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Jan 30 / Greg

Piano Playing Practice And Having A Routine

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It’s a new academic year and a good time to set or reset our goals. Achievement goals, and above all, practice habits and goals, can always be revisited and refreshed.

If you are thinking of piano lessons for yourself or a child, this is the best time to make an enquiry. I have a limited number of times available in the prime-time after school hours and during the day, which will quickly be filled.

Piano playing practice is the main point in this post. Practice can be, in many cases, haphazard and inconsistent. When a student does not have a clear intention regarding their learning a particular piece, or the piano in general, they will not be inspired to practice much, let alone regularly.

I have found, in my own attitude to practice, that consistency is the biggest challenge. I am sure it is for the great majority of students too. It is especially so for adults. There is always the likelyhood of an interruption to our routines as adults and if we have our hearts in learning the piano, the main task is to not allow unexpected everyday interruptions derail regular practice.

I believe the hardest part of practice is getting on to the piano stool. It is so easy to put it off in favour of something, and sometimes, anything else. I have found that once I am actually seated at the piano, the ‘wall’ that ‘practice’ can present, soon disappears.

It is valuable to have a practice routine, rather than a haphazard approach. By that, I mean a consistent set of exercises, scale and chord workouts that cover the music ‘vocabulary’ relevant to our stage of study. Beginning with finger warm-ups by way of some five-finger exercises and following up with scales and chords.

I will break these down into sub-categories.

There are almost countless exercises that can be pursued. The main task for the student is to practice exercises most relevant to two areas – general finger development and specific finger development, relative to the technical level of music they are learning or about to learn.

With general finger development, it is important to address the areas of strength, independence, control and touch, and have a series of exercises that cover these requirements. Five-finger exercises (where all five fingers are involved in regular repeated patterns) are essential to the development of the above four areas. They fall into two sub-categories: static and dynamic.

Static five-finger exercises are where there is no movement away from the initial hand position. Repetitions are effected on the same five keys. Almost all exercises I introduce to young students are static. The most well-known and perhaps most notorious are the Schmitt exercises, which I use very sparingly, as nine out of ten students will be driven to boredom with them! I have developed many of my own static exercises and use them extensively.

Far more entertaining, and in the longer term more valuable, are the dynamic five-finger exercises. These exercises move to new positions with every repetition and result in the student learning the vast number of hand positions encountered in piano playing. This ‘vast number’ won’t be learned immediately, but will be assimilated over time.

In all cases, they rely on the student knowing the major scales and, eventually, all the modes of all the major scales. The most well-known and perhaps most famous dynamic five-finger exercises are the Hanon exercises. There are also examples by Pischna, Joseffy, Kullak and others, though many of these are very difficult and even ‘dangerous’, to under-developed hands. I always begin practice with dynamic five-finger exercises that progressively cover hand positions in all the major and minor scales. I then move on to some chord-based exercises that progress through all keys.

Next comes scale practice. I make sure I practice every major scale in every practice session. I do not practice harmonic or melodic minor scales every time I practice, but I always practice the major scales (also known as the Ionian Modes) because they are the basis of everything in Western music.

Now the critical point… vary your practice. Don’t always play the same exercise or the scales the same way every time you practice. For example, I will practice all the scales over two, three, or four octaves (not all in one session) in one direction only. Then in the opposite direction, next time. Then separate hands and then hands together, but not all of these variants in the same session. The same applies to chord practice. There are two types of chords – block or solid chords and broken chords, where the notes are played separately. When a broken chord is extended past an octave, it is an arpeggio.

There are numerous fingering combinations that can be practiced and this adds to the variety at the keen student’s disposal. The old saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ is very relevant to engaging, stimulating and rewarding piano practice.

I have only touched on the generalities of overall technical practice here. The specifics are too involved and variable to go into in detail. That is partly what the piano lesson is for – to set a routine that is efficient and productive and to introduce all of the above in a logical, relevant and sequential manner.

I will give examples of the above mentioned exercises, scale routines, chord exercises and routines, in subsequent posts.

The practice of chosen piano works is a separate matter altogether and will be addressed in later posts too.

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Greg Norman’s Piano lessons and/or Music Theory lessons…
Styles: Classical, Modern
Skill Level: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Post-Graduate, AMEB/ABRSM exams
Suitability: Ages 7 years and up to any age, any experience level. Lessons are weekly.
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