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Tips for Practicing The Piano – Intermediate to Advanced level

Another look at practicing the piano. This time for intermediate to advanced level students.

This is one approach to practicing the piano. It is by no means meant to be the only way. Use this as a supplement to other ways of practicing.

Before You Play

  • Look through the piece of music and look for anything that might be different than what you are use to.
  • Do you know what all the terms (eg. morendo), and symbols (eg. accents, fermatas) mean? If not, learn them first.
  • Make sure you are positioned comfortably and use good posture.

When you play

  • While you may not need to keep every finger curved and the wrist level all the time in more advanced music, don’t forget that a good hand/wrist shape will help you play better.
  • Scales, arpeggios and other technic exercises: Start SLOW and gradually speed up. Use them to focus on how you play – position of wrists, fingers, fingering, and volume/intensity of each finger. Take your time. Don’t rush through them just to say you’ve done them. Always practice them with precision.
  • Use the correct fingering on scales and arpeggios. If you have any problems with the fingering, start over this time SLOWLY. Wrists should remain LEVEL throughout the entire scale. (A slight leaning to the right when ascending or a slight leaning to the left when descending is okay). This includes when fingers cross over/under or when playing the thumb or 5th fingers. Keep your elbows in the same general position and avoid letting them stick out when crossing your fingers.
  • Look ahead several notes, or even several measures as you play. Adjust your fingering accordingly.
  • As you are learning a piece, be sure to count with precision. No pausing or hesitating should be allowed. If you are hesitating anywhere in a piece of music you need to work that section AND slow the entire piece down until you can play the entire piece at the same speed. You MUST count when learning a piece of music. Keep the tempo steady and precise. Add rubato later. Use of a metronome can be helpful.
  • Fingering: Use standard fingering for scale, scale-like, arpeggio or arpeggio-like passages. Don’t invent your own fingering. The simpler the fingering and the less motion of the hand, especially the less crossing of fingers over/under, the better. You should almost NEVER slide from one note to the next using the same finger (when playing just one note, with chords & harmony it is okay).
  • Where you have problems, work – slowly – just that section, then increase to regular tempo. Then add a measure or two before and after – slowly first – then a whole phrase, then the whole piece.
  • Understand the theory behind what you are playing. What chords and chord progressions are you playing? What is the relationship between the chords and the key of the song? What is the key? What is its relative major or minor key? Look for scale like passages (ie. 4 or more notes in a row) and figure out what the scale is (or might be if it had all 7 notes).
  • Phrasing. Pay attention to slurs. At the end of a slur, let your fingers breathe similar to how a singer or wind instrumentalist does. Don’t change the tempo, but rather shorten the last note of the phrase a slight amount (eg. make a quarter note 0.9 beats long instead of 1.0 beats).
  • Rhythm. In addition to basic counting to keep the tempo steady, double check the length of individual notes (or chords) and make sure you are playing them the correct length. Use of a metronome can help to insure that you are playing all the notes correctly. Look at the rhythmic relationship that exists between the hands. In some songs, for example, there are passages where every beat will consist of 1/8th notes, but not necessarily in both hands. Use the rhythmic flow of a piece to help you in playing the rhythms correctly.

The best advice I can give about practicing is to play the piano every day and try to play correctly. If you skip days between playing the piano, it will slow down your progress.

Practicing the piano, some suggestions

One approach for beginning to intermediate level students.

This article contains some suggestions on how to practice the piano. These are geared toward pianists from the absolute beginner to intermediate level. This is only one of many approaches to practicing, but all the suggestions are worth applying to your practice routine.

First a brief comment. I’ve been teaching music in some shape or form for many years. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me to take piano lessons and tells me how they’ve been trying to learn on their own but aren’t getting anywhere. I know there are many online sites – I’m tempted to call them scams – that say you can teach yourself to play the piano, often in a short amount of time, without any help besides their latest and greatest video or online lessons or book or whatever. The truth is, you need a teacher to guide you and make sure you are doing things right. If you’ve tried taking piano lessons from a teacher and not been able to learn anything, I’m afraid the honest truth, even with a terrible teacher, it was probably not the teacher’s fault. There are some people who do not have or do not want to obtain the self-discipline and patience that learning to play the piano requires nor are they willing to do the work necessary to learn. Those people also waste their money on ‘learn to play quickly or learn to play by ear only’ type of scams. Now on to practicing.

