a lot of tension. Loudly, harshly.
Relax. For some weird reason, the instruction “Relax your elbows” seems to resonate with adults. Of course, this is nonsense, but I’m a believer in “if it works.” So, please, relax your elbows. And, while you’re at it, lift your shoulders up to to your ears and then drop them down. And keep them there. Relax your jaw. Focus your eyes softly on your music.
3. DO NOT make your hands “round.” Don’t imagine holding a ball or a bubble or whatever else you’ve read or been told. Don’t hang onto the edge of the endless sea of white keys in an attempt to look at the keys which you are holding.
Making a “round hand” seems to imply making a fist. Enough said.
Instead, stretch your fingers out onto the white keys and into the black keys. Yes, I realize your fingers may not fit. Snuggle your fingers up into the black keys anyway. Let them rest in there. Imagine the palms of your hands resting gently above the white keys., hovering over them, keeping watch as it were. And from this resting position, you will simply allow your fingers to drop into the keys when you call on them. Gravity will work with the sheer weight of your arms and fingers. You will not have to work so hard, really, you will just rest into the keys.
Of course, not all music calls for “resting.” However, your practice does. So, now that you know 95% of your practice should be slow work, you know that you can practice resting into the keys. Slowly, of course. And not loudly, of course. Gently for the most part, sinking into the keys, melting into the keys, all the while listening most intently to what you are playing.
Be aware of all these things while you work: what you are hearing, what you are seeing, the physical sensation of playing each note, that you are sitting balanced on your bench, that you aren’t reaching forward or leaning back, that you are, in other words, comfortable in every respect. If you find you aren’t comfortable, then please make yourself so. Before you play anything else at all. If it takes a week or a month to figure out what is comfortable, then that is time well spent. If it takes a week or a month to stretch your fingers out into the black keys, then that is also time well spent.
Because you need to become an integral part of the piano, you see.
4. Separate hand practice. I think we will say 80% here, though this would depend, really, on what it is you’re working on. 80% of the time, practice with only hand and try to memorize small one-handed parts, not the whole piece, mind you. But small parts -- “for the moment.” In other words, memorize a small part of a phrase or a measure or two that makes music sense to work with, and then move on. Your goal is not to play an entire piece from memory. But do keep things in check by exerting some mental effort and digesting small parts to the point of memorization. Warning: This is mentally exhausting for most people. That means you are working well. And you will be doing this in small bits and pieces and not for hours on end. Five or ten minutes at a time with absolute focus.
5. Next: DO NOT PRACTICE FOR HOURS A DAY.
Why teachers are still advising adult students to put in four or five hours a day at the piano is beyond me. What’s with this? I have had four students over the past year alone who were overpracticing and having major physical pain as a result. Please. Your goal is to play piano the rest of your life. This is not a race. The idea is to enjoy your time at the piano -- not cram for an exam.
Our lessons here are 45 minutes in length. That is the most time , I believe, that an adult student should sit at a piano and practice. And there should be small breaks even in that period of time, even if for only a minute or two to stretch your legs.
Everyone is different but for some people it’s wise to take a few 15 or 20 minute practice sessions over the course of a day. You will know if you are one of these people because you will find you accomplish more this way. Exploring what kind of practice works for you is also time well spent.
Throughout your practice, you will need to keep check on your own body, whether you feel tension and, if so, learning to release it. Keep in mind the things I said above. Be aware that your shoulders and forearms may increasingly tighten as you go along. Make sure you are breathing. I’ll say that again. Make sure you are breathing. Imagine you are taking piano yoga. Holding your breath is certainly no way to relax, you know.
6. DO NOT PRACTICE IF YOU AREN’T AWARE OF WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH.
Why are students often told to practice an hour a day? I really don’t know the answer to that question. What’s the point in this? You cook for however long it takes you to make a meal. You weed a garden until the weeds are gone. You should practice for the amount of time it takes to accomplish your task at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to complete the learning process in a sitting, but you should certainly have something to show for your practice time. And you will want to be well aware of what you are setting out to do before starting your session.
In our lessons here, I oftentimes record “practice tracks” for the students. We put these onto smart phones or digital recorders so the students have a mini-lesson to take home with them. Their instructions are always the same: Put your headphones on and only practice with this recording. Do not try things “on your own” please. In other words, don’t just go home and play a new piece or passage over and over in the hopes it will eventually come together. (It won’t.)
If it helps to write down a task list before starting, by all means do so. Determine what works for you. But be sure there is a purpose to your practice session. And that won’t be just spending time at the piano.
Remember: There is a real difference between practicing and playing. Practicing is work. Playing is pleasure that comes from having practiced well!