When practicing piano, “isolate the difficulty”

When I took piano lessons in college, one of my teachers, Leonard Seeber, would always tell me to “isolate the difficulty.”

He meant that I should find a place that I couldn’t play well and practice it out of context. Really break it down, identify what was keeping me from playing it well, and practice that alone. Over and over and over and over.

At the time I didn’t want to do this. After all, it’s not as much fun to re-think your fingering on a tricky transition than it is to plow through the passage, even if that one spot “isn’t quite right.” (I’d tell myself, “Oh. I’ll work on that later.”

Over time, though, I’ve grown to enjoy this concept of “isolating the difficulty.” Once you get used to it, and resist the compulsion to merely play your pieces straight through all the time, it can be a lot of fun. After all, we want to get better, don’t we? We want to learn that passage. And more importantly, we want to be able to play the whole piece straight through and feel good about it.

I think that last sentence is actually the key to the whole thing: We want to feel good about our playing. And how do you do that? By “isolating the difficulty” and working on the hard stuff. There’s a great feeling of accomplishment in this. Even trying it and working hard gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Of moving forward. This practice applies equally well to any style of music you play: jazz, rock, pop, blues, classical, etc.It’s the way every great pianist has practiced at some point in their lives.

Let’s feel good about our piano playing. The next time you sit down to practice piano, “isolate the difficulty.”

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