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There is no substitute for practice. By spending a couple of hours with your instrument every day you develop a special relationship with it.

You need to have a regular practice routine that contains certain constant elements (such as warm-up exercises) as well as variable elements that address your current avenue of study. And performing doesn`t count as practice. Although playing gigs, performing in Church or for your personal enjoyment is an essential part of your musical development, it won`t replace time in the practice room.

There are times, however, when you just can`t maintain a regular practice routine. All the other elements of your life crowd in and you find you have to grab a spare hour of practice wherever you can. It seems futile to embark on any long-range practice projects that will require weeks or months of steady work, because you know it won`t happen.

So should you give up?

Must you put off the idea of improving your musicianship until you have more time (and are you sure that time will come)? Here`s an alternative - I call it "target bombing."

You have an hour to practice. Find something to practice that is not currently in your arsenal. It could be a lick, a scale, a set of chord voicings, a section of a tune, a transcribed solo, anything. But this is important: it must be small. Don`t set a general goal (e.g., mastering the McCoy Tyner style of pentatonic scale improvisation). Instead, select a little piece of business (such as a particular pentatonic lick to be learned in 12 keys). Assume that this is the only opportunity you`ll have to learn this particular item. Tomorrow you`ll move on to something else.

Approach the hour`s practice with this attitude: "What can I do within the next hour to learn to play piano in one very small but measurable way?"

More specifically, "What can I do to learn to piano so that it will be self-reinforcing, so that it will immediately begin to show up in my actual performances?"

Your plan is to devour this one small thing so completely that it can`t slip away.

  • If it`s a lick, make it a short one and learn it in several keys. Work out the fingering.

  • Learn to play it over random ii-V progressions.

  • Solo over a few tunes and work that lick in wherever you can.

  • If it`s a chord voicing, practice it in 12 keys, work it into tunes, and make sure you can make smooth transitions to and from other voicings.

If you don`t get it by the end of the hour, you lose it forever. But if you ingest it fully enough, then it will immediately begin to show up in your performances. It will become a small element of your style and you`ll never lose it.

This is target bombing. It`s intense, focused, and can be tremendously effective and satisfying. Although at first it may be a method that you use because you can`t find time for the more traditional, routine-oriented practice, you may find it so successful and fun that you make it your primary approach.

After all, you climb a mountain with thousands of small steps. Take each step so well that you never have to take it again.

I`ve seen this approach work wonders for many students, and I use it all the time myself. I`ve also seen it fail miserably for others. It requires a type of tunnel vision, a willingness to gnaw on one thing for one hour without letting other concerns intrude.

You might feel as if you are learning to play piano when you should be working or that focusing on a tiny area is not productive when there are so many major areas to be covered. But once you successfully target bomb a few small items, you`ll realize the needlessness of your concerns.

Any way, try this method on - see if it fits your style.

Learn to Play Piano - Preparing to Practice

When the practicing "blahs" strike, you just need an attitude adjustment. You don`t have to sweat blood to practice well. You don`t even have to think of it as work, or duty, or even something that you ought to do.

Stop a minute and think about it. You like music, and you want to learn to play piano with some special piece that really means something to you. You want it to sound through you - right through your fingertips.

Okay? Well, you practice it to fulfill that desire, not to frustrate it.

Pause here and ask yourself some questions:

What if you could look at a piece of music for the first time, and play it correctly straight off, just as fine as you please?

How would you feel about practicing and learning to play piano then?

Or, what if you were practicing for the Olympic swim meet next year, and felt deep down that you had a chance? How would you feel then about the training? Would you plunge into it each morning?

What if you were interrupted at a good point in yesterday`s practicing? What if you had just about broken through a tough spot when you had to stop? Would you want to get back to it today as soon as possible?

You answer those questions, honestly, for yourself. There are ways to say "YES!" every day.

But, first, you`ve got to stop blaming yourself. You don`t have to be perfect every time . You don`t have to be the best player, today. And you don`t have to listen to what other people say about your playing - people who are only half listening, and don`t care the way you do.

Put all that out of your mind. What matters is your desire to learn to play piano as well as possible.

Just start with playing - one note after another, and keep going. As the Chinese say, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first, step." And, if the very first step leads to the first slip, be glad for it. You can`t, repeat, cannot learn without mistakes!

Now, start to think more personally about your instrument.

