The questions in this Q&A center around a few of the topics taught in lessons by five tonebase artists. In those lessons, they demonstrate strategies that helped them master some of the most common technical challenges in the repertoire. Learn more about these lessons at the links below:
- John O’Conor on Practicing Fingerwork
- Seymour Bernstein on Practicing Hand and Finger Independence
- Jon Kimura Parker on Practicing Voicing
- Leann Osterkamp on Practicing with Rhythms
- Henry Kramer on Practicing with Groupings
Do any of these strategies resonate with your own practice experience? How did you learn to practice? How do you think most pianists learn how to practice?
Ben Laude: As a “late bloomer” when it came to technique, John O’Conor’s story about developing his fingers only in his twenties spoke to me. Like him, I’d pursued piano in college and grad school for, well, musical reasons, not because I was wowing anyone with my chops. Having said that, I did start that Chopin Etude O’Conor mentions — the F Major, Op. 10 №8 — before him, in high school, but it mostly sounded like his clumsy parody, and I avoided the last page like Covid-19.
So, like O’Conor, I didn’t really develop my fingers until I was forced to when my college teacher assigned me Chopin Etudes. He showed me how to use rhythmic groupings similar to those O’Conor recommends in the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata. I applied them to a different torrent of C-sharp minor sixteenth-notes, the Chopin Etude Op. 10 №4, and somehow by the end of my freshman year I managed to perform all the notes of the piece, up to tempo, with a decent amount of control (although it was for an audience of one).
I could have benefitted from Osterkamp’s advice in her lesson where she discusses the dos and don’ts of rhythmic practice (in yet another C-sharp minor piece, Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu). In it, she emphasizes the importance of balancing on the note you’ve paused on, releasing the muscles used to get you there and anchoring your weight in the key. This is an important lesson for students: you can’t just mindlessly apply a practice device like rhythmic groupings or double-attacks to a difficult passage, rinse and repeat, and expect results. It matters how you apply the device, and that means developing an awareness of your own anatomy and physical mechanics.
This requires (deep breath) not just practicing etudes to develop technique, but practicing technique itself — being your own private yoga instructor and putting your mind in your muscles, discovering healthy new sensations and realizing how to ease out the bad ones. This is a deeply personal, meditative process, but one that still relies on objective knowledge that you can learn from great teachers (our bodies are all different but they’re not that different; and laws of physics are, from what I understand, universal). It is also a matter of patience — something that I had only in short supply. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, after suffering from scapular dyskinesis during my first two years at Juilliard that I finally stopped forcing Liszt and Rachmaninof into my arms, put some Bach in front of me, and sat back and observed everything I was doing wrong from my torso to my fingertips.
Juliana Han: I love Ben’s claim to be a “late bloomer” in technique because I feel this 100%. It didn’t help that I was a corporate attorney before I decided to pursue piano professionally … in my 30s. I went from talking to CFOs about multi-billion dollar deals to doubting whether I knew how to play a single note. Funny how many of us who spent our childhoods blowing through advanced repertoire still feel behind at times.
For anyone who’s ever felt that way, John O’Conor’s story about building technique in his twenties should be a reassuring balm — you can improve your technique, no matter how “late” you feel to the party!
More to my question’s point, I think how people learn to practice varies widely. The luckiest ones are those whose teachers show them how to practice. We think of teachers as showing us how to play, but showing us how to work is one of the most important things they can do. This doesn’t always happen, and many of us develop our own strategies, effective or not. Personally, I wasted a ton of time as a kid but became a more efficient practicer after careers in strategy consulting and law … maybe organizational and problem-solving skills are relevant after all!
What are some of the universal practice strategies underlying all of these videos, even though they’re addressing different things?
BL: All of the practice strategies involve an element of abstraction, of stepping away from the notated passage at hand and effectively recomposing it. The possibilities here are endless. We could all get even more creative in finding smart ways to purposely manipulate a passage in order to zero-in on certain obstacles. For the attention-deficient among us (me), it could also be a way to keep yourself entertained while practicing.
JH: I totally agree with Ben that the practice strategies demonstrated in the videos involve an element of abstraction, of viewing the passage on a higher level. Jon Kimura Parker’s and Seymour Bernstein’s tips on voicing and balance are perfect examples. Parker’s exercise doesn’t use the actual notes in the Grieg and Bernstein’s doesn’t involve the keyboard at first at all!
The way I’d summarize the universal belief behind these videos is that practicing is never an “if-then” formula, as in, “If your fast notes are uneven, do these rhythms 50 times and you’ll be saved!” That just doesn’t work. You have to understand what the root of the problem is (let’s say holding tension in a part of your hand), design an exercise to address it (use rhythms to practice resting on different keys), and know how you will assess the results (make all groupings sound equally even — see Leann Osterkamp’s video on rhythmic practice in Chopin). If it sounds like the scientific method, well, it kind of is! For me, that’s what these practice tips have in common — that spirit of problem solving and reasoned inquiry, rather than formulaic use (what Ben calls “mindless” application).
What practice strategies (including these or not) have you heard resistance to, either from students or teachers? What do you think is behind that?
