How to practice away from the piano

piano practiceIn an attempt to keep my teaching current and to learn from what the masters did in the past and consider how this affects modern playing and teaching, I am forever reading articles and books by noted pianists and teachers. If there is one thing that they all have in common, right back to the time of Leschetizky and Neuhaus (and no doubt before), it’s the value given to “practising away from the piano”.

Until now, I’d never seriously tried it out. But with a 3-hour flight and a holiday away from the piano planned last break, I thought I’d give it a shot. Not only was it surprisingly successful, I have started to use this skill on a daily basis. No wonder everyone has been talking about it!

According to professionals, there are four ways to practice an instrument:

  1. With the score at the instrument (how most of us learn to play and how most people learn new music)
  2. At the instrument, without the score (ie. playing from ear/memory – hallmark of the Suzuki Method)
  3. Away from the instrument with the score – this was my focus while on holiday
  4. Away from the instrument and without the score (visualisation)

My focus this holiday was the third method – using a score, but visualising the piano in my mind. My goal was to memorise the first page or two (I kept the challenge level low enough to be achievable) of a piece of music that I had been working on over the last few months (for those of you interested, it was Rachmaninov’s Eb Minor Elegy). Until then, I had made no conscious decision to memorise it as I start learning new music straight from the score.

I’ve always considered memory my weakest performance skill. I can sight-read just about anything put in front of me but I have a terrible time convincing myself I’m any good at memorising. When I was younger I relied, as many of us do, on finger memory: that unconscious method of playing that everyone can do automatically if they have practised something enough times. This is fine for beginner student recitals, but when pieces get longer, harder and more challenging, and when recitals and exams become more important to future careers, it is a mindless technique that’s impossible to rely upon.

So, with a positive frame of mind, I started working when the seatbelt light had been turned off on the flight north! People had warned me previously that this was such a brain-intensive method of memorising, that I should only attempt it in 15 min blocks, so I set about learning about 4 bars confidently.

The key was to focus on just one bar at a time (think about the long journey beginning with the first step; the best way to eat an Elephant: small chunks, etc). This was my method:

  1. Study the left hand with the score
  2. Close your eyes and picture playing each note clearly in your mind
  3. Play it a number of times in your mind and while moving hands on an imaginary keyboard
  4. Study the RH with the score
  5. Close eyes and picture playing every note of the RH melody, and repeat a few times as for the LH
  6. Play HT with eyes closed picturing the movement of the hands and the coordination of the fingers. It’s vital that you can PICTURE PLAYING EVERY NOTE for this to be a successful exercise.
  7. Check back to the score to ensure you’re playing it correctly and move onto the next bar

Every time I finished a new bar and made certain it was right, I combined it with the one before so that after about 15-20 mins, I was able to play the four bars precisely in my mind and on my imaginary keyboard (luckily the guy sitting next to me was absorbed in his sport watching otherwise he probably would have requested a seat change given all the weird stuff I was doing!). I then gave it a rest and did other things. When I got to my destination, I tried playing it again in my mind and on the table top. With only a couple of notes to check, it was pretty much right and I could get onto the next 2-4 bars. Don’t worry, I did lie on the beach without thinking about music on my holiday too!

I found that when I tried playing it again the next day, there were certain bits I had forgotten (single notes rather than whole phrases) but by the second day it was 100% right and I looked forward to trying it out on a real piano. In one week, I managed to memorise most of the first two pages of the work without the need for a piano. This, for a guy who has always struggled with memory, was totally awesome! To date, it is the most secure memorisation I have completed!

There are many great articles about the specifics of what to memorise – eg. harmony, analysis, muscular movement, etc., so I won’t go into that here. Instead, I recommend Graham Fitch’s “Hand’s On Memorisation for Pianists” as a great place to start.

If, like me, you fear memory and believe you can never do it securely, please give this technique a go. I have really astounded myself and the more I do it, the better I get. Funny that!

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  1. says

    Found your blog via pianoworld.com. I’ve enjoyed looking through your posts. Please keep it up. I’ve referred several friends to you today. I’m surprised I don’t see more comments. I think that if you hang in there you’ll see some major traffic at some point. This great. Thanks.

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