Learning to play piano , like the guitar, is a "touchy" instrument. Touch it, and you both produce and color its tones, like a potter molding clay. Think of the keys, all gleaming white, as the "skin" of the piano; you can either please them or hurt them. Stroke them, and the sound will come out mellow and purring. Poke them, and the sound will either "bark" sharply or woodenly "thud."

Stop thinking of yourself as playing "on" or "at" the piano. Rather, think of the instrument as an extension of your own body. When an artificial leg is fitted to an amputee, he is then taught to walk with it. Gradually, it feels more natural - more like his own leg walking. The French call the keys "les touches," or "touch-points" - as if the keys, not you, were doing the feeling.

Every musician wants to personalize this instrument. Take a look at the vocalist who hugs his guitar, or without a guitar, woos his microphone, or, without a microphone, simply woos the audience?

Every musician seeks to make his instrument an extension of his own body, the tool he or she needs to put across the strong feelings he as for the music.

Nadia Boulanger, one of the greatest teachers, put it best: "Don`t speak to me of talent; speak to me of desire."

Go to the piano or keyboard not to reproduce a piece, but to experiment with your best way to bring out what is there. There is no one right way to play a piece - no matter how loudly some people protest that there is.

Artists in fact, vary greatly, and audiences return again and again to hear the same piece, as played by pianist X or pianist Y. You simply cannot play a piece twice the same way. Try it!

Here`s how to practice an exercise or a song:

Six quietly, upright and relaxed Hear the music in your head: hear it better than life. Sense its movement and pulse rolling through you, turning and adjusting your own pulse, you are the prime "instrument" of this music - sitting there alert, tuned by silence, vibrating to is rhythm, lending it your own life entirely.

As you feel the music filling you, heart and soul, you will know that it is getting ready to be born.

When it has stirred you, lift your hands to the keyboard. This is the reason you wanted to play in the first place: to bring alive what has already moved you. And, suddenly, by centering your focus, you`ve turned practicing from a duty into an attraction.

Learn to Play Piano as Fast as Possible?

One of the rules of practicing we all hear over and over is "Be sure to practice slowly." (I`m guilty of this too!) Often the result of this is a feeling of inhibition, which leads to tedium.

Picture yourself filled with excitement and yearning in setting out to learn a new piece. Suddenly a voice from the darkness whispers: "Don`t touch those keys! Sit erect, learn to play slowly, stay strictly in time, watch that fingering " and your smile is gone. I`m beginning to feel a cramp just talking about it.

The fact is, a certain amount of slow practice and attention to small scale detail is absolutely necessary. But there is something lacking in the approach so many of us have taken; we set out to make music, and end up playing what amounts to no more than a series of sterile exercises.

How can we overcome this problem?

First of all, it`s important to remember that music comes to life through shading, dynamics, differences in touch, the shapes of its phrases, the rhythmic vitality that is so much a part of the right tempo. These qualities are all missing in a slow, rigid "practice" version of a piece. They are just as essential as correct fingering, and they don`t come across without careful work.

So, perhaps we should change that rule from "Be sure to practice slowly" to "Practice as fast as possible." But Wait! This requires some further discussion. The slow part of practice helps teach the fingers where to go, and makes it mush easier to learn the work. But in order to learn how to create music, how to make the piece sing?we must practice it at a tempo that will help reveal musical relationships and subtleties of form.

Pianists must have the opportunity to experiment with touch and phrasing while practicing, and there is little chance of boredom when so many exciting elements are introduced to the practice session.

In my E-book, I`ve included many basic exercises with background music to assist you in acquiring this level of keyboard performance. In other words, you will be practicing with other instrumentalists. You will hear the drums, bass and an unobtrusive piano accompaniment that provides an harmonic blanket for YOU to practice your course material!

Ideally, then, both ways of practicing should be used!

First, we should practice slowly enough to learn the notes and fingerings. Then, we should "practice as fast as possible"; that is, as fast as we can without losing control of the basics we learned in slow practice.

Here` how this would work. Take a short part of the piece; you might choose a four- or eight-measure phrase. Practice it slowly. When you feel comfortable with the music, increase the tempo. Don`t wait until you`ve practiced the entire work slowly. In this way, at each sitting you`ll get to learn a little section, bring it up to tempo, and feel into what is needed to bring it to life.

