Have you ever practiced a section for weeks and weeks, but it never seems to get any better? It’s time to perform, but you just know you’ll mess that difficult part up. If this scenario sounds familiar to you, then I have something that will help. You’re practicing wrong. There should never be a section that seems impossible to learn. If you tackle the passage correctly, with almost no exceptions, you can feel comfortable with it in about a week. Not only will it be comfortable an accurate, but forget about spending hours and hours on one section. If you just set aside a about a minute a day, it will be learned before you know it. As you read this entire post you’ll learn to master piano technique in a fraction of the time it’s taking you now.
What is Piano Technique?
Before we can talk about how to improve piano technique, I want to make sure that it’s well defined. Piano technique is a fine motor skill. A motor skill is an “intentional movement that must be learned and voluntarily produced to proficiently perform a goal-oriented task”. The goal oriented task in this case is playing the piano. So when a pianist plays any passage of music they are using a motor skill that was learned through practice. In the same way that a baby must learn to stand, roll over, and even talk, pianists must learn how to play passages of music. The way a pianists fingers touch the keys, the pianists hand and wrist position, and the way the body moves are all examples of piano technique. There are volumes of books written on the subject, and most don’t agree on how exactly to approach technique. What it comes down to in the end though is simple: what movements are required to play a section of music accurately and with control that does not cause injury? If the pianist can play a section musically, accurately, comfortably, and without injury the actual movement used to accomplish it is unimportant.
What NOT to Do
Before I get into the best way to practice a technically difficult section, I want to make sure we eliminate bad practice habits. Most of the time students practice this way because teachers teach these methods. But please, never practice like this again, no good can come of it.
Don’t Start Slow
So you’re looking at this insanely difficult section, and your teacher says “Don’t worry, just start slow with a metronome, and speed it up a couple clicks each day. It will be learned in no time!” Seems like good advice. The theory is that if you can play it at 60bpm then you can probably play it at 64bpm without much help. The small change in tempo is so slight that your body can’t really tell the difference. No, no, no, and no. This type of practicing will almost always fail.
Here’s why: let’s imagine you have to learn the left hand passage from Chopin’s well known “Revolutionary Etude”.
It’s marked at 160 bpm (beats per minute). At exactly that tempo, this is what it sounds like:
It’s obviously very fast, but very doable nonetheless. Let’s assume you can play it at 160 and then you slowly sped it up, even by just 1 bpm a day. Could you eventually play it at 300 bpm? This is what the piece would sound like at 300 bpm:
You’ll agree with me that it’s humanly impossible to play it that fast. No matter who you are, there will be a point where you can’t play any faster. The human hand and fingers are not capable of moving infinitely fast. The point where you can no longer play any faster is called a speed wall. Your goal should be to avoid hitting a speed wall.
Let’s try an experiment. If you are capable enough, use the above excerpt from Chopin’s etude for this example, if it’s too hard, then any piece of music will do. Trying playing it as fast as you can, but play each note very short, lifting your hand off the keyboard a couple of inches after every note. Is it possible to ever get the excerpt to 160 bpm if you play it like that? Pretty impossible right? But could you play it at 40 bpm while still playing the note short and lifting your hand up a couple of inches each time? Try it out. It should be becoming painfully obvious why slow practice to learn technique is doomed to fail. The way you play at a slow tempo, is very often physically impossible at a fast tempo. No matter who you are, the human body can just not move that fast. If you are starting a technically difficult section slow and speeding it up, it’s very likely you will be using your hand, body, or fingers in such a way that you will hit a speed wall very quickly. So what’s the alternative? It may sound crazy, but it’s to play it fast from the start. Don’t worry, as you keep reading I’ll give you specific examples on how this is not only possible, but the only good way to learn technique.
Don’t forget, this advice is in reference to learning technique, not memorizing. Slow practice is paramount if you’re memorizing a piece. If the section is already memorized, but you’re having difficulty playing the section anyways, then slow practice will get you nowhere.
Don’t Repeat the Difficult Section Over and Over
Unfortunately this seems to be the go-to method for working on a difficult section. The idea is “If I repeat this section 200 times, I know I’ll play it better!”. The problem is like in the example above, it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat one section, if you’re lifting your hands entirely off the keyboard or doing some other impossible motion, no human can play it with the speed and accuracy needed. Practicing music can never be mindless. If you find yourself thinking of what you’re going to have for dinner that night, or about a big test coming up, you might as well not be practicing. Mindless repetitions are a complete waste of time, and they often do a lot of harm.
