Practice Hats

Practice Hats - Learning and Polishing Pieces

There are many aspects to learning and improving a piece under study. Students often feel lost and overwhelmed if they are simply told to get a piece ‘right’ – or are unable to see where a piece needs improvement. Sometimes students work hard for hours, frustrated with lack of progress. Some strategy is needed.

The Practice Hats are a useful tool for finding our way around this. Practice Hats help us focus on one thing at a time – they are experts to guide us, improving our playing one aspect at a time. (It can be helpful for students to actually make cardboard hats of different colours and with different labels, to help make this idea more tangible.)

After you have made the hats, put them on one at a time and think about the things it tells you. Many different hats can be made, but we will focus on a number of the more universal ones.

Correct notes: Whether you have played a piece many times, or for the first time, check every note carefully. Check new notes that might slip in, sometimes unnoticed, such as accidentals, big chords, long scale passages, changes in patterns or unfamiliar notes with new or tricky key signatures. You need to play slowly – take nothing for granted.
Fingering: Check you are using the written and/or easiest fingering patterns. If you tend to slip often in one part or cross fingers in strange ways, chances are you have fingering problems. Again, work slowly – and even away from the piano, looking for the most sensible patterns. Play short sections at a time, slowly and carefully.
Rhythm: Are you holding notes AND rests for exactly the right amount of time? Are you giving emphasis to the first beat of each bar? Check complicated passages, especially when there are changes in rhythm. Break the patterns down into their smallest count value and count carefully through. Are you rushing where there are shorter note values, such as quavers and semi-quavers? Don’t use Rubato until you know all you counting is correct.
Tempo: Use a metronome! How fast should a piece be played? How fast can you play it without getting faster or tripping over? Start with a metronome and turn it off – restart the metronome when you finish. Does the beat feel the same? If not, you have changed tempo. Watch for any markings for tempo change and work out why the composer has used it. Check – do you play faster or slower when sections get tricky?
Phrasing: Phrases give sense to the music. From two note slurs, to longer phrases, or absence of phrase marks, are you following directions? Is there a sense of softening and a moment of silence at the end of each phrase – without losing rhythm? Does your music feel like it is breathing and speaking?
Dynamics: What markings are written? Experiment with rises and falls in volume that are not written. One of the common is a rise in volume as notes get higher and softening as they get lower. Also, notes at ends of phrases are either building or softening. What sounds best? If you are playing several notes in a row at the same volume, you really need to look for alternatives. Try some creative, new ideas.
Tone Production: How are you touching the piano? What touch is written? There are many different types of touch for legato, staccato and portamento. Is you playing suitable for the mood you need for the piece and the section? What happens if you try some other movement? Are you listening carefully to the sound you are producing?
Voicing: Where is the melody line? The voice is the note or part you need to play a little louder than the rest. Sometimes you need to hit a key from a little higher than the other notes, or lean slightly to one side or the other with your hand. You need to make the melody line sing, so try singing it with your voice and listen carefully. Can you express this with your playing? Don’t forget to look for important notes in harmonies. Experiment a little. What happens to the effect if you play this note louder, or maybe this next one? What affect do you like? How does it work with other melodies and harmonies you find in the piece? Do you have good balance between the parts or is one hand drowning the other? (Often chords are played too loud, or the left hand more heavily than the right.)
Posture: How are you sitting? Are you comfortable? Are you centred on the bench? Are your fingers gently curved, your wrists flexible and not dropped? Are your shoulders square and relaxed? Your feet flat on the ground, or platform? Are your elbows comfortably by your side? Are you free and moving?
Relaxation: Soften the light in your practice room, then check – Are your shoulders down? Are your wrists free and moving? Are you breathing smoothly? Are you using the inside muscles of your fingers rather than the big muscles of the back of your hand? Do you wrists and hands feel tired or sore – this is from tension. If so, are you using the best technique?

When you pieces is sounding good – it will do if you spend time listening to what each of these hats have to tell you – then it is time to record you pieces and be the critic. Wear the hats again, but this time as the listener instead of the performer.

Finally, add the hats together, as pairs, than threes, and so on – after all, when you perform you have to think about all the hats at once.