Read Part 1 of this series on the tonebase blog!

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:

  1. John O’Conor on Practicing Fingerwork
  2. Seymour Bernstein on Practicing Hand and Finger Independence
  3. Jon Kimura Parker on Practicing Voicing
  4. Leann Osterkamp on Practicing with Rhythms
  5. Henry Kramer on Practicing with Groupings

Q: 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?

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!

Q: What are some of the universal practice strategies underlying all of these videos, even though they’re addressing different things?

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).

Q: What practice strategies have you heard resistance to, either from students or teachers? What do you think is behind that?

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.

Q: How do these strategies differ from how people actually practice, and what accounts for that?

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.

Q: 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?

JH: I’ll refer you 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!

Q: What strategies would you like to see covered on a sequel to this playlist?

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.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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