Let’s pretend that you repeated a difficult section of music 100 times using a movement that will not work at a fast tempo. What you have now done is learned a habit. This habit is often termed “muscle memory”. According to many different studies, habits are unbreakable. Yes, unbreakable. If you have ever formed a habit it will likely be with you the rest of your life. So is it impossible ever to play the section correctly? No, of course not. People stop smoking, and drinking, and biting their nails even though they have developed habits. The only way to stop doing the habit though, is to replace it. So you’ll have to work on the section again, and form a new habit. When you get the cue that this particular habit is about to be used, you choose to use the new habit with the correct movement. The problem though, is that because habits never go away, there is always a possibility of reverting back to your old way of playing the section, even just a little. So please, if you aren’t sure that the movements you are using will work at the correct tempo, don’t repeat them mindlessly, and develop a bad habit. It will only hurt you.
Don’t Practice in Rhythms
I often hear that a good way to practice a difficult section is by playing the section using different rhythms. Here’s an example so you can understand what I mean. Let’s say you’re working on playing this c major scale, and the music calls for it to be played very fast.
Some advice that you may have heard before is to play it in two, or more, different rhythms. You may play it something like this:
and this as well:
Instead of actually writing it out, most students think about the rhythm of “short long” and “long short”. The argument for this type of practice, is that it teaches your hands how to play each combination of notes fast. So first you practice D to E quickly using the “long short” version and then C to D quickly using “short long”. Students usually get the most out of this style of practice when they make the “short” notes as quick as possible. What I mean by this is it would be written more like a double or triple dotted eighth note followed by a 32nd or 64th note. Of course the actual duration of the long and short notes isn’t important. What is important is that one is very quick. Sometimes this type of practice is taken even further, and a student may practice in groups of three or more. So it would end up being “short short long short short etc.” and “long short short long short short etc.”. It could then go to groups of four and so on. This way of practicing does work. But I forbid you to ever practice like that again. Why? Because there is a much better way to learn.
Don’t Practice with Different Articulations
Some students practice a section that will eventually need to be legato (smooth and connected), as staccato (detached). The student might also accent every note when a section has no accents. What does this accomplish? Nothing, is the obvious answer. Again understand what the goal of technique practice is, it’s to learn a motor skill, a movement. You should be teaching your body to move in such a way that will accomplish a task. If you are completely changing the way you’re moving by playing the section with different articulation, you are not practicing the correct movements, and therefore not learning the correct skill to play the passage. It’s really as easy as that.
The Correct Way to Learn Piano Technique
Now that you know what not to do, I’ll go over the correct way to learn technique.
When I say fast, I mean fast. Really fast. As fast as you can. Don’t just try to play it as fast as it will be in performance. If you can play it faster than it will eventually need to be, it will be simple to play at the correct tempo. The question most people have, is “how can I start practicing fast, if I can’t play it fast? The answer is simple. Much like memorizing you need to take an extremely small group of notes, and work on those fast first. Let’s go back to the c major scale example:
I’ve added fingerings this time to articulate a point. Most students have no problem playing the first three notes of the scale extremely fast and accurately. Why? Because it’s easy. You’re just moving your fingers one after the other, there is no other movement involved. If you took the second part starting on the F and ending on the C out of context, most students don’t have a problem with that either. The key takeaway is that if you can’t play the scale at a fast tempo, it is most likely because of the thumb under movement. I’m talking specifically about from the E to the F, going from your third finger back to your first.
If that is the only part holding you back, why repeat the scale over and over and over? What a waste of time! What you should be practicing is specifically the E to the F. That’s it. Your goal should be to play those two notes as fast and accurately as possible. Because you are focusing on just two notes you can pay specific attention to the best physical way to play those two notes extremely quick. If you were repeating the scale mindlessly, you wouldn’t have that benefit. Since you are playing just two notes, odds are you can play them fairly quickly. If you can’t, a few actively engaged repetitions should show you the correct motion that is needed to play it quickly.
After you play just the motion that’s giving you problems (usually just two notes), expand out one note at a time. In the example of a c major scale, practice E and F multiple times, and then add D. So now you’ll be playing D, E, F extremely fast. Now add a note the other way and play D, E, F, G then C, D, E, F, G and then C, D, E, F, G, A. That is probably as far as you would need to expand this particular part. Use common sense when deciding how far out to expand the section. There is usually no need to expand them to include an entire section. Just a couple of notes both ways is usually enough.
