The Student Self-help Guide

So recently I've had some of my students, and some parents of my younger students ask 'what can we do between lessons?'

The obvious answer is practice. But at the same time that answer is also super vague and unhelpful. Of course you can practice what you've worked on in the lesson, but if you're unsure of a timing issue, or are struggling with some coordination then really what are you supposed to do in the week before your next lesson? Today's blog is going to look into some helpful tips and pointers in regards to how to practice as efficiently as possible without your teacher.

Step One: Scales

'Nooooo' I hear you collectively cry, but as relaxed as I am scales are the one exercise I am a stickler for. Why? Because. They. Are. Good. For. You. Not only for your fingers but I find that with practice you can really work yourself towards a proper zen mental state. The two foundations for any good pianist to consistently work on are dexterity and coordination. Scales really are the fastest and best way to develop these skills. Seriously. Do your scales enough and you'll find you enjoy doing them just for the joy of watching your fingers fly along the keys. If you are not at that point, you haven't done them enough. Your fingers need to be strong individually if they're going to tackle any piece with ease and scales are the best way to ensure you're giving all of them a work out.

A good way to test your finger strength, can you bend each finger at a 90 degree angle by itself without moving the others? Chances are you'll have difficulty with your ring finger and your little finger. Coincidentally, these are also your weakest piano fingers. Go do some scales (or trills for more targeted exercise) and strengthen them up. 

If buff fingers aren't enough of a reason to work on your scales, then consider this. Scales are the foundation of every single song. If you're thinking 'I'm not into classical or theory, I prefer to make my own music, I don't need scales Julia' then you are WRONG my friend. Where do songs come from? Chords. Where do chords come from? Scales. Boom. 

For example, you're jamming on a beautiful chord progression, but you're struggling to develop a melody. Identify your first chord. Let's say it's A major. If you've practised your scales like a good student then you know that A has 3 sharps (C#,F#,G#) and you take this information and use it accordingly. No more wrong notes. 

I could talk about scales all day but I need to talk about 

Step Two: Exercises

Now to be perfectly clear I am not talking about Hanon. All I'm going to say about that particular subject is I don't want to talk about it. By exercises I don't mean tedious repeating patterns designed to destroy your soul and your will to live, I mean the kind you develop yourself to overcome issues you may have with a piece, timing or coordination. 

'But how?' I hear your ask dubiously. The within you...but seriously if you're capable of identifying a problem you may have then you are capable of fixing said problem. Say you're struggling with the coordination of a particularly tricky bar, what do you do? The answer is not, as a lot of my students seem to think, to just speed up and stumble over it and hope that no one noticed. The answer is to slooooow dooooown. Start with your left hand (the most important hand) and play through slowly. Count. Aloud. If you can't do this then you don't actually understand what it is you're playing. Learn to do this and then repeat with your right hand. Once they are confident separately put them together slowly. If you can't play it slowly you can't play it quickly, even if you think you can. Once your hands are working together confidently at a slow pace, gradually increase your speed until it's consistent with the rest of the piece. 

Speed has a lot to do with developing exercises. Troublesome trill? Slow it down. Chord change chaos? Slow it down. Terrible timing? Slow it down. A lot of piano music comes from patterns. Learn enough patterns and you'll be able to play just about anything. In order to learn these patterns you need to give your muscle memory a chance to become familiar with them. If you consistently whizz through a pattern your fingers aren't learning anything. They're just whizzing, and fun as whizzing is it's not actually making you a good pianist. Some musicians think that by playing as fast as humanely possible they're delivering an impressive performance, but if the piece isn't intended to be played at 1000bpm it's not actually going to sound very good. Your audience won't be able to connect with you or the piece and everyone will go home sad and disappointed. 

The correct speed is very important. As I tell my students, if you want to play with expression you need to have control over your dynamics and your speed. Varying these things throughout your performance (on purpose) will guarantee your audience has a chance to connect with the piece. Einaudi's Nuvole Bianche for example, if you don't know it go have a quick listen to the first 30 seconds. Can you imagine rushing those chords? What it would do to the piece? Would they still break your heart a little? I think not.

I've already written too much and I'm not even at step three, unless you consider step three a lecture on speed - I apologise and I'll make it up to you in the next blog. Now go do some scales!