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Practice Strategies Of Piano Masters

Lessons from Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, & Horowitz

Be Methodical

We must walk into the practice room with a plan. Without a plan, we run the risk of finding ourselves rudderless and overwhelmed by the piano’s many challenges.

Make Time For Exercises

Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart all emphasize the importance of devoting some of our practice time to technical exercises. Mozart, for instance, would have his students practice scales, trills, and mordants, first with the right hand and then with the left. He would insist that his students played these exercises “very slowly at first.” Brahms, too, would have his students practice slowly before gradually increasing the tempo of their playing.

Practice Slowly

Patient, slow practice is crucial to our musical growth. When studying the piano, many of us dream of the time when our fingers can fly across the keyboard, but even Liszt, one of the most famously virtuosic pianists of all time, recognized later in life the value of patience in the practice room: “In early years I was not patient enough to ‘make haste slowly’…I was impatient for immediate results, and took short cuts, so to speak…I wish now that I had progressed by logical steps instead of by leaps.”

Play Etudes

In our pursuit of a methodical practice routine, we may find inspiration — and a plan of attack — in musical works known as studies, or études. Though they are sometimes performed as pieces of music in their own right, these works, consulted by musicians for centuries, serve chiefly pedagogical purposes. The famous French composer and pianist Claude Debussy, for instance, composed two books of études that reinforce skills like playing repeated notes.

“I wish now that I had progressed by logical steps instead of by leaps.” — Franz Liszt

Be Creative

While it is important to practice methodically, it is also helpful to make our practice sessions as enjoyable and creative as possible.

Practice Playfully

Florence May, one of Brahms’ piano students, recalls that the composer would encourage his pupils to improvise certain exercises based on the repertoire that they were learning. For instance, he would have them play certain passages in reverse or adding accents where none were written in the score.

Stay Curious

If we only practiced études and the repertoire that we intend to perform, we might find ourselves a bit bored! Horowitz kept his practice sessions fresh by consistently studying new repertoire: “Each week I devote at least two to three hours of my practice time to music I have never seen or played before.”

Step Away From The Piano!

The famous Russian composer and pianist Rachmaninoff encouraged Horowitz to go for long strolls, warning him, “If you don’t walk…your fingers will not run.”

“If you don’t walk… your fingers will not run.” — Sergei Rachmaninoff

Conclusion

In a letter to his father, Mozart recalls a conversation with another keyboardist, who, after witnessing his virtuosity, exclaimed, “Good God! How hard I work and sweat…and to you, my friend, it is all child’s play.”

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