5 Unconventional Practice Techniques For Piano
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“If necessity is the mother of invention, then resourcefulness is the father.” ―Beulah Louise Henry
The experience of getting stuck on a plateau is a common one for musicians. We reach a level of competence and then seem to stay there for months on end. Is there a way to break out of these ruts? Sometimes we need to think outside the box to spark some new ideas and keep moving forward.
My goal today is to draw inspiration from some world-renowned musicians who overcame adversities, and to see what we can learn from their approach to learning music.
It’s quite possible that these approaches could help you double your practice time. How? In addition to sharing some unconventional “on the instrument” practice techniques, I’m also going to share three useful “off instrument” approaches that you can practice anywhere. Let’s jump in.
- Practice without sight.
There have been dozens of well-known musicians with blindness, and many lesser known, that prove impaired vision is not a hindrance to musical ability. Art Tatum, George Shearing, Diane Shuur, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Lennie Tristano, Terri Gibbs, Derek Paravicini… the magnitude of musicians on this list would almost make you ask if the opposite is true. Does sight hinder musical ability?
Research has shown that almost 50% of our brain is involved in processing visual information. We have more neurons dedicated to vision than all of our other senses combined! Imagine what happens when all that neural real estate becomes available. When the visual cortex and occipital lobe are out of commission, the auditory cortex and temporal lobe have to step up their game. Our spatial sense becomes the guide for knowing where to place the hands.
There is a beautiful scene in the movie “Ray” where Ray Charles is sharing lunch with a girl and he comments on the hummingbird outside the window. To the girl’s astonishment, he replies, “I hear like you see.” Our bodies and minds are surprisingly adaptive, and nature knows how to compensate for what is missing. In fact, most of the musicians mentioned earlier have perfect pitch, meaning that they can identify pitch without needing any external reference.
Try it: Are you ready to give it a go? All you need to do is close your eyes. If you don’t trust yourself, you can use a blindfold or turn off all the lights in the room if it’s dark enough. It will take some getting used to, so start gently with some single hand melodies or chords. You may surprise yourself after exploring this for a few minutes with the change in your perception. Are you listening more attentively to the sounds you’re making? Do you feel more in touch with your emotions? These are not unusual responses from people who first try this out.
When I do this type of practice, it helps me to keep the image of the piano in my mind’s eye to guide me. If you’re not too keen on visualizing, then you’ll be dependent on the feeling of the notes underneath your hands and on the sounds you hear. There’s no “right” way to go about it. Approach this technique with curiosity and see what happens. I recommend trying it for 10 minutes, perhaps at the beginning or end of your practice session to feel the benefits. As you build up the skill, you can even do full practice sessions with your eyes closed. For complete beginners, I recommend easing into it slowly.
- Practice without sound.
You might be scratching your head upon first reading this one, but let’s turn to one of the greatest musical figures in history, Ludwig Van Beethoven, to explore this idea a bit further. It is widely known that Beethoven had deafness. His hearing started to decline around the age of 26, and by age 44 he was completely deaf. Yet he composed for another 12 years until his death at the age of 56.
The BBC created an outstanding dramatized documentary on Beethoven’s life, and there is a poignant scene at 25:32 in Part 2 where Beethoven is in a lesson with Archduke Rudolph, one of his patrons. The archduke asks Beethoven, “With your hearing difficulties, how do you compose?” Beethoven, who still has some remnants of his hearing left at this stage of his life thoughtfully responds,
“It doesn’t affect me as you might think. You see, all the music that I write I can hear… in my mind. I know the sounds that every instrument can make. I can hear them all, in a trio, quartet, orchestra… it’s all there, in my head.”
I highly recommend watching the whole documentary. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
What Beethoven is talking about here is his ability to audiate, which he could do to an incredibly advanced degree. Audiation is a term coined by Edwin Gordon, a music education researcher form Temple University. It refers to the comprehension and internal realization of music, i.e. the sensation of hearing or feeling sound when it is not physically present.
Try it: We all have the ability to audiate to a certain degree. Get into a quiet space and try to imagine the sound of your instrument. You can also call to mind a song that you’ve listened to many times. For some, this might seem obvious. But the degree to which we can do this with concentration is what intrigues me the most. In the same way that we can develop our visual memory with eyes closed, we can also train our auditory memory.
