Lesson 2: Fundamentals
of Piano Practice
Step 1) Listening and downloading sheet music
The best way to practice a new piece is to first listen to its performance by some professional pianists. Understand the piece in your mind as best as you can since it makes the sight-reading a lot easier.
For classical, nothing beats imslp.org for the most selection of sheet music. Ignore people who fuss over how “imslp” doesn’t have some of the editions that they think are the best. IMSLP is awesome and no one should have to spend 30$ for a sheet music book anymore.
For modern, jazz, or anything else, there are two main websites where you can get music sheets, musicnotes.com or musescore.com.
Step 2) Sight-reading
Now the first time you read the sheet music, use both hands to play whatever you can remember from hearing the performance. Since you know the piece in your head, you should be able to sightread at least the first page.
Once you start getting into difficult sections, stop and turn on the metronome to the slow tempo. Play through steadily, and with one hand at a time if needed. Don’t stumble through the piece, stopping and starting - this doesn’t help you learn efficiently. Play through with a steady tempo using a single hand or both hands, whatever suits you best.
While doing this, do one time with metronome and then the second time without metronome. We are doing this because your mind has the ability to learn quickly if it has the freedom to express itself (without metronome), but with the metronome, your fingers will develop structure and rhythm. Both are extremely important.
Once you’ve read through the piece a few times and know all the notes then you start practicing it for real.
Step 3) Practicing
The first thing to practice is to work on fingering. Correcting the wrong fingering is actually harder than learning the right fingering, so it’s important to get this step correct as soon as possible. Take your time and figure out the best way in which your fingers can work in every passage. You may need to write on the sheet music the number of the finger to use (example):
Notice how I have written numbers for every single finger, even though this piece is not played very fast, but the correct fingering will allow you to play smoothly, without tension or confusion, even for slow pieces (and for fast pieces, this is even more critical)
Most of the time, sheet music helps with fingering but the publisher’s fingerings may not work for everyone because some people have larger hands while others have small ones, and different fingerings work for different hands.
Find out the fingering which works best with you. This will come with experience. A personal teacher will help the most with this part. Once you master it, then play through the piece slowly with the metronome and a steady tempo. If you are stopping and stuttering then slow way down and work on each section separately.
Step 4) Refinement
After you have learned the fingerings, and played through the piece a few times, you are at the refinement stage. This part will take the longest for the pianist. Understand the piece as musically as possible, because lack of understanding is the #1 cause of mistakes. Every time you play through it, try to express emotions through it, try to understand the dynamics, focus on articulations that are on the sheet music. The more you will practice, the more your brain will absorb the details which will help you during performances and recordings.
The worst you can do is play faster than the speed you are actually capable of. Initially, it looks good but later you will realize that after two to three tries your fingers will start messing up. This is a common occurrence to pianists, as your brain starts going to autopilot once you master a job and your fingers do the job. To avoid this problem, practice slower than you might perform, 95% of the time.
Whenever you play at 100% speed, your finger loses the control which you built in low-speed practice sessions. Errors will start popping up and you may need to avoid it. Because us humans are not robots, we cannot simply play through a piece multiple times and have it sound the same every time. Playing through a piece at a fast tempo will result in losing an emotional connection with it.
Therefore, the best way to practice pieces is by playing the piece with as much attention to detail to expression, dynamics, articulation, and emotions as possible. The correct tempo will be the tempo that allows you to bring out 100% of all these details - too slow and you’ll lose the rhythm and finger connection, too fast and you will lose the emotion and intuitive connection to the piece.
Step 5) Recording yourself / Rehearsal
Once the piece is at its more mature stages, you MUST record yourself. The way you think it sounds is sometimes wildly different than the way it comes across. Record yourself, listen to it, find areas to improve on, practice for a few days, and then record yourself again.
Rehearse with the goal of simulating the performance environment. Get a teacher or a friend to listen to you, and go through all the motions of the performance - from walking to the piano, bowing, introducing yourself, talking to the audience, everything. All of this rehearsal will lead to less stress the day of, if even just a little.
Step 6) Performance
On the day before and the day of the performance, do NOT play at 100% tempo. Rehearse through the piece with maximum attention to detail at 80% tempo. Do not worry about speed - once you get onstage or in front of an audience, your mind, heart will instinctively become more focused than ever before. This external pressure causes a massive flow of adrenaline, causing your blood vessels to expand and blood to flow faster to your brain, leading you to be able to handle speeds faster than you could ever achieve practicing by yourself.
The key to good performance is focus. This is where all the countless hours of practice will reveal itself - if you have practiced correctly, all the details you spent so many hours working on, will come out during your performance. The piece will sound fresh, bursting with life, and full of emotion because when your brain is on adrenaline, magic will happen. The audience will be absolutely entranced.
However, if you have practiced incorrectly, this is when all the details that you ignored while practicing, will come out. Adrenaline is a double-edged sword. If you have been playing the piece at 100% speed and losing the emotional connection, then the performance is when the piece will start careening wildly out of control. You will start playing at 120%, 130% maximum speed, and then mistakes will appear left and right. You will rush and speed through passages, and what feels like emotion to you - instead sounds like pressure and stress to the audience. True, most audience members won’t notice, but you will, and knowledgeable listeners will. But every audience member will feel this stress, and it will be a disaster.
The difference between practicing correctly and incorrectly is night and day - and in fact, the same amount of time is spent on each. So more hours is not the answer. It’s too easy to practice incorrectly, in fact our brain’s natural tendencies is to veer towards the incorrect route.