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Practice efficiently

Tips for Playing Faster Repeated Notes on the Piano

Tips for Playing Fast Repeated Notes on the PianoI spent a lot of time in the practice room refining my fast, repeated notes, and for whatever reason, I would only nail these passages sometimes.

One blurred note in the 16 fast repeated notes, gives my entire passage a failing grade.

Before my piano lesson, I would cross my fingers. After all, having the piano teacher stand beside me always made me play approximately 39.94% worse. Anyone with me here? The “I played better at home” excuse never worked for me.

I’m talking Toccatas, Valse Brilliants, anything with furiously repeating notes.

After some long practice sessions, I finally got to a respectable rate of success with my repeated notes. Here are some tips to improve your repeated notes. This video demonstrates the concepts, and the article below explains in detail!

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Using Alexander Technique to Improve Piano Posture?

Hi Artiden friends! I ran the Alexander technique (mini) experiment last week, where I incorporated the principles into my daily life and my practice sessions.

The Alexander technique is a way to release tension to improve posture, alignment, and movement.

What did I do, and how did it go?

Watch the video below to find out!

To clarify, there were 500 patients in the study cited in the video. Here’s the Alexander Technique study published in the British Medical Journal (researchers from University of Southampton, University of Bristol)

This article may be a useful starting point for learning more about the Alexander technique.

If you’re interested in the actual experiment details, I’ve included them below.

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Improving Piano Posture Using Alexander Technique

Improving Piano Posture Using Alexander TechniqueI distinctly remember the year I visited the gym every day–gosh, I was fit. I was confident. I had strength and stamina.

I wish my knee didn’t hurt as often. I’d be so in shape. Instead, I’m inspecting people’s postures in videos where they’re doing squatting exercises, in case my pain came from bad squatting posture.

Pan, my first trainer, is strict enough that I listen to what he says, but still gentle enough that I don’t feel bad about myself.

Today, he showed me how to bench press. I didn’t care about chest muscles until he announced that he would turn me into Miss Proportionate, and found out I needed to work all my muscles separately.

It turns out that pectoral muscles are difficult to work if you don’t already have some strength in your arms (biceps), because every exercise that involves your pecs involves using your arms as well.

“Am I doing this right?” I say. “I don’t feel anything in my chest. I feel it in my arms.”

“You will feel it soon. You’re not used to working your chest.”

There are benefits to conditioning a muscle or skill even if you don’t think you use it daily, because it can have benefits in other areas of your life. In this case, having strong chest muscles can give you better posture.

Very few women work on their chest muscles, but isolating these muscles helped me understand how all the muscle groups need to be exercised to minimize pains in your body–it’s changed how I approach staying in shape.

My chest muscles are quivering, and I didn’t even know I had them.

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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.)

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What To Do When You Can’t Practice Piano

What To Do When You Can't Practice PianoFor my next stage of life, I decided that I want to travel spontaneously. There will be a gym bag in my closet packed with clothes and a toothbrush for last-second trips. I will drive to remote islands to lay underneath the stars on my SUV’s roof and grab my surfboard when I feel like it.

I will be away from my piano so often that my fingers will not be as light for Liszt anymore, but I will befriend someone who plays a ukulele so I can enjoy live music during my travels. I will still tune my piano every year so I can play whenever I can.

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4 Little Sight Reading Tips

I started playing piano at an age where I had nothing more important to do, and I didn’t care that I couldn’t play much piano at all. One day, I found a sheet of music titled Good Morning to All placed in my folder by mistake. When I played it, as I tended to do with any sheet music, it turned out to be Happy Birthday. Ten year old Grace unlocked a new level of playing! It’s the feeling of accomplishment you get from playing the music to your favourite movie or video game.

In any case, sight reading takes deliberate practice and patience. The interesting thing about sight reading is finding the balance between almost feeling hopeless and being fully engrossed in the piece.

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Why Music Theory Can Be A Waste of Time

Why Music Theory Can be a Waste of TimeBack when kids still asked what Google was, a lot of us had to take music theory classes. Now, I can still point out which fingers Schumann cut off. Maybe some people will point out that they were paralysed, but to a pianist, the fingers might as well have been cut off if you can’t move them.

I can’t remember how many years he spent torturing his fingers, but Google can. And it was a waste of months of my time, memorizing mundane details about composers’ lives, about which years they wrote which letters to their secret lovers, that happened to influence their music a little.

I wouldn’t have done it if the music curriculum didn’t require it to get a piano diploma.

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