Adding context is important, because although the one motion is what you need to practice, sometimes getting into and out of that motion can also be difficult. It is often difficult to see this all at once.
Practice Motions Not Notes
One thing to keep in mind, is that it should not be your goal just to play those two notes very quickly. You need to be able to play them very quickly in the context that they will appear. If you put your third finger on E and start your repetitions with your thumb already under your hand and hovering over the F, you’re wasting time. That’s not the motion that is difficult, it is getting to that position in the first place. So in order to practice the correct motion for the c major scale, your hand should be straight and in a normal five finger position first. Then when you play the E you can practice moving your thumb under as quickly and as accurately as possible.
Take Time Between Repetitions
I teach my students to practice this way and they start repeating the two notes, but don’t leave any time between repetitions. Remember mindless practice is bad! You should take a short amount of time, sometimes even less than a second, to analyze what you just played. Was it fast? Could it be faster? Was it accurate? Did it feel awkward? Is there something you could do differently on the next repetition that would make it work better? Is the motion not working at all? If you’re not asking yourself these questions between repetitions, then you risk turning off your mind and establishing bad habits.
You don’t have to ask the questions out loud or wait a few seconds, but you want to make sure you’re actively looking for better ways to play the passage.
No I’m not talking about listening to Mozart as you sleep and somehow absorbing the music. Everyone knows 30 minutes of practice 7 days a week is much better than over three hours of practice on just one day. The reason is because sleep consolidates memories, and it is also vital when learning motor skills. You can’t teach yourself a new motor skill in one sitting. Sleep is a very large part of learning. For this reason, please don’t over practice. I’m not saying don’t practice 8 hours a day, I’m just saying don’t over practice one section. If you’re working on the thumb under motion on the c major scale, and you feel comfortable that you played it maybe 5 times in a row accurately and at a very quick speed, then guess what? You’re done! Yes, don’t touch it anymore for the day. Do the same thing the next day, and the next day, and the next day, until the scale is perfect. The amazing part about practicing like this, is first you’re cutting down a section into just one motion, so the repetitions take almost no time to accomplish. You only need to play a handful of repetitions and you move on, so learning that motion for the c major scale or any other difficult section can literally take a minute or less a day. You can work on literally dozens of sections like this in only 30 minutes. Practice like this every day for a week or so, and all your technical difficulties on the piece will be gone, like magic. It really does feel like magic. Please don’t play the whole scale just to test how you’re doing. Just do the one motion every day, after a week or so has passed, try playing the section again. All the sudden it will feel completely comfortable, and you’ll wonder why you ever had a problem with it to begin with.
Mark Your Music
When I was an undergrad student I worked on Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. It’s 28 pages and about 15 minutes long. The whole thing was pretty technically challenging for me. To practice all the technically difficult areas would normally have taken me hours a day. What I did instead was found any section that was difficult, found the exact couple of notes, or more specifically movement, that was causing the problem, and I would circle it and write a “T” next to it (for technique). I ended up having hundreds of circles throughout the piece. Everyday I would go to just those circles and practice it the way explained above. It would usually take me a little under 30 minutes to practice every problem area this way. I did this for a couple of weeks and tried playing the piece again. It felt like magic, all the sudden the 28 pages that I struggled so much with were clean and accurate. I hadn’t played the piece up to tempo yet, but it was already memorized really well, and the sections I had circled were the only parts I couldn’t handle technically. It took almost not effort to play the piece accurately and at the correct tempo.
If you have to go looking for these sections everyday, you are wasting time. Mark them however best works for you, and you can go straight to them every day.
The best way to learn the piano is always with a good teacher. There are motions that will let you play a piece accurately and extremely fast that can actually cause injury. Your teacher should know how the pianist’s body works and how to avoid dangerous motions. If your teacher notices an issue, they should suggest a different motion that may work just as well, but that won’t cause injury.
This is the best way to learn piano technique. Don’t waste your time working on music in other non productive ways. Be a detective. Find exactly where you are having problems, analyze why there is a problem, and propose a solution. Your teacher should realize that it is their job to help give solutions to technical problems, but in the end it comes down to the student to apply them.
If you haven’t already practiced this way, give it a try and let me know your experience with it in the comments!