How not to learn Piano

There are many ways in which one can go wrong when it comes to piano, not only with respect to learning the proper technique, but also when it comes to process, that is, the stages with which one progresses with a piece of music. The title of this page and the foundation of this little essay is taken from a classic chess book written by Eugene A. Znosko-Borovsky (1961)[1] who lays out a series of rules of thumb that anyone can follow, though particularly beginners, for playing good chess. These rules are often not explicitly articulated by Master chess players, but are well known to them at large, and often taken for granted. Likewise, in music, through my study with accomplished pianists and my teaching over the years, having seen all the mistakes made by students, from beginners up, am convinced that a particular set of rules of thumb applies to learning piano. Some of course are well known, others are less well known. However, they all have in common the tendency to be ignored by pianists at all levels.

I will now lay out some of these rules as I perceive them, in a similar manner that Mr. Borovsky did for chess. That is, by warning of the common pitfalls that await our intrepid piano adventurers, and offering ways to condition the mind to be ready for them and overcome them. “Before trying to teach men [and women] how to become saints, is it not well to show them how to avoid sin?” (p. 15).

What then are the sins of piano playing?

Avoid Mistakes

This is quite a general term and in fact there are many different types of mistakes with different degrees of severity. Whether it is a slip of the finger and a wrong note, a rhythmic anomaly, or some technical flaw, they will all affect the quality of the performance. This is particularly unfortunate when the performance is otherwise sound from a purely musical point of view. Unchecked, mistakes made in execution will inevitably degrade the music to a point whereby no degree of musicality will compensate. Similarly, in chess there are good moves, bad moves, average moves, questionable moves, best moves and brilliant moves. The more bad moves one plays, regardless of how brilliant your play is, the lower the accuracy of your game and the greater the probability of losing, depending of course on your opponent. So, in music how does one avoid making mistakes in the execution of a piece one has learned? Cleary brute force will not always work. I have had students come to me with pieces they have slaved away at for years, and yet mistakes still crop up and often in the same place each time. Consequently, it would appear that these mistakes are “learned” and become a part of the performance on each occasion, as if they were written in by the composer. When in such a situation, a kind of rut, one must step back and either identify and correct the mistakes in a specified manner, preferably with the help of a teacher, or “unlearn” the music. This can be done by putting the piece on the shelf and waiting for it to disappear from memory. If this is not an option, any corrections made must firstly be tested and proven sound, and subsequently solidified through drill. Often the mistake is a simple matter of fingering, or rhythmic acuity, or in fact a combination of both as errors in rhythm are often the result of poor fingering. Substituting a thumb for a second finger on a single note for example, followed by metronome drill, may solve the problem. Seeking the help of a teacher can be very helpful as often the simplest solutions are the most difficult to find. In the absence of a guide so to speak, someone struggling with a piece may fail to identify mistakes altogether, simply ignore them, or misdiagnose the causes, and continue to practice them in perpetuity.

Avoid poor fingering

This really is a part of the previous heading but warrants more discussion. The question often is what fingers should I use? This is very pertinent to passages of music in which clearly there are several alternatives. And much like chess one can be sure that of these there will be bad, better, best and brilliant (or elegant) ones. The sum of all these fingering decisions is to a large extent what determines the technique for a particular piece of music. From this will follow articulation and phrasing appropriate to the style. The better one is at finding the correct fingering, the better one’s technique will become. Often, this requires many years of study of a style, but in all cases a person’s skill in this area can be improved best by taking the simplest examples (and many of them) and working from there. This is a “back to basics approach” which of course is well known to all master pianists and teachers, and certainly applies when it comes to dealing with flawed technique.

