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Free PDF: Rachmaninoff's 10 Essentials Of Piano Playing

Free PDF: Rachmaninoff's 10 Essentials Of Piano Playing

Peer into the mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer regarded as among the most formidable virtuosos of the 20th century.

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Toilet paper … hand sanitizer … digital pianos? As the pandemic drags on, there’s been a run on all of the essentials. You gotta do what you gotta do, and pianists gotta practice!

I think back to when I bought my own digital piano, a Yamaha P-120, from a store called Daddy’s Junky Music. Almost 20 years and 12 apartments later, it’s still trucking! It is one of the best musical investments I’ve ever made.

Many of its benefits are obvious. It’s more affordable to buy, move, tune and maintain than a real piano, and by tune and maintain, I mean, spend zero dollars. It’s accessible 24/7. With headphones, you can practice without bothering others, which is gold.

Just beware apartments with flimsy floors: once, a friend living below me texted to ask about the thumping — did I have a raccoon problem? I wondered whether raccoons danced to the rhythms of Rachmaninoff.

I’ll confess, for a long time, I thought of my digital piano as a necessary evil. While practicing on it, I’d be grumbling about its shortcomings, the same way students gripe about practice room pianos with twangs that would raise the hair on a cat or with actions that feel deader than Old Marley.

It’s true: there is incomparable inspiration in playing a fine piano. I remember sinking my hands into a Steinway at Carnegie Hall and thinking, “So, this is what driving a Ferrari feels like.” It was overwhelmingly beautiful … and easy.

Life, though, is tough. Not all of us get to practice on the piano of our dreams. But you know what? Over time, my digital piano taught me to be a better pianist in ways I never expected. It did so by forcing me to practice in different ways. Once I stopped grumbling and realized this, I grew, unexpectedly. I’ll give you some examples of how this happened.


On a digital piano, you cannot hide behind the reverb.

On an acoustic piano, even in a small room, there is a resonance that blurs imperfections. I didn’t realize how much until I started practicing on a digital piano, which laid everything bare.

As a result of the dryness of the digital, I have become more precise in my sound and in my note accuracy. Call it tough love.

You can practice without aural feedback.

I discovered this benefit in another awful apartment with paper-thin walls and floors. The people below me ran a bodega and were up at 3AM banging pots and pans and snoring by 7PM.

At that point, I had a piano in my apartment, but playing most nights was out of the question. So, I practiced silently, touching and depressing keys … and you know what? The physical memory I ingrained during that frustrating time was amazing.

On a digital, you can easily leave the power off and play without sound. It will reveal the security of your physical memory, as well as the extent to which you rely on your ears.

Your intention of touch will become everything.

I’ve found that as we pianists hone our bodily control, we use our ears to adjust as we play. By contrast, the best pianists initiate sound from their body before even touching the keys.

It’s a subtle difference, but it explains why they can sit down at any piano and immediately create an optimal sound while others have to warm up for hours. Their touch initiates their intention, and it is nuanced and experienced enough to know how keys might respond.

When you play on an instrument like a digital that is less aurally rewarding, you can focus on how you physically approach the instrument. Once you’ve honed that perceptivity, moving to a good piano will be a piece of cake.

Ultimately, the surprising benefit of my digital piano was that it taught me to stop complaining and use what I had to stretch my practice habits. The more diverse our practice strategies, the more we discover.

On an even deeper level, my digital piano taught me this: the best piano for you at the moment is the one you’ve got. This is true even if it’s one you’ve drawn on a piece of paper.

It’s the time you put in and the mindfulness of your practice, not the pedigree of your instrument, that will make you great. And sometimes, as in other parts of life, wishing for something better keeps you from learning from the “good enough for now.” Just go practice.

These days, I am content to quarantine on my trusty digital piano at home, knowing that when I get back to the Steinway Bs in my office, they’ll sound amazing.

What have you learned from less than ideal instruments? What creative ways have you found for shaking up your practice routine?

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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