Play Piano Today With Dr. J

Archive for June 2009

Do you want to get better at your piano playing?  There’s really only one way to get better and enjoy your playing more and more every day and that is to invoke the first “P” word – practice.  If you do something in a concentrated focused fashion on a daily basis, you will get better – and that includes playing the piano.
Once you have achieved success you need to share your new found piano skills and that is the second “P” word – performance.  Share your piano music with your friends, your family, or with the world via YouTube.

The two “P” words – practice and performance – the two important words in the study of the piano.

Speaking from personal experience, I would much rather play for a live audience then have a recording made of my piano performance. Something about turning on a recording device puts my nerves on edge a bit.  My mind keeps turning over the fact that the recording can be heard again – and again – and again, whereas a live performance is heard once and gone.  It is but a memory in my mind.

I have, however, found the recording of my piano practice sessions at once eye or ear-opening and productive.  Oh, and did I mention, humbling?  In my undergraduate days I carried with me to nearly every practice session a cassette recorder.  I practiced in what I thought was a careful and diligent manner, then recorded my efforts hoping to match what my mind told me I had just mastered.

Often the recorded “performance” of that practice session’s goals was in reality far from the lofty piano sounds my mind had created.  That little recorder, though, did not discourage but encouraged me.  I continued practicing the piano and worked to discover more creative ways to shorten the practice time needed. Finally I heard in reality what my mind had been playing long before the fingers could create the sound on the piano.

From time to time, I use a recording device in my piano teaching.  It has been met with mixed results for my students.  Some students enjoy hearing themselves play and are amazed at their progress.  Other piano students are appalled at their lack of progress and their shoddy playing.

The students who find the recorded piano lessons helpful are usually those who follow good practice routines and who diligently and carefully prepare repertoire within their abilities.  These students accept the level of their playing prior to hearing their recordings.  They have a soundscape in their mind that is close to their actual abilities and skills.

These students are usually pleasantly surprised by the quality of their piano playing and are eager to accept feedback.  They more quickly make changes and want to record themselves again and again to hear the improvements they have made.  These students mirror their teacher’s experience with a recorder as a device to learn from and design ways to improve their piano playing.

The students who find the recording of their piano lessons stupefying at best and simply awful at most are those who have attempted to learn pieces beyond their current abilities.  These students “hear” themselves playing on a much higher level than in reality they are.  The recording points out flaws on the most basic level – note inaccuracies, incorrect rhythms, and great flexibility in tempo to compensate for lack of the technical skills needed to play the repertoire they have chosen.

These students sadly realize they have not been applying good piano practice techniques to repertoire more suited to their abilities.  Hence, their goals and their ways of achieving those goals have to be redesigned.  This is difficult for many beginning adult pianists. However, once the student has overcome the shock of actually hearing the sounds they are creating in real time, they are usually eager more open to pursuing their goals in a more appropriate manner.

To record or not record a beginning pianist’s lesson?  It is exaltation for some and peril turning to discovery and skill building for others.  Recording is a wonderful tool for a beginning student of the piano.

There comes a time in your piano practice where you simply have to play the piano for the pure joy of playing, where you let go of all the technical challenges, the self-analysis, and the voice of self-control and discipline and “just play the piano.”

Too often we get caught up in the how and why’s of playing the piano that we forget to celebrate the simple pleasure and joy of creating beautiful sounds and of simply playing the piano. Every pianist, beginner or advanced, has a piece in their repertoire they can play without “working” at it.  A piece that is simpler than the current “working” repertoire or a piece learned years earlier might be the piece to just let yourself play.

Creating beautiful sounds and making music is the goal of all piano playing, so why not celebrate that joy and make sure in every practice session you reward yourself with those beautiful sounds you have worked so hard to create and just make music on the piano.

After answering the questions, “What did I do well?” and “What can I do differently?”  you must ask yourself, “How can I make changes in my piano practice and performance?”

The third question is one that is also often slighted.  Piano students are excellent at knowing what should be done better but knowing how to make changes to create better sounding music is often a mystery.

What are the root causes of piano music played poorly or with mistakes?  Incorrect notes, inaccurate rhythm, and carelessly performed cadences form the core of poorly played piano exercises and repertoire and keep a pianist from progressing.  In addition, poor fingering, sloppy pedaling, tempo variations,and little regard for dynamics and articulations exacerbate practice sessions and inevitably lead to lackluster performances.

It has been said that an incorrect note played three times simultaneously takes thirty three repetitions to correct.  It is imperative that notes be played correctly on the piano from the start.

The playing of inaccurate rhythms can undermine the effectiveness of any piano piece.  Rhythmic accuracy is attained with the same careful attention to detail as note accuracy.

Analyzing cadences away from the piano keyboard to determine the movement of the bass line and the chordal progression is a must.  Knowing the make-up of a cadence before putting it on the keyboard will help the pianist avoid a change of tempo or the playing of incorrect notes in these most difficult but most necessary parts of any piano piece.

Attack the root causes of poor performance in every practice session.  Make note accuracy, rhythmic precision and well-prepared cadences an absolute must in every practice or performance of exercises or repertoire of the piano.

The pentatonic method for learning to play songs on the piano is based on the pentatonic scale.  This musical scale has five notes to an octave and it just happens that these five notes correspond precisely to the five black keys of the piano.  With only five note choices instead of the eight in a diatonic scale or the twelve in a chromatic scale, the novice pianist is able to experience success more quickly.

Using the pentatonic method, the beginning pianist is limited to five notes only of a specific intervallic grouping. Those five notes correspond exactly to the five black keys on the piano.  These keys are easy to see and locate.  They are also arranged in two different groups.  They are arranged in a group of two black keys and a group of three black keys.  These note combinations are visually easy to recognize.

Not only are the five keys easy to recognize, but they are also tactilely comfortable for the adult beginner.  The fingers of each hand can easily cover two groups of the five different black keys.  This hand placement allows for ease in fingering. The hands can often remain in one position for a long series of notes.  Therefore, success comes more quickly for the beginning pianist because the method deals only with learning to move the fingers in a restricted note range.  The learner quickly builds technique when finger movement is limited in using the pentatonic method to play the piano.

The Pentatonic or Five-Note Method is a method which works especially well for the adult beginning pianist.  Most adults simply want to make music and want to learn to play a song quickly.  The pentatonic method makes this possible.

By focusing on the five black keys on the piano the beginner can start to quickly develop technique and eye hand coordination.  Once the beginning adult pianist discovers the joy of playing several songs and has developed some finger dexterity, they are more encouraged to then start the serious study of learning music notation.

Learning note reading skills and applying theory becomes much easier when a person can already play songs on the piano.  With physical skills in place, complex concepts can then be given the attention needed for success of playing the piano.



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    • bhundley1: I'm interested in your elaborating on the "fingering" aspect of practice. Are you a fan of Czerny, for instance, in terms of building up dexterity wi
    • promotionmusic: Thanks for your response. Congratulations to you on the work you are doing in the piano world.

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