How to Get Past a Piano Practice Plateau

How to Get Past a Music Practice Plateau

This question is from one of the Artiden readers:

Dear Grace,

I’d like to know how one gets from being a pretty advanced player to someone who can play at least at the level of a good conservatoire graduate. (I’m not even aspiring to be a “great” pianist like Zimmerman or Le Plante, say!)

I apply nearly all of your practice hacks in my own playing – but I seemed to have reached a plateau. I probably went overkill on Hanon – I developed a good “mechanical” technique, but it did almost nothing for my playing and musicality. I haven’t had a proper look at Czerny’s studies and maybe that should be my first step.

Here’s what I’m up against and maybe you have some ideas already or can give me some pointers:

There are so many pieces that I’m really struggling to get a handle on – like most of the works by Debussy or Grieg or Schumann (Robert and Clara) and I can hardly play anything by Brahms or Liszt. For instance, I’ve been working on the Bmin Sonata for a while and – using chunking and muscle-memory “automation”. (Grace’s Note: Here’s an article about the chunking technique and muscle memory.)

It took me ages to master Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestück Op 12 no. 5 (In der Nacht), especially the middle section that is ironically marked “etwas langsamer”. But after a good year of half-hour attacks at very small chunks of music, I managed it in the end.

So I thought, well if I can do one of the fantasy pieces now, the others can’t be that much more difficult.

But actually they are. At least they seem to be at least AS difficult, requiring perhaps another year to painstakingly chunk through one of the pieces.

That’s the background. So the question then is: how do I get to the next level? I want to be able to play the pieces by Liszt, Schumann (R & C), Brahms, Debussy (beyond the Arabesques), Rachmaninoff – and the more difficult Chopin pieces.

How do the professionals and conservatoire students do it? Were they already highly-talented at 10? (I saw a 7-year-old play Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu op 66 better and faster than I can play it now after two years of study!) Or do the not-quite-genius-level players get some magical instruction that we ordinary folk don’t get?

My own experience is that virtually none of my teachers ever taught me HOW to learn and practice – they seemed to focus more on the interpretation on the music, but never gave me any inkling of how I could achieve that either technically or by thinking about it. Until I met a teacher in Israel who was preparing me for the conservatoire entrance exam – he got me thinking about how to practice, managing my time, listening to the music (as opposed to “playing” it), etc. etc.

I sometimes wonder whether I’m just a “slow learner” (when it comes to piano playing) because the other piano students at school could easily perform things like Schubert’s Ab Impromptu (op. 90) while I found it too difficult (now I don’t see why) and I couldn’t even play Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turka evenly and without my fingers collapsing towards the end.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any “magic” to playing really well, because so many people can do it – at least those who get into the music schools and conservatoires. I’ve missed every opportunity to study full time because I had other commitments, mostly to do with earning a living; so I’ve been teaching myself ever since.

So do you have any ideas? I live in Thailand now. There is a music school in my city (Payap University in Chiang Mai), but I still can’t study full time and I wouldn’t know what a teacher could do with me.

I suppose most people ask how to improve their basic techniques, but if one already has a fairly decent technique then what could I do to be able to tackle and master the more advanced repertoire that I mentioned above. Is it even possible for people like me who are probably just mediocre players (let alone the baby geniuses like the Chopin-playing 7-year-old)?

What did YOU do?

Thank you gratefully in advance.

Wishing you all the best in your endeavours.

Kind regards,
Gary

Hi Gary,

That’s a really good question! I was in your spot and I assure you that everyone hits a “glass ceiling” at some point.

It’s great that you’re doing Hanon and it’s a good sign you’re aware that you’re now lacking musicality. If you don’t already, listen to more classical music in your free time and close your eyes to appreciate the temperaments; when I’m sitting on the bench, I would also close my eyes to hear the sounds in my head. I didn’t really listen to the pieces until I reached a plateau, so plateaus are opportunities to mix up your routine and grow.

I would also listen to other interpretations of the pieces that I play. Look into mental practice.

