Thoughts on Practicing the Piano
Here is a quote, with permission, from How to Get Your Child to Practice...Without Resorting to Violence, by Cynthia V. Richards:
"I recently heard Dr. Frank Wilson, a well-known neurologist, speak at a meeting of the American Music Conference in New York City. His feeling that increased intelligence is helped by a child playing a musical instrument is based on the fact that approximately 80-90% of the brain's motor-control capabilities are devoted to the hands, mouth and throat...He feels that by developing highly refined control in those areas, a child is stimulating almost the entire brain, thereby increasing its total capabilities."
The book is excellent and may be purchased from this location: www.advanceartsmusic.com
Awesome insight, isn't it? And noticeably true. My brain feels warm and active, almost sizzling, after a good workout on the piano.
The way a person approaches their at-home practice time is key to their success. Some students come in to the lesson and indicate that they've practiced many times that week. Still they haven't made much progress on the materials. So I can tell for one thing that they're probably not focused in their practice. Maybe their mind is wandering, or they don't want to play the tricky parts over and over several times to get it right. If a person can put all other matters out of their mind and decide to make great progress in today's practice, the results will show right away! Wynton Marsalis, the jazz trumpet player, once said that he could accomplish in 10 hours of practice what it takes other musicians 40 hours to accomplish. Quite a statement! He didn't say what he meant by that, but I'll bet it included single-minded focus.
One student came in saying he couldn't fall asleep at night. I asked him if he plays piano right before bedtime, and he said yes. There's the problem! Playing piano is so stimulating to the brain and to the energy in general. It's like drinking coffee, but much better; no side effects. However, playing late at night may cause insomnia! If I play at night I make sure to stop at least an hour before bedtime, and I recommend the same to my students.
***COMPOSITION / IMPROV
Many students have ability or interest in making up their own music. Some compose little songs, some just like to play around or improvise. I read a book called Note By Note by Tricia Tunstall. She is a piano teacher and the book is about her teaching. Ms. Tunstall remarks that sometimes in the acquisition of musical skills, such as note reading, the musical impulse may be lost. I think that is so true! We can get so busy following the rules of written music that the spontaneity becomes lost or hidden. I encourage piano students to devote a part of each practice to just playing around on the piano and listening to the different sounds, different note combinations, different melodies. When the imagination is unrestricted, there is no telling what will come out. It is really satisfying and soulful to play that way. Even young students can be quite creative on the piano once they get a little bit of hand coordination under their belt. Here is a link to the book on Amazon if you're interested. It's a really nice book that any parent or student may enjoy.
***SERIOUS VS CASUAL PRACTICE
Serious players have a routine about their practicing. First we do this, then we do that. Over and over, even counting the number of repetitions. They have a specific way to tackle the tricky parts of the song. Focused, determined, goal oriented. I once read of a concert pianist who wouldn't play a piece in public unless he had practiced it at least 1500 times. (Can't remember the name.) When the jazz pianist Bill Evans began learning a new song, the first thing he did was to learn it in all 12 keys. You can watch a person practicing seriously and observe them going deeper into the world of the song. They're in another place. They almost lose contact with the rest of the world for a little while. It's so excellent and satisfying.
On the other hand, it's also nice to just sit down and fool around on the piano, play a little of this, a little of that. Keeping it light. A better alternative to video games. No particular aim, and not taxing the brain with too much effort. Perfect for unwinding after a long day.
Both of these types of playing are valuable and needed. A person who always has their nose to the grindstone and never allows simple enjoyment will miss out on something. At the same time, a person who is only willing to play casually without focus will never master a song unless it's simple. A combination of serious and casual pracitce is the best.
*** "HOPELESS" STUDENTS
No such thing! I've read some piano teachers writing about students who are "hopeless" on the piano. In all my years of teaching I've never had a student who couldn't learn to play! Of course there is an element of natural tendency. Often, students who are less gregarious are more amenable to serious piano practice, since they don't mind solitary time, which is required for music study. But that being said, I've seen that every person can learn songs! I've never had it not be true. So the inner satisfaction that comes from playing is available to all. No one is innately disqualified. You just have to sit at the piano long enough to make it happen. You don't have to devote your whole life to it to get results. Just some part of your life. Put it in the schedule, and watch and see what happens!
Posture during practice is important. A person should view piano playing as an important activity, and should sit at the bench in a way that shows respect for the music. Sit up straight, with both feet planted flat on the floor. I have watched students struggling to play the notes while slouching at the piano, and then as soon as they sit up straight they get it just fine. It's amazing, the effect that posture has on playing.
*** "CONTROL" IN MUSIC AND DURING THE LESSON
It's so interesting to relate to the different personalities that students bring to the studio. One difference is in the area of "control." I sometimes joke to my students that a person must become a control freak to successfully play the piano! Actually, control and release is needed. It is a discipline to get the hands to play fluently. Fingering, timing, note recognition - making progress requires firm, persistent attention. Precision is the goal, and it needs to be pursued with some seriousness. But also we want to relax the spirit so the musical feeling can emerge. So, controlled and relaxed, preferably simultaneously! What a combination! What a great thing to learn. Giving a lesson requires the same combination. If the teacher has too much control in the lesson, then the student can't express themselves. But if there is too little control, then the lesson will be unproductive. Some people come into the lesson with natural cooperation in their personality. They are happy to accept instruction. Then there are students who can't maintain their focus unless the teacher is hovering close by. At the other end of the spectrum is the person who has resistance in their personality. Such a person has a great need for independence and may resist the instruction until an element of trust can be developed. Usually that doesn't take too long. So, in the lesson, it's the teacher's job to learn the student's personality so things can flow as well as possible.
Teaching piano is an interesting job!