Inside the Practice: Classical Piano

What do you practice?

Classical piano.

I’ve been playing kind of on and off since I was a kid. I learned a little bit as a child and then picked it up again in high school, then again for a few years after college, and then more recently started taking lessons again just this year.

How do you practice? How has it changed over the years?

I kind of think I’ve finally figured it out. As a kid nobody every really shared how to actually practice. Instead, it was more like I would choose music that I wanted to learn and then I would play it. And playing it is not the same thing as practicing it. So I would play it over and over again and I’d eventually, slowly get better and get parts of it fluid enough to actually play them. But that is not practicing. It’s performing. And if you’re always performing you never really improve.

What I figured out much later as an adult is that there’s a discipline of going very, very slowly and thinking about it as a series of problem solving activities. Play a tiny bit. Listen. Be creative about trying to solve whatever problems you hear in what you’re playing. It couldn’t be further from what I used to do.

Is it hard to do that problem solving process on your own? Say you’re a beginner pianist and you don’t have years and years of playing under your belt — how do you begin to develop that problem solving skill?

I really do think that you have to study with a person. Taking lessons is an essential part of that. But there are self taught people and for them it’s probably a process of trial and error before they figure this out. Trial and error in order to arrive at the correct procedure for trial and error…I guess it’s kind of a meta process.

But for most people I think you learn it from a teacher. You go to your lesson and you play and they demonstrate. They point out a problem and they make suggestions on how to fix it. If you’re paying attention and you manage to internalize that, then you can do it by yourself. But it’s never easy to do it entirely by yourself. What I’ve been finding recently is even with many years of practice, I’ll hit a spot where I just don’t know how to solve the problem and other people do. And so, being able to go ask somebody is incredibly useful.

An example that happened recently — at the very end of this piece that I was playing there’s a passage that’s descending arpeggios on the right hand. I was playing this part with just my right hand because I thought, “Oh it’s written that way. All the stems are pointing up I guess I should play it with my right hand.” I had some rationale to it too, I was thinking like, “Oh it will be smoother if I do it that way” or something like that. I played it for my teacher and I couldn’t do it accurately and would land in the wrong spot. There’s nothing worse than landing on the wrong note at the end of the piece. It’s really embarrassing.

Anyway I had been reaching all the way over with my right hand to hit this note. So I asked my teacher, “How do I practice this?” And she said, “Well just…use your other hand.” That kind of input from another person…I don’t think you ever really get past the need for that.

So it’s kind of like having someone help you realize that you’re thinking about a problem in a limited way?

Right. That’s exactly what it is. It’s pointing out an oversight in your understanding of what’s possible. Or, what is a reasonable alternative. If you can’t conceive of the alternative, you can’t choose it.

I like how it’s also an exercise in creativity. Problem solving with creativity.

Yeah. That’s actually another thing that can be learned. Over time, you start to develop a library of problem solving techniques.

And eventually there is such a thing as mastery. You reach a point where you have a really wide arsenal of these things and you are up to any challenge placed in front of you. But it’s still very much a creative activity of applying those techniques. It never stops being a problem solving exercise if you’re really continuing to challenge yourself.

When you’re on your own, and you sit down and practice, what is it that you actually practice? Do you structure your practice?

I do. For me this days it’s maybe like 5–10 minutes of technical exercises…which could be anything, but right now it’s scales. I’ve been trying to play scales in all the major and minor keys fast and fluidly — which itself is a creative exercise. Some people find them boring butt if you approach them the right way they can be actually really interesting. And, it’s certainly useful to get better at them.

Then, since I don’t have a ton of time I usually just spend 20 minutes or so working on a specific piece. I still have a problem around discipline here. It’s very tempting, especially when you have the piece partly under your fingers, to just play it because you want to hear it and because it feels good. It’s a constant struggle to resist that temptation and to do what we’ve been talking about which is to:

  • listen carefully
  • notice where there are problems
  • work on them as very small individual challenges

When you miss a note, you really should stop as you’re practicing and ask yourself, “Why did I miss that?” Maybe it’s something awkward about your hand position, or maybe you just need to practice it 10 times. But then you have to actually practice it 10 times. Having the discipline to interrupt myself as I’m playing — to fix things, to not perform — that’s still a struggle for me.

