When practicing the piano, it is instinctive and tempting to play mostly our favourite lesson pieces – and to play them at performance speed (or faster) from beginning to end. It is tempting to think that this is successful practice. Unfortunately, this limits our opportunities to develop in performance skill.
Playing piano can be compared to training for sport. Although piano playing relies on thinking and listening skills, it is also very physical. We use muscles and nerves that must be trained in strength and movement patterns so that we can effectively carry out the ‘game plays’ at the time of performance. In fact, due to the much smaller size of muscles (there are more than 30 muscles and ligaments in the hands alone) and movement accuracy required for a successful ‘play’, physical training for playing piano demands even more precision. Playing the piano is possibly the easiest instrument to learn as a beginner – but it is the hardest instrument to master. When learning piano, our hands are in training to become the gymnasts of the keys.
When training for sport, there are three main areas of training: endurance and fitness, skill development / new learning, and game play. No successful team or athlete spends most of their practice sessions throughout the season just playing games. Baseballers practice swings and catches over and over. Gymnasts and ice-skaters refine the smallest movements, one at a time, before placing them together into a routine or even simply a completed tumble. Basketballers and netballers plan and rehearse the steps and turns that will get them from one end of the court to the other.
When we learn piano, our hands are training gymnasts. We develop mental and physical fitness. We learn increasingly complex and more refined skills. We prepare ourselves physically and mentally for full performances of our chosen pieces. The best performance is the result of carefully laid foundations during fitness and skill training.
Skill development only comes through careful, initially slow rehearsal of isolated movements. With the teachers help, every movement involved in playing the piano needs to be broken into the smallest parts. We need to feel these movements, understand them, know why we are doing them and then keep repeating them until they are automatic. We can then build on these skills or join them with others, making a full routine – a completed piece of music. A rewarding part of this very careful work is that we develop a set of skills that make learning new, more demanding pieces much easier. We can tap into a collection of previously learnt abilities. Our playing becomes much more musical and controlled, much more pleasant to listen to. We can learn or simply sight-read new pieces more quickly at a standard that makes them enjoyable to hear sooner.
We need to spend quality time every practice session slowly repeating the simple movements that are the building blocks of playing. The movements are taught during lessons and are a main reason for having lessons. They can also be discovered by listening and tuning into our feelings carefully. They need to be repeated at home so they can be programmed into the nerves and muscles. This can’t be achieved in the short time of a lesson once a week.
Playing through pieces musically from beginning to end is the reward for this work. If we practice by only playing pieces through several times, beginning to end, this is a much slower way of developing higher-level skills. It really only increases our reading and knowledge of the current piece. There is definitely a place for this in our piano playing experience – but to go beyond our present abilities we must learn how. We must treat our hands as gymnasts in training.