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I wrote the following essay to help advanced students understand that "practicing wisely" is more important that "practicing a lot".

Feburary 9, 2004






The Myth of Over Practicing

Over the years I have repeatedly heard my students say that they are worried about “over practicing”. I am not sure where they ever heard such a thing, whether from their parents, another teacher, a peer or they just that came up with the idea all by themselves. But in every case, I must respond unequivocally with the same answer, “There is no such thing as over practicing.”

Of course, I never leave it at that. I go on to explain the issues which are the real culprit to making a seemingly good piece go bad, or the underlying factors they want to call over practicing. There are in fact many forces of human nature which must be overcome to keep a piece sounding good, and once we become masters over these demons which want to undermine our goal of performing perfect music, we never need think about or use the expression “over practicing” ever again.

These demons which we must battle every time we sit at the piano can all be grouped into a single category: losing focus. It is human nature for our minds to wander. It is human nature for us to “go through the motions” when doing something that we know well. It is human nature to be lazy. Whenever you play a piece of music, and you lose focus by any of these means, it means that less than 100% of your mind is devoted to your fingers – and to the music. It means there is ample opportunity for your fingers to make mistakes, and for your fingers, hands & arms to make gestures or motions which are unplanned and unrelated to making beautiful music. Such lapses in focus coming from within are equally as disruptive as outside interruptions such as a phone ringing or a pet jumping on your lap. Such big interruptions will naturally force you to make big mistakes, and the numerous small interruptions caused by lapses of concentration in your mind, will force you to make numerous small mistakes. The more these mistakes happen – the more difficult it becomes to eliminate them. The extraneous motions and mistakes actually become part of the music because your mind begins to remember them as if they were intended to be part of the music.

How do we battle such ferocious demons? How do we become masters over our own minds? How do we learn to focus intensely every time we play music?

The answer, as with anything that is so important is easy to describe – but it is very difficult to learn. If it were easy to learn, everyone would be professional musicians, and we would not need teachers either. However, if you follow these simple instructions very carefully, in a few short years you too can be master and not victim to the evils of losing focus.

The opposite of losing focus is having purpose, so whenever you sit to practice you must simply always have a clear purpose in your mind. When you first learn a piece, your purpose is to learn the notes and to plan the musical elements (dynamics, articulations, phrasing, tempos, etc.). During this type of practicing, you will normally repeat only a few measures at a time, over and over, until you get everything right. You will probably also try to memorize as much of the music as possible. Once you know the piece, and you know how you plan to perform it, you must develop new purposes for your practicing, and I will describe them below. Learn them completely and commit them to memory. Every time you practice, be sure you know for yourself for which purpose you are playing the music. In fact, you should probably focus on all these purposes at the same time, only some to a lesser degree and some to a greater degree. But ultimately, you should never just play through music without at least one of these purposes clearly in your mind.

Memory and error checking: The first few run-throughs of the piece (or sections of the piece) should be just for making sure you know all the notes and can play through without mistakes. While playing the music, keep a running list in your mind of each mistake you make. After you are done, review the music, practice those spots by themselves. Analyze your finger/hand motions to make sure you are not doing anything counterproductive. Then, replay the piece/section again to see if it is better. You can repeat this process two or three times a day, but if the music does not improve, stop for today and continue the process tomorrow. Likewise, if your running list of mistakes is too long, or is getting longer with each play through, then this means you are not ready for this step and you should really go back to working out the music slowly a few measures at a time.

Consistency of playing: Within any given piece of music, except for Etudes which usually focus on a single technique, there are a few sections which are technically harder and often many which are technically quite easy. Once the “hard parts” are mastered, the next step is to incorporate them into the fabric of the music so that they do not seem different or unconnected to the piece. There should be no unmarked changes in tempo or dynamics. There should be no pauses or hesitations. There should be no stumbles in the transition. Once you have learned the piece note-perfect, the next step in practicing is to make the piece sound consistent and cohesive. Use a metronome to make sure your tempos are steady and rhythms are accurate. Play the piece very slowly so that you never stumble between transitions. Never play through the piece at a fast tempo until all these glitches have been carefully eliminated.

Hand coordination and melody contrasts: In most piano music there is a melody part and an accompaniment part. In many pieces, the melody part may switch hands, or even be so complicated as to be between two or three musical lines and played alternately by both hands in segments. Then, to make things more difficult, often the accompaniment has chords or fast scales which can overshadow the melody and it is very difficult to play it quietly. Once you can play the piece with great consistency, it is now time to focus your greatest energy on keeping the melody lines prominent and the accompaniment in the background. Much of this work could have been done in the earliest stages while you were learning the music, but now is the time to make sure all the coordination and melody contrast elements are clearly in place. This includes making the melody lines seamless when there are awkward fingerings, leaps, or alternations between the two hands.

Musical shape and impact: While you first learned the music, mostly for notes, you should also have been learning the piece’s overarching musical impact. As a student, your teacher will have explained this to you in many ways, starting from the smaller phrases and leading to the piece as a whole. The piece may have one mood or several moods. It may have one climax, several climaxes or maybe no climax. There may be sharply contrasting sections, or maybe it is the pianist’s responsibility to transition smoothly between them so that the audience barely notices the change. Music has an infinite number of possible shapes and moods which can be communicated to the audience. A crescendo is never just a matter of getting loud, but is a matter of increasing the tension in the music through the careful use of dynamics. Every forte of the piece should not be the same, as at least one climatic forte should be louder than all the rest. Changes in tempo should be very controlled so that the listener is given a sense of excitement or possibly resolution, but never a sense of rushing or chaos. The music must always have a sense of direction and a feeling of “arriving” when coming to the end. The transitions must be carefully felt both rhythmically and musically, so that the listener never feels like you just jumped into a new section. All these important elements must be clear in your mind as the performer, and must be clearly part of the music you play. Your ear is the only full-time critic you have to make sure you do all these things, and you must always be focusing that critical ear to your music whenever you play. This is the final and most important purpose you must have when playing music, and it is the purpose which you have when you actually perform music for others in recital or competition.

Therefore, when you play through a piece of music in practice by yourself, you must play it as if for a judge or audience. If necessary imagine yourself on stage. Imagine that your teacher or friends are in the room. Recall your past experiences of performing music, and imagine yourself doing it again only this time with this new piece of music. If at any point you feel you are not focusing with the same intensity as performing for an audience, then stop immediately and do not finish the piece. To play the piece through without focus, without the intensity of performing it, without every effort of your mind given to making it your best performance ever, is actually much worse than not playing the piece at all. If you cannot focus all the way to the end, practice something else or work just on the small difficult sections, or stop playing the piano all together for a few hours or for the rest of the day.

Ultimately, you are the only person who can judge how well you are focusing on your music, and how well you are performing your music. The more care you give and the more critical you are of yourself, the better you will be able to make music for others.

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