I try to practice every day but sometimes you just don’t feel like it. You want to want to do it…but you don’t want to do it. Sometimes it’s easier to sit down if you tell yourself it’s just for 5 minutes. Sometimes it turns out to be an hour. Sometimes it turns out to actually be just 5 minutes.

For every habit, just starting is the hardest part. So if you trick yourself into starting, you’ll often continue. But, it’s kind of amazing how much you can accomplish in 5 minutes a day. It can be useful to compress it. Because you can’t play the whole piece in 5 minutes, it matters what you do in those 5 minutes. It helps you distinguish what’s the most important thing to focus on.

There’s some story about a violinist who asked his teacher, “How much should I practice every day?” And the teacher said something like, “Well, if you practice with your fingers no amount is enough. But if you practice with your mind, 2 hours a day is plenty.”

What has been the hardest part of practicing for you? And what has been the most rewarding or enjoyable part?

I would say the most challenging part is probably the habit. Because you get home from work, you’re tired and it’s hard to muster the energy to do this fairly difficult thing. And it only works if it is difficult. That’s what it means to practice with your brain. You’re paying attention and that takes a real investment of focus and energy…which you may or may not have when you want to want to practice. That to me is the hardest part — summoning that motivation. The amazing thing is that it really is true — once you start and once you know how to practice in this way, it doesn’t feel like a drain of energy. It’s the opposite. It feels good and energizing in it’s own way. So the hardest part is starting…every day.

The most rewarding part — there are two possibilities. There’s one very concrete thing and one somewhat abstract thing. The concrete thing is that once you learn to practice this way you actually get better much much faster than you used to think was possible. 30 minutes a day for a month of brain practice…at the end of that month you’ll think about what you sounded like when you played that music a month ago and it’s like night and day. The speed with which you can get better if you really do it in this deliberate fashion is really rewarding. That also helps animate further progress because you notice it and you think, “Oh I want to keep doing this.”

And then there’s something more abstract. I’ve noticed that practicing anything in this way, winds up influencing every other part of your life. Once you learn the general skill of being (to use a trendy word) “mindful” and deliberate as you’re practicing and trying to improve, it changes the way you think about your own brain. You become more aware of your own plasticity and the fact that in any domain, you can take pleasure in getting better and be deliberate about getting better. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where you see that but in my experience it’s a pretty profound effect.

What does your practice mean to you?

I think that’s kind of an unsettled question for me. I see my own fingers and my own mind as an experiment, and it’s interesting and rewarding to play with trying to get better at things. Seeing what works and then feeling good about it when it happens. But I also try not to be too concerned with the goal. I don’t have any intention to be a professional pianist. So the point can’t be winning. You can’t win at piano. That’s the paradox of what I’ve been talking about…I want to get better but I don’t want to win because there’s no such thing as winning. It’s a mix of being oriented towards improvement, but only because I just enjoy the process.

So, you ask what my practice means?

It means two things. It means being as good as I can be and then also trying to be happy in every moment of that pursuit.

If could give advice for someone who is either just starting piano or getting back to piano after being away for awhile, what would it be?

Can it be two things?

The one, and the most important thing, is to choose music that you really love. I think that’s really the whole point. To sustain what is a lengthy process of learning any piece of music, you have to really love it.

The other would be to start. Because it doesn’t take much. If you start and you apply some of the lessons that we’ve been talking about — trying to be deliberate and self-aware and watching what you’re doing and watching what effects that has — it only takes a short time to start to seeing the effects. Once you see that, it’s very motivating.

Scott Forman has been playing the piano for more than two decades. He is currently a guide for OneRoom’s Classical Piano Practice Group.↓

Produced by: Kayla Quock. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in English Lit. and a minor in Education. She worked for the UCB Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion before coming to work at OneRoom.

Every week, we find people who practice something (anything) and ask them about it. From music, to writing, to health, to states-of-mind — we want to know all about it and what it really means to practice. If you have a story you would like to share please get in touch with us!