Practice Tips from Mark Almond #2
by Mark Almond
There are different ways to divide your practice time. Sitting at the piano reading music is only one of the various aspects of piano practice. The division I believe to be both complete and practical involves five different areas. The thing that has helped me improve the most over the years is a flexible approach toward each of these areas. In this session we will describe all five in general for a basic understanding of each. Although some personality types need and even enjoy regimentation and consistency in scheduling their practice, others need a flexible system that allows them to really immerse themselves in different areas of practice at different times. It actually works great, and is perhaps the most ideal, to divide your practice time like clockwork, making sure all areas are covered, but this does not allow you to sometimes go with the flow of what is working the best at the moment, or even for that particular week. The absolute ideal is a combination of disciplined planning and opportunistic flexibility! In other words, make sure your practice is balanced overall in the long term, but allow yourself the freedom to follow your mood for any given period of time when it is paying off. For example, when your ability to read music reaches the level where it becomes enjoyable, and you come across some music you really like, then make this music the focus of your practice until it runs its course. If you strike a vein, where some new rhythm you have never used makes your improvisation more interesting, then go wherever it takes you, no matter how long the trip. At the same time, there should be checkpoints where you take stock in terms of what is being neglected. So how about the checklist itself you are asking?
In summary form for each of the five areas:
Listen to piano music that is both inspirational and informative. Listening must, driven by our desire to improve, become at times analytical where we visualize and categorize what the pianist is doing to get the musical or emotional effect he or she is achieving. What is the pianist doing with the chords, or scale patterns, that is colorful and effective? Listen for “meaningful” phrasing and dynamics. We are primarily after a feeling for what spirited piano music is all about. I heard and analyzed many sounds in my twenties that I could not execute until later, but some of the ideas were helpful immediately.
Every library has books on how to play the piano and biographies of great pianists. Check out all of them! You will be able to tell very quickly whether or not the whole book, or maybe just one or two chapters, finds you where you are. At a more advanced level, the book by Abram Chasins “Speaking of Pianists” will change your life. A thoughtful informed approach to piano practice will save you from all of the looming deadly forms of “dry practice.” Another great source is looking through the many articles written in music magazines archived in the libraries.
Experimenting with chords in musical sequences, or progressions, is the missing element in most peoples practice schedule. The rules of harmony really are easy to understand and will by their nature tell you exactly what notes to play. It is totally up to you how to play them! The basic tools of improvisation are simple: playing a passage faster or slower, louder or quieter, placing accents in a various places, and placing pauses in different places to change the rhythm. Whether you are in a pensive mood, or very angry at someone, the piano is impatiently sitting there waiting for you. New chord progressions can be found by extracting them out of famous songs. This is hit and miss but great ideas can be found if you keep looking.
Improving your ability to read notes is critical. In the past, other piano teachers have called me one of the “chord guys.” That’s because they didn’t know what they were talking about. I am a “come up with an individualized strategy to learn all of the important skills in proper proportion for all personality types guy.” Once you reach a certain level, reading notes is the most fun you will ever have at the piano because it’s the only way to experience fresh new sounds you are not tired of hearing. We will list detailed pointers in the future.
Playing well-designed exercises very aggressively will quickly put you on a new plateau. This is the almost mindless kind of practice you can do in short spurts when you don’t have the time or patience to dive into something more demanding. This leads to a physical mastery of the piano and opens up the possibility of playing at an advanced level for people who thought this was an impossible dream.
Achieving a balance of each of these five areas of practice, briefly described here, is the long term goal. We will develop each in more detail in future practice tips to make this much more practical!