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Six Ways to Improve Your Piano Playing

It happens to us all! We become complacent. We become stuck in our own ways. Our own technique. We get to a point whereby, sure, we might wish to learn new pieces, but ultimately we don't want to progress our technique accordingly. Therefore, we can find ourselves struggling to develop at all.


So if you're looking for a little inspiration, here are six ways that I am putting forward to you that you can start to employ right now to help you develop your piano playing!



Jack Mitchell Smith Piano Teacher Pianist Macclesfield Musician



Repertoire: Think Outside the Box



I am a classical pianist really, and that's how I was taught and brought up. I was done so on the understanding that classical music is the 'hardest' genre (well...era) of music to master and if I could do that then I could turn my hand to anything.


Whilst that is indeed true to a point - that point being that classical music forms the basis of much of the music we know and love today - it doesn't necessarily mean I can automatically turn my hand to anything. For example, jazz is a style of playing that alludes me. It is not something I play instinctively and it is not something I play with ease even when I practice lots, but it is a genre that I will find myself turning too.


I'm not suggesting you have to completely go against your roots and you certainly don't have to push the boat too far out. For example, I have recently been learning a short song composed originally and subsequently transcribed for piano by George Gershwin and, whilst it may not sound the most complex, it certainly has its share of challenges that keep me interested as a player.


And keeping interest is really part of the battle - if you ever get bored of what you're playing then switch things up a little bit!


If you don't read music then don't forget there are a wealth of tutorials for just about anything on YouTube and other social media networks these days, so have a browse and push yourselves in a different direction - even if you don't intend to pursue that direction forever!



Visualise Symmetry



This is an unusual one but it really helped me. It's unusual in its visualisation anyway, but when I actually tried to do it in practice it took quite a while to do so.


Theoretically - unless otherwise notated (which would be unusual), the most prominent parts of your performance should be the lower notes of the left hand (the bass note/s) and the top notes of the right hand (i.e. the melody). Everything that comes between these notes - played most likely though not exclusively by your remaining fingers - should have a softer approach, whatever dynamic you play at. Therefore, you have to visualise that your weight is being distributed not centrally but to either end of your hands - the pinkies (finger 5) on the left and right hand being the most 'heavy' generally speaking.


Naturally this can vary from piece to piece, and it is something that is very unusual to visualise at first as that concentration can actually result in you stuttering on your performance, even if it is one you are quite accomplished in. But once you get into a swing of it you will start to notice that you subconsciously start to utilise much more appealing dynamic in your performances.



Move Your Body



This isn't one you have to go mad with! When I say move your body, I just mean that you want to understand how your piano reacts to your body.


Yes, your hands have the final say, but the way your hands are controlled are ultimately controlled by how your body is.


Let's say, for example, that you are playing a very soft piece of music (piano). Typically you are taught to sit upright at the piano with a nice straight back and head slightly back. This is fine, but ultimately your dynamic is not going to be as strong as the following:


Leaning close to the keys.


By doing this, you create a much more intimate relationship between you and your hands which translated beautifully into the instrument. In addition to this, don't forget how the piano works - it responds remarkably well to what I can only refer to as 'passive dynamic'. That is, dynamic that comes from a place beyond the hands.


Needless to say, the opposite is also true. If you want to create the loudest sound possible, sit up straight to allow yourself the full strength needed in your hands and fingers and you will be rewarded with beautiful contrast.



Unlearn that Pedal!



Don't really unlearn it!


When we begin learning piano, it is extremely rare that you will utilise the pedal straight away. It is brought into the equation when you start to transcend from late beginner to early intermediate - around the grade 3 - 4 mark if using exams as a benchmark.


And what a revelation it is when we discover it. Sustain. It sounds beautiful - it makes the whole thing sound more complete. However, it also covers a multitude of sins!


I heard once that you should be able to play anything that uses pedal as well without it. I don't agree entirely with that because in some cases that's impossible. But there is something to be said for our dwindling techniques as the pedal becomes more and more prominent in our playing.


A great exercise is to go back to some Baroque pieces of music and learn these. Yes, a little pedal can really assist in these even, but play them without and get used to holding on note values for their real length.


A perfect example of where this can be really advised on is Handel's masterpiece - 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. This is an advanced piece, really, but it's a great exercise for holding notes on as they are literally all transcribed in their entirety.


It doesn't have to be this complex, however, Just make sure you don't depend on the pedal all the time and make it sound clean without. If you do, you should find that you are able to actually minimise your pedal use, using it to punctuate rather than to carry your music. Largely what it was intended for.



Use Scales as a Dynamic Exercise



Almost everybody learns scales, but most people only consider them an exercise in fingering. This is just a short entry that might change your life!


Put dynamics into scales. A good piano teacher will likely have already encouraged this, the most standard being to start softly and crescendo as you ascend, that decrescendo as you descend, all the while keeping both hands playing the same dynamic if playing hands together.


But try and add different slants on that - swap that crescendo and decrescendo, alternate octaves if doing more than an octave scale and - most excitingly of all - add punctuation. The most natural sounding is to add a slight emphasis to the first note of every group of 4 (C D E F G A B C D E F G etc.), but you can mix this up and create different feels of time signature by adding it to every group of 2, 3 or 6, or even 5 if you want a challenge!



Practice and Play on Multiple Instruments



This one is really a desirable one but not one that I can enforce too strongly because ultimately if you've got a piano, you've likely only got one!


But in all seriousness, if you do wish to improve it pays to practice on as many different instruments as you can. Prepare yourself for all eventualities.


I needn't say that the difference from keyboard to electric piano to upright piano is staggering and often intimidating, even for people who are quite well accomplished keyboardists, for example. But a grand piano can seem a world away from an upright.


Little things on a grand piano make all the difference. The music stand is often a touch higher than on an upright, and this can be unusual to jump straight into. Often on a grand piano the Una corda (left) pedal shifts the keyboard slightly to one side as opposed to just moving the hammers inside, which can be a little disconcerting for the first time grand pianist. Plus the pedals are often a lot flatter than that of an upright, leading to a different foot position.


When I first played a Bösendorfer Imperial 290, I was distracted by the additional notes in the bass that meant the piano started on the note C! The slight variation in length to my left was bizarrely off-putting!


Not to mention that all pianos have a distinctive touch and feel, and they can vary from subtly to drastically when it comes to dynamic.


Take all the opportunities you can and it will improve your overall versatility!


 

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