Practicing piano with musicality

When you first look at a new piano piece, how do you begin practicing? Specifically, do you learn the notes first and then “add expression,” or do you try to play musically right from the beginning, at the same time you learn the notes.

My teaching experience shows me that both ways are valid at times. A lot depends on the individual student and where they’re at in their musical development. If you’re just beginning to learn to read music, you probably need to learn the notes reasonably well before you play them rhythmically, lyrically, or with that exciting crescendo. If you play too expressively at this point, you may not be able to focus enough on the correct notes.

On the other hand, if you can read the notes fairly easily, you might try playing expressively right away when you’re learning a new piano piece. In fact, a recent study suggests that this might help you learn the piece faster and better.

Researchers studied the practice habits of university pianists and found that the more “successful” musicians practiced “with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.”

This means that some of the pianists started playing “musically” as soon as they got some of the notes under their fingers. They didn’t wait until everything was technically perfect before they added dynamics, articulations, etc. Furthermore, the pianists who did this ended up learning the music better than those who waited until they knew all the notes well to add “inflection.”

I’ve found this to be an important aspect of practicing. Too many piano students insist that they can’t “play musically” until they’ve practiced a piece to “perfection.” For some, I understand this. It’s enough to try learning the notes of a challenging piece, If they play with passion, they lose their place or make a lot of mistakes. But for others, they could do this, but they don’t. Either they’re afraid of letting go of their comfortable practice habits or they don’t want to risk losing control of the notes. They don’t realize they’re capable of practicing in a whole new manner that will help them improve even faster.

If you’re like this, here’s what I suggest:
1. Don’t learn a whole piece at once. Just look at the first phrase or so, maybe even with one hand.
2. Play the phrase a few times, and as soon as you can, begin playing “musically.” With appropriate dynamics. Staccato or legato, etc.
3. Then move on to the next phrase and gradually learn the whole piece like this.

Not only does the research suggest that this method will help you learn your music quicker and better, I guarantee you’ll have more fun and enjoy your practicing more. It softens the boundary between “practicing”and “playing.” You’ll get more from you music and improve faster at the same time. It’s a “win-win” situation; give it a try!

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