October 16, 2014 Alexander Buskermolen

The Bigger Picture: A Personal Perspective on Practicing Routines

In 2013 schreef Alexander een serie van drie artikelen voor het bekende internationale pianoforum Pianostreet. Het onderwerp voor deze drie artikelen: ontdekken of er een “perfect” pad bestaat van de allereerste pianoles tot aan een succesvolle internationale carrière als concert pianist. Hiervoor sprak hij met Nederland’s meest succesvolle piano pedagoog, Jan Wijn en één van zijn voormalige studenten, Meesterpianist Hannes Minnaar. Gedurende deze interviews probeert Alexander bepaalde waarheden en algemeenheden te ontdekken die bijdragen aan de ontwikkeling van succesvolle pianisten. Lees hieronder het derde en laatste artikel, een persoonlijke visie op het studieproces, de diverse stadia die een getalenteerd musicus vroeg of laat zal moeten doorlopen en enkele concrete studietips om efficiënter met het studieproces om te gaan:

In the third and final part of the series on building a career as a professional pianist, Alexander Buskermolen gives a personal perspective on practicing routines at the piano with practising tips by Dutch pedagogue Jan Wijn.

The previous parts:

Part 1: Master Teacher Wijn is Growing Flowers and Plants

Part 2: Hannes Minnaar: The Path to Becoming a Concert Pianist

I remember watching the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition when I was about five years old. Deeply impressed I told my mother I wanted to be a pianist. It still took me some five or six years before I started my first piano lessons. Now, 16 years later, eight different teachers, several masterclasses and with a Master degree in Music on the wall, I try to summarise all of my experiences. What stayed with me the most after thousands of hours of practising and hundreds of hours of lessons? What knowledge is essential in becoming a skilled and confident pianist? Let’s find out!

Assuming pianists from all levels and backgrounds aim for the same goals, generally technical perfection and musical freedom, maybe it’s wise (and fun!) to have a look at how the pros have established their skills and expertise. Technically speaking, I’m still often baffled by the simple fact that today’s concert pianists can play full recitals without missing a single note. So, how do they do it?

Before I get into the practical insights of studying an instrument, I just want to mention the following. What you need to remember is that most of today’s professional performers have started playing their instrument at the age of four or five. The lucky ones have had excellent teachers throughout their educational path, who provided them with essential knowledge on key points in their development. The flexibility and eagerness of the young mind is part of the reason for their steep learning curve.

Ok, back to you and me. How can you intensify your daily practice and general musical approach in such a way, that it will result in (more) clean playing and (more) musical freedom, maybe even deeper musical understanding and well founded interpretations. First it comes down to a proper reading of the score. Not just the notes, not just aiming for ‘the right’ tempo.. A thorough reading and recognizing of all articulation notations, even the suggested fingerings. They all contribute to a better understanding of both the technical and musical requirements.

Practice tips

For example: staccato markings help you tremendously in quick and efficient jumps and general movements of positions, simply because you can (and should!) let go of the keys as quickly as possible. By landing on your next chord/position, you’ve saved precious time.
Another example: playing fast runs as required in for instance a Mozart sonata or Czerny etude. I’m sure you’re aiming to play these runs as smoothly and as clean as possible. First, choose a solid fingering as a basis for your technique: try avoiding thumbs and 5th fingers on black keys, simply because they’re short and require your hands to make time consuming movement.

After choosing your fingerings, play your semi quavers –or fast quavers – in groups (normally per four) and focus on linking these groups. Also, use syncope rhythms to create an equal quality of sound throughout the run.

A practical tip by Jan Wijn (Piano Street, Frebruary 28, 2013) regarding runs: When you keep making the same mistake during a run (or jump or other technical challenge), focus on the note or group of notes prior to the mistake. 
Mistakes are the consequence of some kind of bad preparation. In a way, it’s all about the right focus for the right challenge.

Also, actively look for inspiration by your personal musical heroes. This will put some fire in your daily work but will also help you determine your personal sense of style and musicality.

A great suggestion by Jan Wijn: You need to find out when you should work on technical details or when you should simply play through the entire piece to get a sense of proportion and get used to playing non-stop for 30 minutes or more. Recording these ‘playing through’ sessions will give you an even better perspective on where you stand with this composition. Very confronting, but very helpful.

Another tip by Jan Wijn: playing slow, at least 30% under the concert tempo will help tremendously in getting a clean execution of the piece. My basic rule is: if you play half tempo, play four times as musical and well phrased. This will help you understand and feel the music better, and will have significant effect in learning the piece by heart.

Memorize and analyze

Jan Wijn on memorizing a composition: Many pianists will find it difficult to play through certain pieces without so called memory slips. I always advise my students to do more intensive mental practicing. Sit down in a chair and bring up the entire composition in your mind. If there are any sections in the piece that you can’t visualize or imagine the movements of your fingers and hands that go with it, this is a section that you’ll need to study more closely. Also, don’t neglect the left hand! It’s often to blame for these memory slips.

Essentially, you need to analyze your scores on how to deal with every challenge. During a practice session, altering the score in terms of articulation, dynamics, tempo, register of the keyboard, everything is allowed if it helps you to get a grip on that specific challenge. In other words, strip it down to the core problem, fix it and only then incorporate all the original aspects that you’ve previously altered.

What’s between the notes?

To end my part of this quick summary on tips for practicing, I want to share the following experience. Whenever I heard a musician talk about “the story between the notes” or “the composer’s meaning” I could only vaguely relate to their experiences. When listening to a good performance, I do get carried away into a completely different world. For me it’s about atmosphere and personal associations with sounds, colors and gestures. Becoming a professional pianist myself, I felt the need and responsibility to go deeper into this personal ‘language’ that is linked to the composer whose work I was playing. In other words, what makes Beethoven typically Beethoven, Schumann typically Schumann..?

These questions don’t end with a technical analysis, though it is the start. It’s about understanding what needs to be said musically on a deep level. It’s like getting to know a new person in your life: only by asking this person many questions, having conversations and spending sufficient time with him or her, at some point you can say you really know them, even relate to them. With the score in front of you, it’s about knowing which questions you need to ask in order to get to a fundamental (and still very personal) interpretation of the piece. Don’t look for right answers first, look for the right questions. It is my conviction that this process can be learned and will increase your overall musicality tremendously. Just stay open minded, inspired and curious!

PS: I’d love to read about all of the challenges you face during your musical activities. Please post a comment!

Alexander Buskermolen,
Piano Street Guest Writer

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