The questions in this Q&A center around a few of the topics taught in lessons by five tonebase artists where 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
Juliana Han: 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.
JH: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion next week, when Juliana responds to Ben’s commentary.