If you are playing a digital instrument, you have the added benefit of being able to explore this exercise with your instrument turned off or set to 0 volume. Test your inner hearing by playing a song you’re familiar with and imaging the sounds. It’s fun to do this and see how close you are to the actual sounds. You can also practice this on a simple flat surface like a table top if you play piano or drums. If you play other instruments, imagine holding your invisible instrument and miming the fingerings. The important thing is to imagine the sound while you play.
I recall doing this type of practice in middle and high school during my running practices for cross country. During these long runs, I would frequently audiate little melodic grooves in my mind while imagining myself playing saxophone. It also helped keep a rhythm in my stride. If you enjoy endurance exercise, give it a try.
My goal now is to shift to three additional exercises that you can practice away from your instrument. We spend a significant portion of time each day doing repetitive tasks. We brush our teeth, we do dishes, we fold clothes, we take the dog for a walk, etc. While the lover of mindfulness in me wants to say that washing dishes and folding clothes should be done with your full attention, I’m also sympathetic to the fact that many of us wish we had more time to practice. Is multitasking a myth, or can we take advantage of these time periods to get in some additional music practice?
Disclaimer: I wouldn’t try to multitask during every auto-pilot task you have on your to-do list, but one or two doesn’t hurt in my experience. My favorite time to get in listening practice is at night when I’m washing dishes.
- Practice feeling music
The Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, and yet she tours all around the world performing with orchestras and other musicians. How does she do it? Evelyn feels the vibrations of sound in her body, and she always plays barefoot during her performances. In her TED talk titled “How to Truly Listen,” she says,
Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.
Evelyn’s life story is a remarkable testament to the untapped potentials within us all. How much more aware can we become of the vibrations of sound moving through our bodies?
Try it: Rhythm is one of the areas many students struggle with. The key realization with rhythm is that it is a felt sense in the body. In order to internalize rhythm, we need to move our body to it. Tap your foot. Snap your finger. Wave your arms. As a fun exercise, you can take a piece of music you’re working on, and try to recreate it entirely with just your body. How would you express the rhythm of it without the instrument itself? It’s worth a try.
Are you starting to recognize that any space in the world can become your practice room?
- Practice listening
We started our exploration with some unconventional exercises, as the title of this blog warned you, but now we’re going to return to a slightly more common idea; listening to recordings.
Many of us are used to hearing music as background sound. Whether we’re at a shopping mall or talking to a friend at a coffee shop, we are constantly surrounded by music. I personally find it hard not to pay attention to the music, and perhaps some of you relate to that. What differentiates practice technique number 4 is to engage in deliberate listening away from your instrument.
Try it: If I’m trying to learn a new song, I will find a recording of that song and play it on repeat over and over until I have learned it. Each time I listen to it, I pay attention to different aspects of the recording; the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, and the musical textures. I’m analyzing and mentally categorizing what I hear.
There are also some amazing tools out there, such as “the Amazing Slow Downer” which can be used to loop certain sections of songs at slower speeds. Most of the solo transcriptions I’ve learned have been done using this app and doing repetitive listening while washing dishes. This listening and analysis helps to train our ears when we are away from our instrument. I will also frequently listen back to personal recordings of practice sessions that I did earlier to assess my strengths and weaknesses.
This category of practice techniques could also include watching videos of performers. This is not something you can do while multitasking, but it certainly helps to engrave a skill on our mind. Have you noticed how motivating it is to watch video performances of your favorite players?
- Practice score study
I had a music director once who was an outstanding musician. I would often find him doing score study away from the piano. I asked him once, “Can you hear what the music is supposed to sound like from just looking at the score?” “Of course,” was his reply, “and so can you…” I appreciated that affirmation, and I can say that over time my skill has improved, although I’m still far from what I imagine his ability was.
Try it: This final skill is another another one that unfortunately not enough students take advantage of. We can draw so much benefit from analyzing music away from our instruments and annotating our scores. Writing chord symbols in, labeling phrases and cadences, exploring the melody relative to the harmony. This skill is not reserved for music theory professors and conductors. It’s for all of us! Some of the most significant growth spurts I’ve experienced were from intensive study periods away from my instrument. I’ve spent hours analyzing songs, making charts, and reading music theory books to try and understand music on a deeper level.
That brings us to the end of our five unconventional practice techniques that you can start using. I do have one bonus technique, which is sleep. Research shows that sleep improves motor skills by 20% and memory scores by 10%, but I’ll save the details of sleeping practice for another time since you’re probably getting tired already reading this.
Let me know in the comments which approach you’re most excited to try out!
For more thoughts on mindset related to music, Yannick writes at www.musicwithinyou.com
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