Does practice make perfect?

Piano Practice

A few weeks ago there was an article in The New Yorker about the French pianist Hélène Grimaud. In the interview she talks about how she practises in her head away from the piano, and that for a recent recording she had to play the pieces through just a few times at the instrument, and she was ready to go. The journalist, evidently dazzled by this, reported that her preparation for the recording session 'only took about twenty minutes’ with Grimaud leaving for dinner saying nonchalantly, 'Let’s keep it fresh for tomorrow.'

Pianists are notorious for telling whoppers about how much they’ve practised so it’s sometimes hard to tell what really is being done in preparation behind closed doors. If what Grimaud says is true - which is entirely possible with a talent such as hers - it is a brave and astonishing feat.

Performance and interpretation

Schubert's Erlkoenig

Having said that, recording is, somewhat paradoxically, a safer environment in which to take this kind of approach. It’s a different process to performing in a concert and it’s possible to ‘develop’ an interpretation during a recording session; almost as if the performance and the discovery of an interpretation take place at the same time. You do a take, hear it back immediately, and you modify your performance. This is significant because most musicians acknowledge that there is something about the process of performing a piece in public, no matter how big or small the occasion, that improves the piece more than practice ever could. I believe Vladimir Ashkenazy told a colleague of mine to run through their pieces to anyone before a big recital…even if it’s just your cat.

There are occasions when, for reasons of stamina, you simply cannot prepare a score only in your head. I wouldn’t like to record something like Schubert’s notorious repeated-octave marathon, Erlkönig, without building up some serious piano muscle in the preceding weeks. It’s usual to do two or three full takes back-to-back when you start recording a piece so it’s important to have plenty of strength in reserve. To do this with no athletic preparation would be flirting with serious injury, which can put a musician out of action for weeks if not months.

Quality not quantity

Theodor Leschetizsky

This got me thinking…as a pianist and a father of two with a rapidly decreasing amount of free time, how much practice does one really need to do in order to be a successful professional player, and how much of the practice we do is just to make ourselves feel better? And if it is the latter, how can we get the same effect in a much shorter space of time? My view is that the best players around are the most efficient at practising, and how much they do is less important than how they do it.

I was at one of the London music conservatoires the other day and I walked down the corridor where some of the pianists were practising. I was hit by a barrage of sound: Liszt Sonatas (fortissimo), Chopin Sonatas (fortissimo), Chopin Nocturnes (fortissimo too, yikes) and lots of constant repetition of the passages, over and over again with the same mistakes occurring each time. Practising constantly at high volume leads to listening fatigue, which means you have been playing so loud in a practice session that you have desensitized your ears; you lose your sense of tonal control and your ability to be objectively critical of your own playing. My former teacher, the wonderful British pianist Philip Fowke, always used to say, ‘If you think you are playing quietly, play quieter…and quieter again. If you think you are playing loudly, then you probably are…too much so’. Great advice.

And instead of just aimlessly repeating bits over and over again, it’s important to work out exactly what is making the passage difficult and find a solution. I love the suggestion that legendary teacher and pianist Theodor Leschetizsky used to give his students: ‘Think ten times…play once.’ So, when I practise, I try to work out what really needs working on, what is difficult about the piece, how I should fix it…and then I practise it quietly.

Practising for stamina is a separate issue. Playing a recital lasting up to two hours takes a lot of energy and it can take months of hard graft to build up to this level of fitness. But it doesn’t mean sitting down and seeing if you can bash out ten hours of playing in one go. For a recent Schubertiad at Perth Concert Hall I had to prepare six programmes comprising an hour and a half of music each, all of which to be performed in two days. But it was possible to work on my stamina for this by doing just 20 minutes of continuous octaves and chord exercises per day; the key was the fact I was doing the exercises non-stop.

All in the mind

Neuron

What remains is the most important thing: working out your interpretation of the piece and this is where I think working away from the instrument is most effective. Working out phrasing, figuring out speeds, checking dynamics and most importantly, finding out what exactly the composer was trying to say through the music. And it’s good fun spending time listening to the myriad of recordings now available at the click of a touchscreen on iTunes to get different ideas. In fact, Russian mega-star Evgeny Kissin used to listen to recordings to hear what he didn’t like and then do the opposite.

Ultimately, your lifestyle and your priorities dictate your practice habits as a musician. It’s great to do five or six hours a day if you have the time, are enjoying doing it and have the neighbours who can stand it. But it’s also totally fine to do much less than that, especially if the practice is concentrated and focused. As musicians we shouldn’t ever feel bound to practise a certain number of hours each day, just because it feels good to put it in the diary. 

I’ll leave you with a story of the aforementioned Philip Fowke who attended a recital by one of his current students a few months ago. Unfortunately his student got stuck on the train on the way there and Fowke was asked if he would kindly play a few pieces to keep the audience entertained. By the end of the evening, with the student still on a train, Fowke completed a 45 minute performance of major works which astounded the audience, having not warmed up or practised specifically for the evening at all. I'd be happy with a performance like this even with preparation! I’ll dig out the recording and post a link...

By Alisdair Hogarth, The Prince Consort

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