 

To get to the next level in terms of technique, you have to learn to practice properly. There is a chance that you are not practicing efficiently and to be very honest, I only learned this by switching teachers at some point. Speaking of practice, this is a quick intro to what I call “chunking”, or breaking a bar apart to practice a few notes at a time.

You are not a slow learner; it just sounds like you haven’t been breaking the pieces down and practicing properly. If you listen to a performer really practice and drill into a piece, it doesn’t sound like they’re practicing a piece; they are just playing a few notes at a time or a few sections at a time, or even just one hand at a time. This lets you really focus into that section.

Have you seen the movie the King’s Speech where they teach someone who has a stutter to speak, by repeating a word syllable by syllable? This is what you have to do as a pianist – practice syllable by syllable until you get every syllable right. Sometimes it’s not the most fun, but if you can get through Hanon, I’m sure you can get through this. (Side note: I highly recommend Hanon for improving technique and getting faster fingers, but it doesn’t make you a more expressive pianist.)

 

As well, instead of thinking of piano as an activity using your fingers, think of it as using your entire body. I wasn’t using my arms nor wrists enough, nor my torso. If you are telling me that you don’t have enough musicality, you are probably not using your entire body to play. Move your arms and wrists to flow with the movement, but not in a dramatic way.

A mentor should be able to point out unnatural movements. Essentially, you want to use your energy efficiently and not waste any at your wrists–I wasted so much energy keeping my wrists stiff. I noticed that when I taught piano, the younger students had looser wrists, and the older people had stiff wrists, likely due to typing at a keyboard.

 

How to Get Over a Piano Practice Plateau

 

One more thing that helped me – a mentor. I went through many many piano teachers in my journey and at this point, a mentor may be very helpful for where you’re at.

You don’t need help on technique so much as musicality, and I would argue that musicality took me just as much time as the technique to learn. You mentioned there being a music school near you (wow, the ones in Thailand must be amazing!); you should look at which teachers may be a good fit for you because even a few lessons may immensely help your musicality and they may catch mistakes in your technique or posture (I have had the stiffest wrists forever and my fourth teacher caught it; my fifth also commented on my stiff wrists and my slouching). I had teachers for all the years I took music exams.

I’ve included tips for finding a good advanced music teacher below.

 

Lastly, piano is not about age. It’s about practicing efficiently and playing to your strengths.

It sounds like you may be quite strong in technique but it also sounds like you have some holes here and there–for example, you describe your fingers “collapsing” during a piece.

To be very honest (and maybe you meant to use another descriptor) your fingers should never collapse. It implies your fingers were pressing completely straight into the keys, and that is not the correct technique- in any setting, and at any age. Protect those fingers in order to keep doing what you love to do.

I strongly advise you to seek out a piano teacher or mentor to see where you can improve because they can spot things you probably would be missing practicing just on your own.  I’ve compiled some of the things I’ve learned over the years below.

I hope Thailand is treating you well in the meantime. Enjoy the sunshine and I wish you the best of luck.

Grace

 

Tips for finding a good music teacher for advanced players

a) have an interview with the instructor where you play a bit for the instructor and you chat with them. they can evaluate your goals and see if you’re a good fit. they should be able to give you a few pointers right there; if not, then they’re probably not the right fit.

b) find a teacher who’s the right fit for you and someone that you LIKE. that you respect and you know you’ll listen to their advice.

c) a pianist who’s an amazing pianist is not always a good teacher for you.

d) don’t be afraid to switch teachers.

e) I personally did not like when piano teachers were touchy. I never had a teacher who slapped my fingers nor closed the lid on me and these things should not be done, not even at a conservatory setting no matter how much pressure amounts. It sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised what goes on.

If you don’t like the idea of showing up at a certain place every week, look into online lessons. You can get access to great teachers this way and you can be at home.

At this level, I would NOT recommend an instructor who shows up at your home. Great teachers don’t have time to travel from place to place (unless you have an extraordinary budget).

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