BL: Practicing in rhythms and groupings seems pretty universally accepted — or, at least, teachers might not encourage them but I haven’t heard of any recommending against them. Parker’s and Bernstein’s lessons both concern developing finger independence, and their tips are smart and safe — unlike what Schumann tried to do to himself to achieve the same thing. Once you get more specific, more proscriptions arrive. Notice how Henry Kramer recommended against certain groupings when practicing Chopin’s Op. 10 №2 Etude, because they counteracted certain musical results he was striving for in that particular piece. This goes back to not practicing mindlessly, and keeping your eye on the musical prize. This phenomenon of “machine-like” playing among pianists with otherwise good chops, I would guess, is the result of their applying every combination of rhythms and groupings to a certain passage with no regard for the asymmetries in a texture or the specific contour of a phrase.
JH: I found it interesting that three of the five pianists focused on practicing with rhythms or groupings. Clearly, this is a key concept … and yet, so many pianists don’t use it. Unlike Ben, I’ve seen active resistance to using rhythms, which I’ll discuss in the next question.
How do these strategies differ from how people actually practice, and what accounts for that?
BL: My guess is the majority of practicing happening out there consists of stop-and-go, sight-read-until-you-get-it, trial-and-error practice with only the crudest progress made. Maybe I’m being too cynical, but having observed the bad habits of my students, our colleagues (even relatively successful ones!), and most of all myself, I would say that more often than note we’re not applying a conscious strategy at all!
JH: I do think a lot of practicing happens in the “stop-and-go” manner Ben describes. A common occurrence in practice rooms is people running their repertoire at maximum speed, stopping only to repeat any areas with mistakes until clean, reminding me of a nervous baker frantically smoothing the icing on a cake. And yet none of these pros in the playlist comes close to advocating practice on that macro-level. It’s as if we’re practicing with wide-angle telephoto lenses, and these experts are handing us microscopes.
Why do we resist the micro-practice? Because it’s less fun. The piece as a whole is why we play the piano, and it feels good to spend time in that instant-gratification realm. There’s nothing wrong with that … unless you’re trying to fix your technique. That, unfortunately, takes work and likely a lot of delayed gratification, which we like way less. Blame human psychology. That’s just how we are.
There’s a second reason specific to rhythms, though, and that is: done incorrectly, rhythmic practice just doesn’t seem worth it. Could you dig your way out of prison with a spoon? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem worth the time. I think that’s how some of us feel when faced with an endless array of rhythms to apply and a gaping void on the metronome between the tempo we’re at and where we want to be.
That’s why I really liked Henry Kramer’s advice that rhythmic groupings relate to the musical structure. In fact, I like the musicianship underpinnings to all of his suggestions, even in a piece that we view as so purely technical as Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 №2 (which handily defeated me as a child, by the way). My summary of his message would be that we employ groupings, or any other practice strategy, most efficiently when they point us directly to the musical effect we want.
There are three videos on rhythms. What’s the point of practicing rhythms and why are they so important? What are the similarities and differences of the various strategies presented on rhythmic practice and how do we reconcile them?
BL: “Rhythmic practice” is somewhat of a misnomer, if you think about it. Yes, on the surface the point is to renotate the rhythms of a passage so that you’re pausing every two, three, four, or however many notes. But what’s really going on is not about having fun with dotted rhythms, it’s about freezing time. Do you ever encounter a problem and you wish you could just press pause on your life, temporarily free yourself from deadlines and consequences, and just relax and take your “time” fixing whatever needs fixing? Well, when practicing in rhythms, you’re doing just that! You have the power to stop the flow of time in a piece, examine how you got to that point, how it feels while you’re there, and where you need to go next. When you frame the strategy that way, it’s easy to see why this technique is so often encouraged.
I see the three lessons emphasizing rhythms and groupings as compatible, with few-to-no points of contradiction. Each instructor applies rhythms in a slightly different context: for O’Conor it’s about developing fingerwork and gaining control over an otherwise simple rising arpeggiated figure; for Osterkamp it’s about navigating a more complex figuration; for Kramer it’s about freeing up the two sides of the hand to play both chords and chromatic scales at the same time (proof Chopin was a sadist).
JH: I’ll refer to Ben’s excellent answers. I particularly like how he describes rhythms as allowing you to “freeze time.” Rhythms give you the gift of time to think!
What strategies would you like to see covered on a sequel to this playlist?
BL: If tonebase were to make a “sequel” to the Practice Strategies Playlist, I would personally like to learn more about the following:
- The right ways, and the wrong ways, to practice slowly.
- How to practice repeated notes so they sound like Martha’s (well, maybe not that ambitious).
- More creative strategies for “recomposing” passages to isolate obstacles.
- Practicing dense, multilayered passages (which are often harder than fast, single-layered passages).
- Exploring this idea of “practicing technique” — or, in other words, getting better at observing our own physical processes when we’re working through a difficulty.
JH: I agree with Ben that some insight on practicing slowly would be great. I’d also be interested in practice strategies for more advanced techniques such as octaves, thirds, leaps, repeated notes and chords, whatever might trip you up in a Liszt or Chopin etude, not because that’s what we all should be playing all the time, but because testing your technique’s limits reveals the little inefficiencies that can hide in other repertoire. More generally, I’d be curious how other pianists structure their practice time and what has been the greatest practice challenge for them. It would be a welcome reminder that some detailed practice strategies could help us all.