Notes from the Piano

Effective Practice

This year marks half a century of piano playing for me and some 40 plus years of performing and teaching, which feels like a good time to start writing down and sharing some of my experiences of teaching, playing, performing, and adjudicating.  I hope that they may be of some interest or help to my students and other readers, but at the very least they will serve as a reflective journal for myself, and I do believe that no matter how experienced we may be, we all need to take time to reflect in order to keep moving forwards and progressing.

My grandmother was a professional pianist and teacher, and my late mother, although not a professional, also played and loved the piano, so I was extremely fortunate to have a lot of support and encouragement with my piano studies. However, I never had to be reminded to practise, I actually had to be asked to stop, such was my enthusiasm!

I was also lucky enough to study with some wonderful teachers, who showed me how to practise effectively which is in fact, the subject of this first blog post. I have also been very privileged to study, attend masterclasses, seminars and professional development sessions, with some of the most wonderful piano pedagogues of our time, one of whom is Graham Fitch whose award-winning blog entitled  is undoubtedly the most useful resource on piano practice available. Graham has such wealth of experience and knowledge, having studied with many of the world’s greatest pianists and teachers himself, making his blog invaluable to both teachers and students alike.

Today there is a huge amount of literature addressing the subject of effective practise, and equally as much regarding the links between effective practise in music and sport.

Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’  describes music psychologists Gary McPherson and James Renwick tracking the progress of  ‘the girl who did a month’s worth of practice in six minutes’ as a young clarinettist who had been previously described as a student with little natural affinity for music, but who seemingly quite by accident, discovered a way to practise in a highly effective manner by ‘not ignoring errors’ but ‘hearing them’ and ‘fixing them’ then ‘fitting small parts into the whole, drawing the lens in and out all the time, scaffolding herself to a higher level.’ The book is a fascinating one in which Coyle explores research on ‘talent hotbeds’ across the world and discusses his findings on the role of myelin in effective practise, a very insightful read for all teachers and coaches.

For me, the main thing to take from this book is that like much of the literature on this subject, it debunks the myth that we either ‘have it or we don’t’ and explores the possibility that ‘all of us can achieve our full potential if we set about training our brains the right way.’

As I consider myself to be a lifelong student, I find this possibility exciting, liberating, fascinating, and illuminating, and as a highly experienced teacher I know this to be true, and I aim to pass on this ethos to my students sharing with them my many years of experience and study of effective practice.

I have many students whose progress is a testament to this, who week on week attend their lessons having made excellent progress by practising effectively having listened to and taken on board any advice given on how to tackle any challenging phrases or sections in their music be that technical or rhythmical.  Equally a testament to this are the students who turn up to lessons frustrated at not having made progress despite ‘hours of practise’ on a piece; I know before asking, that these students, despite advice given, have continued to practise by playing through from beginning to end, rather than as Graham Fitch describes ‘quarantining’ the trouble spots.

The much used quote attributed to Einstein that ‘’Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’’  is  one that applies here, we know it doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, those tricky technical issues persist, we pay a teacher a lot of money to help us find more effective ways to tackle these issues and yet we go home and continue to practise from beginning to end, ignoring the tricky passages, this inevitably results in frustration, disappointment and loss of motivation. I strongly believe that this is a huge factor in why many students ultimately give up playing the piano altogether beyond a certain level of difficulty, and that the ones who continue and progress, are the ones who are motivated by the progress made when they begin to practice effectively.

Much has also been written about motivation, and how we might cultivate intrinsic motivation in our students, I believe that intrinsic motivation and effective practise are strongly linked, and once a student begins to see the results of their effective practice their motivation does in fact become intrinsic.

Students who love to practice in an effective and engaged manner will always progress, thus cultivating further motivation, the student who religiously completes their ‘duty’ hour per day of practise, ultimately, will not, and will become disenchanted, demotivated and at the very least, lose the love of the music.

The key, for me, as a teacher, is inspiring students to practise effectively and to understand why there are some students who will, despite all advice, continue to do the latter. Is this because they don’t love the music they are working on enough to try, don’t trust us enough to try, or don’t trust themselves enough to try? As part of my mission to understand this I will be seeking feedback this month from students who are not engaging in effective practise in the form of an anonymous questionnaire to see if I can find ways to motivate them to trust this process. I also welcome any comments from readers who might have their own thoughts on effective practice.

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.