Before you start playing

Get comfortable

Adjust the piano bench so you are in the right position – the bench parallel to the piano, centered around middle C and not too far or too close to the piano. Make sure you have enough light to read the music. If using a keyboard, don’t just set it on the bed or a kitchen counter, get a stand that’s at the same height as an acoustic piano and use a standard size (height) bench.

piano fingers

Curve your fingers, level wrists, relaxed shoulders

Hold your hand, palm up, as though you are trying to hold a small ball in your hand. Note the natural curve. Turn your hand over, keeping that same shape not letting the ball fall, and place each finger (which in the piano world includes your thumb) on a different white key. Your wrist should be level with your fingers. Don’t let the wrist sink below the curved finger heights. Don’t let it rise above the curved finger heights. Your shoulders should be relaxed. Don’t let them push up from their normal standing or sitting positions. The picture shows the extremes, one wrist is a bit high, the other is a bit low and because the fingers are on the black note in the LH, they can’t be as curved as in the RH.

Think about what you are going to do

Don’t let other things or people in the room distract you. At least for brand new beginners, I recommend that you focus on all the things I’ve mentioned so far before you start to play. As you get ready to play keep thinking about these things at the same time you focus on other things.

Do you know the terms and symbols at the start of the piece?

Finally, before you start playing, do you know the terms and symbols at the beginning of the music? Is there a 4/4 or 6/8 or 3/4 at the beginning? What does that mean? (Time signature). Are there sharps or flats just before the time signature? What do those mean. What is the tempo? You should know those terms before you play. The composer or arranger put them there for your benefit so you should take advantage of them.

While you are playing

For the most part, keep all your fingers, including your thumb on the keyboard

As mentioned before, all your fingers should always be on the keyboard (including the thumb) and in a curved position with a level wrist. As you play there may be some movement of the wrists up and down, but at least for a  beginner, there should be very little up and down motion.

Listen as you play

Do you like what you hear? If not, maybe you are playing something wrong. Double check the printed music and make sure you are playing the right notes and rhythm. Sometimes what you play may not sound right to your ears even when you are playing the correct notes. So, before you change something just because it sounds funny, make sure you know why you are changing.

Slow down

Too many beginning and intermediate pianists (and a few professionals I know) want to play a new piece at the speed indicated in the music (the tempo) even when they are not capable of doing so. It always acceptable to play a piece of music slower than is marked when you are learning. This is sometimes essential to learning the music. So, slow down, learn the piece properly.

Always look at your music, not your fingers…

…Or so you’ve probably heard people who play piano tell you. I believe it is acceptable to sometimes look at your fingers, but only sometimes. The reality is that music moves by so fast that you don’t have time to read the music and look at your fingers. Being aware of what notes your fingers are on without looking at the keyboard even if you move your hands is a skill you need to learn.

Play by intervals but also know the letter names

Learn the distance between the notes on the music and how that relates to your fingers (the intervals). If you play a note with your second finger and the music goes up one line from the line it is on, the next note is played with the 4th finger. You don’t need to know the note name. Sometimes this is faster than trying to figure out the note, then figure out what finger you need to play it with and then play it. However, you can’t play by intervals alone anymore than a well-rounded pianist can play just by ear. You still need to know what note(s) to start on so you absolutely must learn the names of the lines and spaces in the treble (RH) and bass (LH) clefs.

Keep the tempo steady, don’t stop at the end of a bar

When playing a piece of music, you should keep the tempo steady, almost with a machine like precision, at least to start with. Those vertical lines in the music, the bar lines, do not mean stop, pause or wait. The only thing they are there for is to tell you where one bar (aka measure) ends and another starts. So, don’t stop at the end of a bar. And remember that the first beat after a bar line is always beat one.

Articulations

Are there slurs? Are there staccatos? Are there accents? Those are collectively known as articulations. If so, be sure to observe them. Watch out if one hand has slurs and the other doesn’t. In those situations, it is sometimes easy to make both hands slurred or to forget to do the slurs in one hand.

Rhythm and counting

Rhythm is the relationship of the value of the notes to one another. A quarter note should always be the same length throughout the piece of music. A half-note is always twice the length of the quarter and the whole-note is always four times the length of the quarter. This is true throughout the song. You need to count the beats in a measure. The 4/4 at the start of a piece of music tells you there are 4 beats per measure and that a quarter note gets one beat. As you play through a piece of music, count the beats in the measure – keep the counting steady – and play the notes on the beats they are supposed to occur on. The beat should be as steady and consistent as the flow of time is steady and consistent. Time never stops, nor should the beat.

Are your fingers curved, wrists level and shoulders relaxed?

By the way, are your fingers curved, wrists level, and shoulders relaxed. If not, go back to the beginning and re-read this.

The unfortunate truth about becoming a good, well-rounded pianist is that it requires work, dedication, commitment, self-discipline, patience, time and work. Did I say it takes work and time, lots of time? I hope these suggestions help you as you practice the piano. Don’t give up. Keep with it and the rewards will be far more than the effort it took you to get there.