At the next sitting, work on the next four or eight measure. When you have that section brought up to tempo, combine it with the first section. Now, you will begin to understand how the phrases relate to each other. You can introduce the idea of dynamic shading and decide which lines to bring out at a given moment. In fact, you will be making real, exciting music?even before you`ve learned the whole piece!

As you go on in this way, you will probably change your mind about how to play the work as new sections are added. This is part of the process of discovery and experimentation. Concert artists are always re-interpreting, because they think about these elements all the time.

So learn to play piano as slowly as you need to; but as fast as you are able.




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Understanding piano playing through MIDI: students` perspectives on performance analysis and learning

American Music Teacher , June-July, 2005 by Kathleen Riley

In language, if inflection and nuance enhance the effect of the spoken word--in music they create the meaning of notes. (1) The notated score cannot conceivably provide all the indications that must be observed for the performance of a piano piece to be musically satisfactory. These elements can be best understood through the detailed study of the performance itself.

Much of the research on expressive performance has been concerned with the analysis of skilled performances. Several researchers have demonstrated that music performances are characterized by somewhat systematic variations in timing and intensity from the strict mechanical regularity of the musical scores that are related to music structure. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Comparative performance analysis can aid students in their perception and understanding of the many simultaneous dimensions of musical experience one must attend to in performance. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for students is to successfully attend to all the subtleties of interpretation at the same time. Often times, a student grasps an understanding of an artist`s interpretation of a certain phrase, but when asked to technically articulate these specifics on the instrument, is unable to do so. At the expert level, all these skills and the attention needed for developing them have become automatic.

Comparison of different performances recorded on the Yamaha Disklavier offers students the opportunity to analyze, while slowing the tempo in playback and listening repeatedly. Using the Disklavier in conjunction with a sequencing program allows MIDI data to be displayed as a piano roll providing visual feedback for the student. Augmented visual feedback can have striking effects on the acquisition and improvement of technical skills. (7) Cognitive feedback can improve expressive skills of music performance. (8, 9) Pianists control only two factors--timing and intensity. However, many musicians, teachers and students often fail to recognize the significance of these factors. Author C. Palmer examined three aspects of timing in piano performance that are not explicitly notated in the score: chord asynchronies, rubato patterns and legato/staccato patterns. (10) Results suggest that pianists may distort timing more than other instrumentalists who also are able to manipulate pitch and timber.

The Technology

MIDI is a data interface designed to communicate musical messages. The Yamaha Disklavier piano, used in the study discussed later, is an acoustic instrument equipped with optical laser sensors to measure the mechanical velocity of each key`s hammer by registering the speed of its down-stroke. The pedals also are equipped with sensors.

The parameters are recorded digitally on a floppy disc for possible data analysis or playback. The playback feature ensures exact mechanical replication of the sounds produced in the original performance.

By utilizing music sequencing software to read the floppy disc, MIDI data can be displayed on a video screen as a scrolling piano roll, as shown in Figure 1. With respect to a display of the keyboard aligned vertically to the left, horizontal bars of various lengths indicate which keys are depressed, in what sequence and for how long. Some software, such as Emagic`s Logic, displays the note bars in colors that vary from blue (soft) to red (loud) to represent dynamic levels.



How does the feedback process work? The Disklavier piano is connected to a computer via MIDI cables. Playing is recorded on the Disklavier or through the sequencing software program. Feedback on the performance is provided immediately to the student through playback on the Disklavier, while simultaneously viewing the piano roll on the computer screen. The role of the piano roll visual feedback in improving less-advanced students` understanding of rhythmic notation was examined more closely in two imitation approaches: 1) Disklavier/piano roll presentations of expressive models followed similarly by Disklavier/piano roll feedback of how well students` imitation attempts matched the models; 2) Disklavier-only presentation of models and aural feedback. (11)

It is through subtle timing and intensity variations that interpretive nuance in music intensifies the richness of the creative experience on the part of the performer and the listener. This technology permits one to compare performances in terms of technical skills and personal interpretation, and to examine difficult-to-notate elements of timing and dynamics in detail, such as specifically where and to what extent to ritard or accelerate the tempo.



Eight college-level piano students volunteered to participate in a study of their assessments of a performance analysis method incorporating aural/visual feedback via MIDI data. (12) All students were majoring in piano performance and had no formal training in MIDI technology. None of the students had previously studied the selected piece.

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