Optimum Playing: How to achieve ease and security in performance11:52, 18th December 2019
When practising the piano, it’s all too easy to keep making the same mistakes. How can we overcome this to achieve complete security in performance? Jonathan Zoob shares his secrets to successful practice
Have you ever had the feeling that you don’t spend your practice time optimally and that, despite your best efforts, you seem to fall off in the same places time after time? Or that although you start by practising a new piece carefully and methodically, it soon starts to run out of control, the tempo getting faster and faster, creating insecurity and giving you very little room to explore the meaning behind the notes? Or do you ever say to yourself, ‘I am just learning the notes now, I will put the expression in later’, with the result that you stumble, stutter, stammer, rush, hesitate, bang, miss a few notes, and think that the finesse will come later?
If any of this strikes a chord with you, this article might be of some help. Even if it doesn’t, I hope my ideas might help you to make better use of your practice time, which for us amateur pianists is nearly always limited and therefore precious.
I have evolved my method from a simple starting point: when we learn a new piece, we are trying to set down pathways in the brain which are the key to a secure performance. To do this, we must not practise our mistakes. Instead, we always need to build on correct playing that takes into account all the musical values of a piece: its sound, its flow and its phrasing. If you can integrate those into your playing from the moment you start learning a piece, then, at the very least, you are less likely to drive the neighbours mad. It seems pretty unlikely that something beautiful will mysteriously emerge from something ugly.
So how is this to be achieved? Let’s imagine you have decided to play a new piece, a Bach Prelude such as the E-flat major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Klavier, where the notes flow evenly throughout. The first few times you try it, you can play freely to get a general idea of the music’s style and flow. Then a more disciplined approach must be taken.
I try to find a tempo at which I can play the notes almost perfectly from the start, with minimum stumbles, stutters and retakes; a speed where the brain has time to achieve perfection in respect of timing (hence evenness), tone (hence balance between the hands and within chords), articulation, phrasing and pedalling, while using consistent fingering: I call this ‘Optimum Playing’. Try to settle on good fingering as early as possible and mark it in the score.
Remember that music is all about making sounds at the correct point in time. Once that moment has passed, you can’t get it back!
I aim to achieve a feeling that every note is being mentally prepared, so the brain is always ready to play the next sound. A useful analogy is with racket sports or cricket where players try to achieve the sensation of seeing the ball early, waiting for it to arrive, and striking it at exactly the right moment with the perfect stroke. The opposite happens when one is hurried into the stroke by the speed at which the ball approaches. In music, this quest is about the importance of valuing means (preparing and playing the note perfectly) over ends (getting the right note, no matter how or when).
At first your tempo might feel insanely slow (perhaps dotted crotchet = 40 or even quaver = 92 in the Bach E-flat Prelude). Just stick to it and practise with the metronome set at that speed. See how expressive you can make the music while playing absolutely in time at your chosen tempo. Just playing every note perfectly with attention to tone, balance, phrasing and dynamics can be expressive in itself. Challenge yourself to give a performance at your Adagio Molto tempo: imagine you are in a concert hall with people listening.
The next mistake people make is to say, ‘I’ve done my slow practice, surely now I can try it up to speed?’ I am afraid that some more patience is required. Notate your chosen speed in the score, date it and put the piece to one side for a day. If the following day you can achieve Optimum Playing at the next higher notch on the metronome, wonderful. Play at that tempo, notate and date it once more. If you feel that you are not ready for the next tempo, go straight back to the previous one and work away until you are confident that you will be secure at the next higher tempo. All the time you will be making perfect pathways in the brain that won’t let you down later.
‘I aim to achieve a feeling that every note is being mentally prepared’
For a long time you might feel that you are making no progress and that the music is still sounding terribly slow. But the record you have made of the different speeds you have accomplished will prove that you are getting somewhere. And that feeling of slowness is a good thing; it means your brain always has time to think ahead.
Now you might be thinking: that’s all very well for a Bach piece where the difficulty is fairly consistent throughout, but what about a passage that is suddenly much harder than its surroundings, such a piece of fioritura in a Chopin Nocturne or a demanding coda like the one in the finale of Beethoven’s Pastorale Sonata Op 28? Well, the approach needs to be much the same. Isolate the passage and find a speed at which you can play it optimally and notate the metronome mark. It will probably be slower than you play the rest of the piece to begin with. Gradually increase the speed, one notch at a time. Keep doing this until you can actually play it faster than the speed at which you play the rest. In this way, when you play through at your normal speed, you will have the delightful feeling of ease and relaxation, instead of pressure and nervousness.
I am advocating here a good deal of practice with the metronome. Now I am the first to admit that there are pieces that need some metrical freedom. In fact, all music needs to breathe. In romantic repertoire you might quickly feel imprisoned by the strictness of the metronome, particularly as you increase the tempo. My solution is to use the metronome in silent mode. The flashing light on a modern metronome will remind you of your basic tempo, but you can deviate from it where you feel the music demands.
As you work away using this method you will probably think up your own variations, based on your preferences, the needs of the particular piece and tricks that you have learnt elsewhere. But the central principle must always remain the same: ask yourself, is this Optimum Playing? If it is not, slow down to a speed where it can be achieved.
By day, Jonathan Zoob is a pensions manager for an investment bank. By night, he is a keen amateur pianist who enjoys testing himself against the great works of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.