Don’t neglect your scales

Playing scales is not only a great way to warm up, it also primes your mind and familiarizes one with the geography of the keyboard. Arpeggios should not be neglected either. I view working with scales a bit like visiting a different country. Much of the landscape and climate has changed but the basic infrastructure largely remains the same. For advanced players, the AMEB grade 8 technical requirement should be considered a minimum requirement. The AMEB manual (2018) sets the scale tempo for legato playing at 104 clicks, 4 notes per beat. I have found that though this is fine for a basic warm up, for a proper workout, tempos should reach in excess of 126 clicks. In addition, grand scales should be played, with melodic minor included with the standard harmonic minor and Major scales. I have found that at a tempo of around 104 clicks, all 36 grand scales can be covered in about 20 minutes, so not a huge commitment. Similarly, all major and minor root position grand arpeggios can be covered in a short space of time, about 10 minutes. However, I find focusing on a small set of grand scales, including a natural minor scale, in order to attain velocity, is best for attaining a good muscle tone, and wiping away any potential slips and scratches. Hanon is also a very good way of obtaining a nice curve in the fingers. The first 20 exercises at 100 clicks can be covered in about 20 minutes. If one’s goal is to cover as much technical ground as possible, a rotation system can be used to shorten the per day allocation of time; alternating technical sets every other day for example, so grand scales at the octave on one day, grand scales at different intervals on the next etc. Incidentally, it is clear that a solid and thorough technical workout will enhance the strength of your memory.

Don’t practice your pieces at one extremely fast tempo

If you find you are constantly crashing with a fast piece in performance, it means you have not done enough slow practice. Slow practice means practicing your piece at significantly slower tempos than the performance tempo. Apart from giving you an opportunity to identify weak spots, this will give your mind more time to absorb the music, and as a consequence will strengthen your memory. Building up to your performance tempo through metronome drill will result in a solid and reliable performance, provided other areas, such as scales etc. are tended to.

Don’t learn pieces that are too hard for you

This rule should be taken with a grain of salt as it can be good to push yourself with challenges. However, the risks are great, and often I have had more or less beginner level students coming in with grade 7 or 8 pieces of music (AMEB). In these cases, though much work has been done, the overall result usually is poor. The energy expended in such wild pursuits could have been much more profitable if tempered and concentrated in a more systematic fashion. That is by starting with five finger exercises for example, rather than a Chopin Etude.

Don’t leave everything to the last minute, pace yourself

This is perhaps obvious, but unfortunately is one of the rules violated most often, and by advanced as well as beginner pianists. I have seen first hand a professional madly rehearsing music from the page backstage in a practice room 30 minutes before an organ lecture recital was to be given. Though it all went very well, clearly, it could not have been an exhilarating experience and is not recommended. Much like the overconfident student cramming the night before exams, such an approach can lead to great mental stresses and fatigue. It is much more efficient to practice regularly every day in smaller amounts, than it is to practice a great deal on only a few days in the week or in the immediate leadup to a performance.

Don’t perform from the page, memorize your music

This is a very common mistake and frequently leads to failure. Although professionals often play from the page when accompanying or even when performing chamber music, one cannot underestimate the experience of these players, and in fact, in difficult chamber music such as Bach violin sonatas etc much of this music will be memorized anyhow. In a solo concert setting playing from the page immediately tells the audience that you have not done your homework and subsequently any mistakes arising will be less easily forgiven. Furthermore, and perhaps most obviously, if you are playing solo music from the page, then you do not know the music as well as you should or could, and you will be very nervous as a result (which leads to mistakes).

Don’t restrict yourself to practicing with both hands together

If one plays the music only with both hands together, many subtleties, particularly in the left hand, can escape the student. Practicing with hands separately will enhance the musicality of your music as details in phrasing for example, can be attended to. In addition, memory will be improved and the risk of mind blanks virtually eliminated. Ideally, one should have every phrase of every piece of music you are going to perform memorized hands separate. Often this is not possible, however in pressure performance situations one should strive to this end as it will alleviate much anxiety come performance time.

Don’t neglect your counting

Counting, with or without metronome, is a great way to enhance your memory of a piece. Counting should be done with hands separate and together. Over time, although you may not be consciously aware of this, you will begin to memorize where the beats are in relation to the music. Ideally, you should be able to indicate on what beat or part thereof a note lies, for every note in your music. Of course, this is an ideal, and though most of us will never do this, the principal is that through counting you internalize the beat structure to such a degree of accuracy that the rhythm serves to bolster your performance.

Don’t hesitate to test out your music informally in front of a live audience.

