In my recent blog called Piano Practice regarded as a Nuisance? I would like to take this opportunity to re-consider our practice approach.
Besides my busy teaching schedules, I am always pleased and delighted to sit down after dinner to practice my repertoires. So many of us (piano teachers) can easily brush aside our own practice after a long day at work along with other commitments. You may one day discover that your skills have turned sloppy after many years of committed practice.
Isn’t it paradoxical that we teach our pupils how to practice and we, ourselves don’t practice? Realistically, how best can you coach this subject if you don’t practice? This is one of several reasons I made a commitment to set aside two hours each evening to practice in an effort to expand my repertoire range.
Since my piano playing ban was lifted, I have been more contentious and cautious with my approach to practicing. It is well worth considering practicing in the range of piano (p), pianissimo (pp) and pianississimo (ppp). You can conserve your energy to play with full dynamic range and expression when you practice during the day or on a grand piano when you get an opportunity, perhaps at a school’s assembly hall.
When you practice playing with full dynamic range, it is unlike striking the key with a forte (everyone can easily play with force) but you actually do need to exert a lot more control with your touch to play gently. The depression of the key speed is much slower hence produces a more gentle sound. I always like to explain this concept to my students by stating that the hammer on the grand piano strikes the string from below when a key is depressed at a slower speed and hence produces a gentle tone, as opposed to striking the string with greater force at a greater velocity results in a louder tone. To demonstrate this concept I request my students to tap on the piano lid with different finger speeds. The student listens to the feedback of the sound and this resonates an immediate understanding. I also explain that this concept also applies to the upright piano where the hammer is struck in front of the string, as it is built vertically.
The challenge of playing piano is that the player needs to place their fingers much closer to the key to apply a much slower key speed subsequently producing a soft and yet firm and solid tone. Practicing in this manner through an entire piece will ensure a refined piano touch.
Have you ever felt that if you play through a piece several times you feel that the dynamic contrast has lost its effectiveness? The reason for this is when you run your piece over and over again, your hearing becomes de-sensitized to the sound and hence you become less responsive. I always tell my students that for the ear to be actively engaged, we need to allow space and time for the ear to ‘cleanse’ the sound. A similar analogy can be drawn if you play your stereo music for duration of time at a high level of volume, you will reach a stage where you feel your ear reaches its saturation point and when you switch off the stereo, you really appreciate the silent moment!
This is why practicing in a range of piano all the way through a loud piece or for a louder passage will allow you to hear the distinctive disparity when you eventually enforce a different range of dynamics. You will find that your hearing will become more receptive when you play with full dynamic range. However, I recommend to only run through your piece a couple of times in this range so that your listening ability does not decline.
If a pianist, constantly practices their repertoire with full speed and dynamic range every day their muscles will eventually become fatigued, likely introducing inaccuracy in playing and reducing performance excellence. Taking a different approach like practicing at various degrees of tempos and incrementally increasing the tempo until you reach your full speed or even beyond the suggested tempo, and then return to your comfortable tempo is a great way to prevent premature fatigue. This will help maintain the pianist’s playing at its peak on the day of recital.
In the past, I have prepared students to enter competitions and festivals. During the preparation phase, the student will run the recital program practice very well, technically assured, and musically expressive in achieving the stylistic interpretation. When I listen to and observe the performance on the day of their competition, rather disappointingly, the performance lacked the authoritative dynamic expression. The range of dynamics did not peak within the piece as well as during the practices, and the rendition of the dynamic range from one piece to another was not sufficiently contrasting.
This falls back to my explanation that the muscles had likely reached their premature fatigue stage from over practicing. In addition to that, the ear becomes saturated with sound and the listening becomes desensitized. Although a pianist may be thinking that they are emoting their pieces with energy and feeling these factors become evident in the actual playing.
One more note, the dynamic piano (p), pianissimo (pp) or pianississimo (ppp) means a variance in degree of ‘softness’, which is conveyed through feelings and emotions. It will depend on the context of the composition, which may mean to convey sadness, pensiveness, contemplation, melancholies, or somberness. Conversely, forte (f), fortissimo (ff) and fortississimo (fff) exhibit different level of ‘loudness’ which can be express anger, frustration, and joy, or happiness. Playing through your repertoire can take you through a full run of emotions. Each and every time you perform can leave you emotionally exhausted, which can affect your ability to perform at an optimum level.
Students need to reflect and examine their practice habits back at the practice room. I recommend that they modestly apply the dynamics and expression, with the occasional run through of the performance the odd time. Using this balance in practice will help to conserve energy for their recital day.
Lastly, if practicing is an issue in your own living space, your neighbours will appreciate that the volume is kept at a piano level, making for a happy, healthy living environment for everyone.