Dr Blanc Wan 尹俊邦博士
Pianist, Musicologist, Educator
Selected Publications
What is practice? Am I practicing?

‘Bravo!’ This is what we often hear after attending a stunning performance. To some performers, a ninety minutes performance can be short. But how much hard work and long hours of practice is there behind a ninety minutes performance? Ninety hours? Ninety days? Or even ninety weeks? What do they actually do when they say they are ‘practicing’?

Have you ever listened to someone practice? Try and take a walk through the practice rooms at music schools or conservatoires. What do you notice? Do they have anything in common?

You will probably notice the majority of pianists practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in repetition i.e. practice this passage 30 times (and for 30 minutes!) or playing through the piece until they are straggling with certain passage, then repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing until they reach another difficult passage, where the repetition parts comes in again.

There are a few major problems with the mindless practice method. Firstly, it is a waste of time. This is why we can practice a piece for days or weeks, and still we do not feel we have improved that much, because very little productive learning take place when we practice this way. These practicing methods actually strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. Therefore, you are actually adding the amount of future practice time in order to eliminate all these bad habits and tendencies. After all, we have to remind ourselves: Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent!

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent!”

Secondly, as you are not aware of how to consistently produce the results you are looking for; it hurts your confidence! Even if you play it 8 out of 10 times through your mindless practice session, you would think you have built up your confident. But real confidence on stage is being able to play it 10 out of 10 times and knowing that it is simply not a coincidence that you produce the correct way. And of cause, most importantly you understand how you do it or why you miss it. Think of it this way, if we tend to do our practice unconsciously and then trying to perform consciously. What will happen? If you have done your practice unconsciously, you don’t really know how to perform the piece perfectly on demand. You don’t know what instructions to give your brain when your brain goes into conscious mode, then you end up panicking on stage.

I am sure we have all heard pianist saying ‘I have done X number of hours today!’ But how often we hear pianist say things such as ‘I have figured out how to make this passage sounds like…..’ Great pianist of the 20th century such as Arthur Rubinstein stated that no one should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably are in the wrong business! Other great artists such as violinist Leopold Auer have expressed similar sentiments. “If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. But if you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.” After all, it doesn’t matter how many we spend practicing a day, but what matter is we understand and know, how to produce the results we want!

But what is health practice? It is a highly structured activity, in other words, scientific. The British pianist Philip Fowke once said to me “I don’t like the word ‘Practice’; I like to use the word ‘experiment’ and practice rooms should be a laboratory!” He is right! Practice room should be a place where one can freely mix with different ideas, both musical and technical to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for. Health practice does involve repetition, but only of a small and very specific section of the piece. Taking the Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960 by Franz Schubert as an example, try working on the opening B flat chord, make sure that it “speaks” the way that you wanted, instead of playing the entire opening phrase! Health practice also involves guiding one’s performance; one should continually look for new ways to improve. Open your ears and listen to your practice, so you can tell yourself what exactly went wrong. Was it too light? Too heavy? Too long? Too short?

If it was too heavy, how heavy was it? Just a little or by far? Why was it too heavy? What did you do? How can you make it light? How much lighter do you want the note to sound? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly played in every performance? Few musicians take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can perfect it permanently.

“Work Smart and not Work Hard”

However, practicing can be very tiring, it requires one to keep their full attention as well as their musical awareness. But then, how to be more effective in practice sessions? 1) Keep the practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. Great pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov didn’t let his pupils practice on a Sunday! Making sure their brains are fresh when it comes to the “Practice” sessions! Not a bad idea at all! 2) Keep note of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may vary, it may be the first thing in the morning or just before you go to bed! Try to do your practice sessions during these natural productive periods, as these are the times at which you will be focus and think most clearly. 3) Work smart and not work hard! Sometimes if a passage is not as good, it does mean we need to practice more. But there are also times when we don’t need to practice harder! Probably just need another different strategy! Instead of stubbornly keep practicing a strategy that is not working; why not try to go away from the piano and brainstorm different solutions for a day?

After all, we spend a great deal of time in the practice room in our life, but who wants to spend all day in the practice room? Go in, get it done and get out!!!

©Blanc Wan 2011

Posted: Jun-16-2013
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