We’ve all heard the saying “practice makes perfect.” In his book Outliers, the Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill.
Learning the piano certainly demands many hours of hard work, but how we spend our practice time is arguably more important than the number of hours we put in. As the famous composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin said, “thoughtless repetitions do no good at all.” Practicing, he believed, “call[s] for the intelligence and the whole will of the pupil.”
In our pursuit of successful practice routines, we’ve compiled the advice and strategies of some of history’s most famous pianists and composers: W.A. Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Vladimir Horowitz. How did these masters practice? How did they teach their students to practice?
We must walk into the practice room with a plan. Without a plan, we run the risk of finding ourselves rudderless and overwhelmed by the piano’s many challenges.
Make Time For Exercises
Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart all emphasize the importance of devoting some of our practice time to technical exercises. Mozart, for instance, would have his students practice scales, trills, and mordants, first with the right hand and then with the left. He would insist that his students played these exercises “very slowly at first.” Brahms, too, would have his students practice slowly before gradually increasing the tempo of their playing.
Patient, slow practice is crucial to our musical growth. When studying the piano, many of us dream of the time when our fingers can fly across the keyboard, but even Liszt, one of the most famously virtuosic pianists of all time, recognized later in life the value of patience in the practice room: “In early years I was not patient enough to ‘make haste slowly’…I was impatient for immediate results, and took short cuts, so to speak…I wish now that I had progressed by logical steps instead of by leaps.”
In our pursuit of a methodical practice routine, we may find inspiration — and a plan of attack — in musical works known as studies, or études. Though they are sometimes performed as pieces of music in their own right, these works, consulted by musicians for centuries, serve chiefly pedagogical purposes. The famous French composer and pianist Claude Debussy, for instance, composed two books of études that reinforce skills like playing repeated notes.
Everyone has their favorite études: Brahms and Chopin both encouraged their students to practice the instructional piano pieces in Muzio Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum. We may also find inspiration in the numerous études written by the Austrian composer and pianist Carl Czerny 17911857 and the French pedagogue and composer Charles-Louis Hanon 18191900.
“I wish now that I had progressed by logical steps instead of by leaps.” — Franz Liszt
While it is important to practice methodically, it is also helpful to make our practice sessions as enjoyable and creative as possible.
Florence May, one of Brahms’ piano students, recalls that the composer would encourage his pupils to improvise certain exercises based on the repertoire that they were learning. For instance, he would have them play certain passages in reverse or adding accents where none were written in the score.
Brahms would also challenge his students to play exercises in keys other than the one in which they were originally written. Horowitz would invent his own exercises entirely from scratch. Mozart even had his students practice with a handkerchief covering their hands.
These kinds of strategies not only help us to develop our pianism (e.g. our muscle memory of the keyboard) but also invite us to view our practice sessions as a kind of game!
If we only practiced études and the repertoire that we intend to perform, we might find ourselves a bit bored! Horowitz kept his practice sessions fresh by consistently studying new repertoire: “Each week I devote at least two to three hours of my practice time to music I have never seen or played before.”
Step Away From The Piano!
The famous Russian composer and pianist Rachmaninoff encouraged Horowitz to go for long strolls, warning him, “If you don’t walk…your fingers will not run.”
Walks invite us to explore the benefits of mental practice — imagining and visualizing ourselves executing our repertoire successfully can help us not only reinforce the progress we make in the practice room but also overcome performance anxiety.
Stepping away from the piano also allows us to take the time to learn from musicians other than pianists. Chopin, for instance, would encourage his piano students to listen to singers as models for successful execution of ornaments such as the turn, or gruppetto.
“If you don’t walk… your fingers will not run.” — Sergei Rachmaninoff
In a letter to his father, Mozart recalls a conversation with another keyboardist, who, after witnessing his virtuosity, exclaimed, “Good God! How hard I work and sweat…and to you, my friend, it is all child’s play.”
In response, Mozart quipped “I too had to work hard, so as not to have to work hard any longer.” This witty remark speaks to the notion that routine, thoughtful practice is an investment; one that lays the foundation for a successful and fulfilling musical life.