No matter how many times you play your repertoire perfectly in the comfort of your own home, you may be in for a shock come performance time, if you do not go out of your way to get some public exposure for your music before hand. Playing in front of friends or family informally is always great for your performance practice. Organising a mock recital in a formal setting at home among friends is even better, as there will be very little difference between this and say a student recital or even a professional recital. If a public piano is available in say the foyer of a conservatorium (which there thankfully is at my place of employment), by all means go down and try out your pieces. One may find that passers-by may distract or add to the adrenalin rush and consequently provide a good test of your nerves. This will help prepare you for the shock of getting up on stage when your hour has arrived. It will also identify areas that have not solidified.

Don’t forget to rehearse on the instrument you will be performing on

It is very important to try out your pieces on the piano you will be playing, as it will not only increase your confidence come performance time, but will also reduce the likelihood of you having a mind blank. Although this is not always possible, particularly for students at beginner or intermediate levels, for advanced pianists it is worth making an effort to establish at least one rehearsal even if it costs you extra monies. Recording your performance at rehearsal can also help you by giving you a taste of the pressure to come (and incidentally is advisable at any time in the preparation of a work).

Don’t get too nervous and don’t sing

Yes, easier said than done but, you’re a pianist and not a singer. If you start missing notes do not try to fill them in with your voice. Generally speaking, if you start to sing or get very nervous it means you are not confident. The result is often catastrophe, starting with a buildup of anxiety, a tensing of the shoulders, and a weakening of the fingers as blood flow is constricted. The dreaded memory lapse will follow shortly from here, though this can happen at any time. It is important never to be in a situation where these symptoms manifest themselves. That means putting in the hours and knowing your music inside and out.

Don’t start too late in the day with your practice routine

I have found that practicing very early in the morning is a good way of getting a psychological boost. Andrass Schiff amounts playing early in the morning to getting up and having a cold shower (also recommended). One can go a step further in this direction and work on performance practice first thing in the morning, before coffee or a shower. If you can play your prelude and fugue, recorded on the keyboard at six in the morning and straight from bed, then there is no question, you absolutely know the music. Though extremely painful to start, I always reserve at least three or four weeks leadup to a performance for this “morning Bach”. However, one must never practice this at the expense of sleep. A good night’s rest is critical to staying sharp and focused in the game.

Don’t be Lazy

Though this rule of thumb can be applied variously to many aspects of music, I here take it in the most literal sense. Get off of the couch, or piano stool as it may be, and get some exercise! Running is highly recommended, but hiking and trout fishing are also good. This is one of the most important rules of thumb, and all else equal will have an impact on your piano playing unrivaled by any other tricks you may have up your sleeve (such as taking Beta blockers for example). This rule has been appreciated in the chess world as well. Bobby Fischer, the great American eccentric, had a personal trainer working with him in the Gym every day in the lead up to the world championship chess match with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland 1972. Spassky was gearing up himself by arriving in the cold climate of Iceland some weeks early to try out the tennis courts there with his personal trainer. Botvinnik, another great Russian chess master, put much weight on physical training as it contrived to “strengthen the nervous system”. Paul Morphy went for regular walks as did J.S. Bach, though in the latter case the walks were significantly longer. And the list goes on. If one is lazy in physique of body so will one be lazy(ier) in mind as well.

Though this is a fairly comprehensive set of rules, of course there are more that could be included, but for now these will suffice. If a piano student follows these rules diligently in conjunction with a healthy dose of common sense in relation to those areas not spelled out here (no red wine with dinner the night before a performance, for example), one may never need to study with a piano teacher in the first place, though this is highly recommended. In sum, there really is no secret to learning to play the piano very well and there are certainly no shortcuts. It really does mostly boil down to hard work and common sense, and even if one does everything correctly in preparation for a performance, things can and will still go wrong some of the time. The key is to reducing the incidence of this happening and then being able to recover in the event of a bad performance. That however is a topic which merits and must be reserved for a separate paper.   

[1] Znosko-Borovsky, E. A. (1961) “How Not to Play Chess” New York: Dover inc.