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5 "Don'ts" of Learning Piano

When we learn piano, there are so many things that are tempting to do. To take on board. To omit or to add to our interpretations. Yet the remarkable thing is that, whilst we may sit here innocently thinking that we're doing no harm and - if anything - adding more to our performance, standard and practice - we can actually be doing ourselves a disservice.


Here are 5 "Don'ts" of learning piano that I am going to give to you, speaking from experience.


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Don't Concentrate Too Hard!



This may seem an unusual one to say, however the dangers of too much concentration are very prevalent in your performance.


Fair enough, if you're learning a piece of music from scratch - particularly if it is of a more advanced standard - you're going to need to give it a little attention.


However, over concentration can lead to lapses. You fingers / hands need to be able to perform your music second nature by the time you are performing it confidently, with your mind moreover enjoying the music and just being present to alter the odd thing that may go wrong (wrong notes happen!)


A stellar example of where concentration can lead to performances going wrong is actually in the exercises laid out by Hanon in his set of sixty exercises: 'The Virtuoso Pianist'.


Each exercise is a pattern using all 5 fingers, which is then repeated up to the next note of the scale, then the next, then the next - for two octaves before descending in a similar (though not identical) fashion.


Because the ascension is virtually the same thing over and over, the mind is tricked into thinking it is straightforward. However, of the entire exercise the place that is most likely going to trip you up is the final bar of ascent, when it changes what it does slightly and starts descending!


Why? Because it's different. So what do you do? You start to think about it. You start to panic about it. You start to deliver a determination by which you definitely will get this 100% perfect and in concentrating...


you blow it!


It's perfectly natural, yet the main cause of over-concentration is simply just not being au fay with the exercise / music anyway - something that can be quite easily rectified with some of the following points...



Don't Always Practice with Music



This is not shaming those who prefer to perform with music - and there are many times I have seen performers (beginner, intermediate, advanced, amateur, professional) perfect both from memory and with music. However, regardless of whether you prefer to perform with or without the music, you should have a flowing grasp of it anyhow.


Although practicing with music does strengthen sight reading overall because of the constant reiteration and association, what it does demand is that you always look ahead.


This in turn means that you are strengthening your instinct for performing without looking, which is a fantastic thing. There are many, many pieces of music that require you to not have full view of where you are hitting keys so the more you practice like this the better...


Right?


Sort of.


The problem with practicing with music is twofold:


  • your flow is much easier to disrupt. In particular if you're playing live as you will have other factors (adrenaline etc.) making it difficult to catch up. Disruption needn't be big - a cough from the audience or a fly lands on your hand. Ridiculous things like this. However all it takes is one glance away from the music and your eyes will naturally glance back to the same place, whereas your hands will be moving on. Re-syncing hand and eye is a challenge.


  • Performing the music without the music will be a similar issue for you. When your point of reference is taken away it can lead to both a lack of trust in your own performance, thus creating a negative performance, and looking elsewhere - such as your hands - can actually cause distraction and confusion because of the association of that music against what you play.


So, always get used to practicing your music without the scores as well.



Don't Overuse the Una Corda Pedal



This is just one that will affect some people, but if it does then you can become a little dependant.


The Una Corda Pedal is the left pedal, and it makes the overall dynamic just a touch softer. However, the key words here are 'just a touch'.


In order to create the desired softness, performing softly using your hands is of the utmost importance anyway. Yet some pianists will start to depend on it during, for example, any piano passage.


If you are doing the correct thing with your hands to create dynamic, then you might argue it to be indifferent. However, bear in mind that your right pedal (sustain pedal) is extremely commonly used. And whilst it is possible, of course, to use two hands and two feet effortlessly, it does create unnecessary complication to do so.


Moreover, if your piano piece were to go even softer (pianissimo etc.) you would be reducing the chance of getting even more contrast by using the pedal throughout the piano passages.



Don't Go Too Fast Before You're Ready



This one kind of ties into the insistence of using a metronome, but is actually a little more universal and applies to everything from exercises (scales, arpeggios, broken chords, chromatics etc.) to full pieces.


Whereby you will here time and time again that using a metronome is the best thing to do, and to start slowly and build up, it can often be detrimental for a piece that doesn't require it as it can lead you to start to perform beautiful, sweeping passages in a rather clinical way if you're not careful.


So, instead of insisting that the metronome be employed every time, I would just say that decide whether or not it is needed and then take it slowly.


My two seemingly contrasting points are:


  • You will likely struggle to perform pieces that you may already even be able to play at speed - slowly.


  • You should be able to perform your pieces slowly first.


Take your exercise or your piece slowly and if you start to make errors, take it even slower and / or focus on that particular area.


However - and this is where my 'don't' point comes into full swing - don't be tempted to speed up. Not even to see how far you've come and to see if it's made any difference.


Make sure also that you keep the entire piece in the same tempo. It can be very tempting to rush through passages that you feel much more confident in and then slowing down for a passage / bar that you need to work on, but this can have negative effects in the long run, such as losing the overall flow and continuity of a piece.



Don't Settle for "That'll Do!"



The most important thing to remember is that whatever it is that you're struggling with, you can improve it. And whilst it's so tempting sometimes to consider that you're playing it as well as you ever will - you're not!


Everybody can improve and so can you.


Avoid settling for 'cop-outs' (e.g. adding too much 'rit.' because you can't quite get the fingering right, or replacing a trill with a mordent because your fingers find it easier to fit it in the time) and instead identify the problem, practice them slower as in the previous point and - if necessary - find ways to help you.


Almost everything has exercises. Note accuracy is improved by arpeggios, the feeling of hands being too close together by scales a major third apart. Finger strengthening / independence can be helped hugely by practicing regularly exercised by Schmitt and / or Hanon, and scales can help your overall 'touch' of the keys and dynamic.



 

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