Technique Matters - Practicing: Who Makes the Decisions?


William Leland, D.M.A.
Las Cruces, NM USA


lay a single note on your piano--any note--and analyze what you hear. What are the different elements of that sound? Let's list the obvious ones:

1. volume
2. duration
3. tone quality or timbre

.....and if the note is being played in combination with others, or the pedal is down, we could add:

4. enrichment of sound by sympathetic vibration from other strings
5. relationship to other tones sounding either simultaneously or in succession

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? Maybe so, but there's no escaping the fact that, in every single note you play, all of these factors are going to be present. How most of them get there is going to be determined by you. The only question is: who decides how they will come out--you, or your hands?




That's right--think about it. Every time you fail to decide ahead of time what kind of sound you want to make, your hands will make the decision for you. That's a pretty intimidating challenge, to say the least. Could anyone possibly play with such all-encompassing command and control that he could put together a performance in which every single note comes out precisely as planned, with nothing happening by default? Well, maybe not--only machines are perfect. But unattainable perfection is not what I want to talk about; the point I want to make concerns the decision process--or the lack of it.

Most of us spend far too much time practicing just to hit the right notes at the right time, and far too little deciding what kind of sound those notes are going to have. How often do we sit down to practice and plunge in with no clear idea of what the dynamic level, touch, balance, or even the tempo is supposed to be? Haven't we all spent entire practice sessions "getting the notes" of a piece, with the vague idea that all the expression can be tacked on later, like the icing on a cake? Or trying to execute expressive devices without any clear idea of what we want?

Here's a common example: many students will see a crescendo and immediately play louder. But crescendo is a gradual, not an immediate, effect. That means it has to be spaced out carefully, and the only way to do that is to look ahead and find the place where it's supposed to reach its high point, then determine just how loud you should be at both the beginning and the end, and finally practice raising the dynamic level gradually so that you don't get too loud too soon. Do you do all that when you see a crescendo? This is one of the most difficult things to do on the piano; how often have you sat down and actually practiced spacing out a crescendo, carefully gauging the changes in key pressure so that it arrives at its proper level at the right time?

Another example--balance, or voicing: consider the opening of the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata: both the melody and the 16th-note accompaniment have to be played with one hand. If no advanced thought is given to the sound, the accompaniment will invariably drown out the melody because that's where the strong fingers are--the melody has to be played with the weak 4th and 5th. So if your right hand is making the decisions instead of you, the voicing will be the exact opposite of what it should be.

The important point of both examples is that, before playing, decisions must be made. Practicing by merely hitting notes and then more or less modifying what comes out is practicing backwards. Ideally, you should first formulate in your mind a clear concept of what you want, and then practice to make your hands imitate the sound that is already in your head. You don't get into your car and drive off without having some idea of where you want to go, do you? Well, you shouldn't practice the piano that way, either. Vladimir Horowitz put it this way: "Before playing, make your ears decide what they want to hear." If you merely hit the notes instead of controlling them, you are not playing--you are merely typing. The piano is a musical instrument, not a typewriter; if all you want to learn is how to type, go to a typing class instead of a music lesson!

It's not really as complicated as it might seem at first. Creative, sound-oriented practicing can be done by elementary students, concert artists, and everyone in between. It's simply a matter of getting into the habit of making conscious decisions ahead of time, regardless of the level of skill or the difficulty of the music. And practicing to develop this habit can be done with the simplest passages--even a five-finger exercise.

Place the right hand in the common five-finger position with the thumb on G, and play G-A-B-C-D. Now, if you didn't plan anything in particular, the chances are that it came out more or less mf, moderato, legato, and perhaps with the thumb, second and third fingers a little louder than the fourth and fifth. So play it again, but this time make conscious decisions about what you want to hear in the way of dynamic level, tempo and touch. Then play it twice more, using the same tempo and touch but two different dynamic levels. Listen carefully as you play; can you achieve three distinct dynamic levels? How about four or five? What about a crescendo or a diminuendo? Can you do all of those things with the left hand? How about both hands together? Play the left hand louder than the right, and then switch. Play one hand staccato and the other legato. Make a crescendo in one hand while making a diminuendo in the other. Try different tempos. The number of possible variations is infinite.

Now, is this kind of monkeying around with a simple passage really practicing? You bet it is! It could be the beginning of the most valuable practicing you've ever done. Maybe you've always thought you could play that five-finger passage in your sleep, but you might discover that you weren't playing it at all, but only typing it. You are not playing anything until you've made a lot more decisions about the notes than just to hit the right ones at the right time.

A great way to get into this habit is to apply it not only to compositions but to all of your exercises. Isn't it true that we usually practice scales, Hanon, or whatever in a single tempo and a monotonous, mechanical drone of boring sound? When was the last time you practiced your scales pianissimo, or staccato, or in different tempos? (Poor Hanon! He specifically states in the Preface that his exercises are to be played in all keys--look it up--but nobody ever plays them except in C, legato and in a fixed f or mf. Then we say Hanon is boring, when it's we who are boring.)

I make my students play scales in different ways, usually two octaves in eighths, three octaves in triplets, and four octaves in 16ths, all without stopping or changing the tempo. Right away we have a good rhythm exercise because you have to fit three divisions into the same quarter-note beat; we also have a good concentration exercise, since it takes a lot longer to play than a single scale and you have to keep the fingering straight. Then I have them add a crescendo and diminuendo, starting p at the bottom and reaching f at the top each time, and at that point we are really beginning to control the sound.

We can carry this process as far as you like. Try reversing the crescendo/diminuendo, or playing one hand louder than the other. Use different touches, different rhythms, even play in two keys at once. Apply these variations to other exercises or to passage work from your repertoire. It doesn't matter how elementary or advanced the material is; what matters is that you are making your hands imitate a predetermined sound, and thus learning to control them instead of letting them control you. Eventually you will find yourself listening far more carefully to all the sounds you produce when you play, and making more and more of your own decisions about them. I guarantee that your playing will begin to take on a life it never had before!

Page created: 4/13/99
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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